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Leaving McKinsey and Hodling Through a Startup’s Beginning to Unicorn

After graduating from college, my first job was at McKinsey, where I spent two and a half years before joining the Sendbird startup team. Now, after eight years with Sendbird, I reflect on the journey that surpassed my time at McKinsey by more than threefold. The three keywords in the title of this blog – “McKinsey (consulting),” “startup,” and “holding on” – pose a challenge in terms of their coexistence and meanings.

The clash between the risk-averse nature of McKinsey consultants, who strive for proven success through fierce competition, and the early-stage startups is compounded by the abstract implications of the term “holding on.” These notions sharply contrast with the meticulous analysis and predictive approach commonly found in consulting.

This article pays homage to the rapid and ever-evolving drama of technological innovation, as well as the hyper-growth of tech startups surpassing 100% annual growth. It is dedicated to the consultants who aspire to lead the charge and become key players in shaping the future of these industries. Similarly, it expresses gratitude to those who, like myself, have transitioned from the consulting world to the startup realm, riding the wave and sharing invaluable insights along the way.

You are the McKinsey guy!

After completing my college education, I joined McKinsey as an undergraduate consultant in 2011. I spent two and a half years there before venturing into the world of startups. In 2015, I became the first employee of Sendbird, which has since transformed into the first global B2B unicorn originating from South Korea and establishing its headquarters in Silicon Valley.

The product-market fit (PMF) phase is a crucial stage where a concept evolves into a marketable business. During the initial two years of this phase, it often felt like we were tirelessly reshaping and pivoting the product’s direction. It was a period filled with daily challenges and frustrations, and I frequently relied on the concept of the “Reality distortion field” to keep myself motivated. Interestingly, my MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which had remained the same for 30 years, transitioned from E’S’TJ to E’N’TJ as I adapted my approach to navigate through this phase. The skills and techniques I had acquired during my consulting days proved to be ineffective in this new environment.

However, my consulting experience has also been a significant asset in the startup journey, particularly during the product-market fit (PMF) phase. In this phase, we transformed our concept into a product that reflected the pain points and needs experienced by customers from existing solutions. Instead of selling our “product” in a traditional sales approach, we focused on selling solutions to the most pressing problems our customers faced. We approached this with customized proposals and content marketing strategies.

The experience I gained from consulting, where I had to handle clients from various industries in an unstructured manner, proved to be valuable in the early stages of sales. As a result, we were able to secure enterprise customers not only in Korea (e.g., KB Kookmin Bank, SSG) but also rapidly expand to global enterprise clients (e.g., Virgin Mobile).

In early 2017, after moving to the United States and successfully completing two rounds of fundraising, we worked hard during our third fundraising round in October to demonstrate that Sendbird was on par with other Silicon Valley startups. We aimed to showcase cohort analysis of existing customers and various operating metrics typically seen in Series B or later stages. However, the lack of data from the early stages in 2015 became a challenge.

Since it was difficult to recognize revenue and contracts as Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) when left unchanged, we painstakingly searched for customer history and evidence, conducting analysis through various reasonable estimations. I still vividly remember the effort of going through the data like mining salt from the sea.

At the time in 2017, operating metrics for SaaS valuations were not widely known to the public. Drawing on my experience from McKinsey projects, I conducted expert calls and reinforced the analysis through reasonable estimations and discussions with investors. The trust given by investors during this process provided me with great courage in the challenging B2B sales environment. They would say, “Hey, you’re the McKinsey guy, right? I have confidence in your analysis, and while I could delve further into it, maybe we can table that for now and focus on other productive discussions in the meantime.”

“Hey, you’re the McKinsey guy, right? I have confidence in your analysis, and while I could delve further into it, maybe we can table that for now and focus on other productive discussions in the meantime.”

Unquenched Thirst at McKinsey: Being on the Global and Innovation Frontline

In the past, McKinsey, the firm I was employed at, was renowned for providing consultants with unparalleled exposure to global experiences beyond Korea. However, global opportunities were perceived as limited, reserved for a select few consultants, and most of us satisfied our yearning for the global market through projects related to Korean conglomerates’ international expansion. Even senior consultants who had worked in the United States after earning an MBA often encountered a glass ceiling when contemplating a promotion to team leader and returning to the Seoul office.

“Why am I hindered from becoming a global talent simply because I was born and educated in Korea? Despite joining McKinsey, reputed for offering exceptional global opportunities in Korea, why do I find it difficult to emerge as a global talent?”

This question persisted within me. The emergence of innovative business models such as Uber’s ride-sharing concept in Silicon Valley only amplified these thoughts, especially as I comfortably commuted in a luxury taxi funded by the company’s project budget, sparking a multitude of complex reflections.

Outside the confines of my workplace, the world brimmed with discussions on innovation and a group of entrepreneurial leaders propelling it forward. Wealth was shifting, and the conversation revolved around innovation. Yet, I questioned why I found myself confined to a job serving traditional industries with a mere 2-3% growth rate that restrained my potential. Impatience and unease silently crept into my psyche.

Discoveries Outside McKinsey

Venturing out into the world beyond McKinsey was both challenging and exciting.

It’s Tough to Have Your Title Stripped Away

It’s incredibly challenging for a person when their title is taken away. It takes just a second to realize that the business card, which has left your hand, holds no value to others. Despite their indifference or efforts to be friendly, the perceived coldness is disappointing and hurtful.

Individuals who have confidence in their abilities often yearn to be recognized and accepted in the world based solely on their own merits, without relying on a business card. However, except for those who truly cherish me, it is quite difficult for most people to acknowledge me as an individual once the prestigious title associated with a well-known company like McKinsey is gone.

My Friends Painted America as Paradise, But I Felt the Cold

According to my friends who pursued an MBA, America appeared as paradise on their Instagram feeds. They showcased beautiful campuses, travels to exotic destinations with their classmates, and impressive internship titles. However, for me, the moment I arrived on American soil, the harsh reality of being an unknown “nobody” set in as I marketed and sold for SendBird. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to deny that this discomfort quickly became the driving force that pushed me forward.

People Can Tolerate Poverty, but Unjust Treatment Is Intolerable

Paradoxically, my suffering at SendBird began just as my financial struggles came to an end. After securing a series B investment of 140 billion KRW in the United States, we quickly rose to stardom, transformed our corporate structure, and filled our ranks with accomplished American executives who gained recognition from the board. However, the sense of deprivation I felt was overwhelming.

Thanks to the resilience and wisdom of myself and my fellow colleagues during that time, SendBird has now transformed into a company that surpasses any startup in Korea, not merely in terms of revenue structure but also in its Silicon Valley-inspired talent composition and operations. However, during that period, it was truly agonizing.

What I have come to realize by observing my surroundings, even to this day, is that many consultants who transitioned to startups in similar circumstances often struggle to endure and eventually leave their positions. Given that personal circumstances vary greatly, it is difficult for me to make presumptions. However, based on my own experience, it seems that being too intelligent and perceptive can make it challenging to tolerate anything unfair or unjust. Enduring such circumstances can feel like self-torture, almost as if accepting a label of incompetence becomes unbearable.

However, I have come to realize that the feeling of unfairness I perceived was rooted in a “lack of perspective.” After enduring that period and taking a step back, I gained a deeper understanding. I recognized that building a team with a broader impact brings greater rewards. Over my eight-year journey at SendBird, I came to understand the lamentable and ironic reality that many brilliant individuals are unfortunately deprived of the opportunity to see the world in a new light through such perspectives.

Discovering Endless Motivation through Customer Feedback

A career in strategy consulting is renowned for its grueling work hours. At the Seoul office of the consulting firm I worked for in the past, we had a “barometer” to track team working hours. It was rare to find a team without a red mark, indicating more than 80 hours of work per week.

However, that was just the beginning. During my first three years at SendBird, spanning nearly 1,000 days, I found myself working almost every day from Monday to Sunday until well past 2 AM. Although there have been slight reductions in working hours recently, I still dedicate 2-3 days a week from 7 AM to 2-3 AM, and the remaining days from 10-11 PM into the late hours of the night.

Despite the demanding schedule, I do not feel tired or burned out. Reflecting on this, I recognize several factors that contribute to my motivation. First and foremost, the integration of customer feedback into my work allows me to witness the immediate impact of my efforts, which serves as a powerful source of motivation. Working late into the night, closing deals, and witnessing the integration of Sendbird’s product into the customer’s app, along with the subsequent increase in revenue, provide significant motivation.

Secondly, it is the culture of respect. In McKinsey, consultants are often referred to as “Insecure Overachievers.” This term encapsulates their constant drive to push themselves, feelings of inadequacy, and anxiety surrounding high performance. I believe that talented individuals thrive and find fulfillment in a culture that respects them, enabling them to discover their purpose while delivering even greater results.

Lastly, I have realized that acknowledging the contributions of others and cultivating a sense of gratitude helps prevent burnout. Gradually, the sense of entitlement that once dominated my thinking, where I took my accomplishments for granted, has diminished. Instead, I firmly embrace the mindset that my achievements are not solely my own, but a result of collective efforts, leading me to be grateful for what I have accomplished alongside others.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, and Culture is Shaped by Organizational Operating Systems

The widely recognized adage in the business world, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” highlights the utmost significance of a strong organizational culture over strategy. It emphasizes that successful strategy execution heavily relies on the underlying operating systems within an organization.

In the realm of Silicon Valley startups, the position of Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) is relatively uncommon. Instead, these companies often have a Strategy & Operations team that operates under the guidance of the COO or CFO. This approach stems from the belief that strategy should not exist as a separate division but should be seamlessly embedded into the organization’s operating systems, intricately intertwined with day-to-day operations.

Having a background in McKinsey, I have witnessed numerous colleagues transitioning from consulting to corporate or startup roles, maintaining a strong focus on strategy. Nevertheless, my own experience in Silicon Valley has provided me with a fresh perspective. I now recognize the vital interplay between strategy and other functions such as marketing, sales, and operations. In this dynamic environment, every decision and execution is approached strategically, aligning with the organization’s culture and operating systems.

Establishing Standards of Excellence Thanks to My McKinsey Career

As I reflect on the valuable points highlighted above, I would like to conclude this article by expressing my heartfelt appreciation for the most significant asset I acquired during my time at McKinsey.

Defining and striving for excellence is no small feat. As an entrepreneur leading a startup, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to come across individuals who consistently raise the bar and tirelessly pursue the highest standards. When I look back on my journey, I realize that my late nights at McKinsey, catering to the needs of the country’s most demanding clients who entrusted us with their consulting requirements, have become a priceless asset.

Even in moments of perseverance, where the realization of time’s finite nature looms large, it is crucial to transcend the boundaries of predefined tasks. A steadfast commitment to excellence requires unwavering curiosity, a relentless pursuit of essential solutions to underlying problems, and meticulous attention to the intricacies of execution. Embracing this mindset has propelled me to strive for excellence with unwavering dedication.

Among the many invaluable lessons I gained from my initial career at McKinsey, the greatest treasure lies in possessing a deep understanding of the standards that define excellence.

In conclusion, my journey from McKinsey to the startup world has been a transformative experience filled with challenges and growth. It has taught me the importance of adaptability, resilience, and embracing new perspectives. I am grateful for the opportunities to lead and shape the future of the tech industry, and I am humbled by the invaluable lessons learned along the way. As I continue on this path, I carry with me the commitment to excellence and a deep appreciation for the power of teamwork. The intersection of consulting and startups has been a remarkable adventure, and I look forward to what lies ahead.

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