When it comes to the classic job-search duel between startup and corporate, you probably know the basics of each type of workplace: Large companies have set hours, but startups are more flexible. Large companies offer benefits; startups offer free food. (And free travel. And free concierge services. And office pets.)
But what’s not talked about quite as often is whether a startup or corporate job is better for your career in the long run. Think about it: A startup may provide more flexible hours now, but will it give you the ability to move up into a senior management position in the future? A corporate job may be the perfect place to get structured on-the-job training, but will it give you the creative thinking skills you need to open your own business in a few years?
After working in both environments, I’ve been exposed to the benefits and shortcomings of each option. So, if you’re undecided about which path to take, consider these questions to help you make the most of your career—both now and in the future.
Do You Know What Your Dream Career Would Be, or Are You Still Deciding?
When I worked at a startup, I had a lot of roles: I managed a team of employees, wrote training manuals, designed internship flyers, answered the phone, and interviewed prospective employees (and that’s only the beginning!). We only had a few people on the team, and we were all expected to pitch in wherever needed. And at the time, that was great—because I had no idea what I really wanted in a long-term career.
When I made the move into a corporate position, I had a better idea of my talents and the things I enjoyed doing—and so, I was able to take a more focused position, without having to wear all those other “hats.”
Overall, corporate positions tend to have narrower roles: If you’re a manager, you manage. If you’re a business analyst, you create reports. And so, if you already know the role you want or the direction you want to go in, this type of environment can really help you grow and hone those skills—without having to focus on a bunch of other responsibilities.
If, on the other hand, you’re not quite sure what kind of gig you want to end up in, a startup role can help you gain skills and insight into multiple positions. (And, you may just decide that’s exactly what you want in the long run—a dynamic job with a variety of responsibilities.)
What Resources Do You Need to Reach Your Goals?
Even though I graduated from college with a degree in management, I still felt like I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I landed my first leadership role. And since it was in a startup under a boss who didn’t have much more experience than I did, most of my mentoring came from management books and online resources; I didn’t really have an in-office mentor.
When I entered a corporate position, I found that I had many more resources at my disposal: My co-workers had a wealth of knowledge, my bosses (and their bosses) had years and years of experience, and there were guides and manuals for everything.
Now, here’s where the big difference comes in: What do you personally need to succeed? If you thrive on taking risks, taking initiative to get the resources you need, and learning from trial and error, you may not need the resources of a corporate position to reach your eventual career goals.
But if you prefer that readily available vault of knowledge and experience—and need it to advance to the position you want in the timeframe you expect—you might find a corporate position more helpful. It all depends on how you work and learn best.
What Kind of Influence Do You Want—and How Quickly?
I’ll admit, I was naive when I entered the corporate world. Even though I knowingly entered the company at the bottom of the organization, I didn’t expect to get so frustrated with my lack of influence—but the reality was, I essentially had no say when it came to decisions that were made about me and my team. This was, of course, after I’d left behind a position at a startup, where I had much more authority over and visibility into business decisions.
In general, you’re going to have a lot less influence in a big corporate office than you would in a small company. And if you have a C-level position in your sights, it’ll probably take you a lot longer to get there.
On the other hand, you’ll probably have much more insight into the inner workings of a startup office, as well as the ability to voice your opinion—and actually have it heard. However, moving up in rank may look a lot different. If the position above yours is CEO, it may not open up—ever. And so, you may have to expand your role in other ways, making the route a lot less straight to get to your eventual career goal.
What Environment Will Really Help You Succeed?
Overall, you have to consider which factors are essential to help you work toward your goals. Will you do better with an always evolving, “think outside the box”-type mentality, or a structured environment that allows you to methodically work toward your goals? Neither is better than the other—just different. And it completely depends on your personality, work style, and unique needs to determine which will be the best for you and your career.
So, what even is a startup?
When you read the word “startup,” what comes to mind? Three programmers guzzling Red Bull in someone’s aunt’s garage? Or maybe a Silicon Valley tech behemoth with a buzzed-about IPO and an office kitchen lined with $400 juice machines?
If so, let’s start over. The startup ecosystem in the US is much more diverse—and much more interesting—than what most mainstream narratives would have you believe.
For every tech startup with millions in venture capital and an in-house masseuse, there’s a bootstrapped operation making upright furniture, streamlining the logistical headache that is fleet management, or helping local entrepreneurs open up their own escape rooms across the country.
Because they can look so different, no precise formula can tell you if a company is a startup or not. But generally speaking, a startup is an early-stage venture that’s in search of a profitable business model—one that can be scaled up rapidly as demand for the product grows. Often, it’s a company that decided to take a stab at solving a knotty, complicated problem—the types of issues that make you say: It’s 2017, how is there not a better way to do this yet?
Most startups have fewer than around 80 employees. (The difference between working at a 5 person company and a 60 person company is pretty vast, but we’ll talk more about that later.)
So, Facebook was a startup in its early years, but it’s too large and established to be considered one now. Same goes for Instagram, Dropbox, Airbnb, Snapchat, Uber—you get the picture. It’s not the type of work that makes a startup, but the size, the pace, and the approach.
How is working for a startup different from working for a more established organization?
Your responsibilities will change more frequently
The biggest difference between a job at a startup and a job at a bigger, more traditional company is the rate at which things change.
At a large corporation, you might do the same set of tasks for several years, until someone above you retires or gets a promotion. At a startup, your role and responsibilities will evolve frequently, even multiple times a year. Within six months, you might be doing something significantly different from the role you were hired to do. That means your skill set will have to grow at an equally fast clip.
The type of work you perform will necessarily change based on the organization’s current challenges. Whether launching a new product, working with a big client for the first time, redesigning the website, or trying a new marketing campaign, startups are always experimenting. If you’re committed to learning and adding value, your priorities will shift with every trial and error.
Generally speaking, the smaller the startup, the more frequently you’ll be picking up new responsibilities—because there are simply fewer people to tackle any given challenge. At a startup with 40 or 50 employees, you might have a fairly well-defined role. At a startup with 4 or 5 or even 15 people, you’re going to be doing a lot of blocking and tackling.
You’ll need to solve problems on your own
At a large, established company, most roles are highly specialized, and when a new problem occurs, it will be addressed by the person or team with that specific set of skills. If you try to solve a problem that isn’t “owned” by your department, you’re likely to step on some toes.
At a startup—especially a very small one—nearly every problem is an opportunity for you to step in and add value. Your coworkers are more likely to appreciate an action-oriented, problem-solving approach.
You’ll have the opportunity to experiment
Identifying and solving problems has one major professional upside: it allows you to grow your skill set and try new things.
If you technically work in marketing but want to gain experience as a programmer or designer, jumping in where you see the need can be a great way to learn and grow (as long as you keep up on your core responsibilities).
You probably won’t be managed super closely
At most large companies, being a manager means keeping a close eye on the people beneath you. It means fairly rigid expectations, a well-defined breakdown of responsibilities, and a good amount of time spent teaching new hires how to do their job.
At a small company, it’s likely that your manager will be too busy tackling their own projects to spend a lot of time managing you. You’ll have a lot of autonomy—and if you want to succeed, you’ll have to learn how to manage yourself. This means: setting deadlines for yourself, Googling your way to victory, asking for help when you need it, and probably burning some midnight oil.
So, what do startup employees actually do all day?
Generally speaking, if you work at a startup, you are either building a product or selling it.
At early stage companies, there’s less need for internal departments, like human resources and accounting. It often makes more sense to outsource tasks like office management and bookkeeping, or to have different members of the team pitch in rather than hire a specific person to do the work.
Building and selling, though, will always be core functions. Depending on the role, and the size of the company, sometimes you might be doing a little bit of both.
Here’s what titles and roles could look like at a typical software company for entry-level employees:
On the building side, you might have a job title like software developer, product engineer, UX/UD guru, product manager, or quality assurance specialist.
On the sales side, your title might include phrases like business development associate, account manager, content creator, customer acquisition, or community manager.
Spanning both sides are roles that involve things like operations, data analysis, and customer onboarding/success.
If you work for a startup instead of a large corporation, how will that impact your career down the line?
One of the great things about the rapid pace of startup life is that you’ll have the opportunity to learn a variety of transferable skills.
Someone who has demonstrated that she can build or sell a product will always be a coveted hire, and will be able to find a job at a two-person startup or at a giant company.
Someone with a deep understanding of data analysis, or great community or content creation skills, will be able to perform those roles across any industry.
In every business, there are customers, there is a product, there is data, and there are operational challenges. By working at a startup you’ll learn how these pieces fit together, and be ready to apply that knowledge anywhere.
Experience working at a growth stage company is intrinsically valuable to other growth stage companies (and to larger ones with an entrepreneurial bend or experimental wing). Regardless of what you’re working on day-to-day, you’ll be constantly interacting with folks who have other functional roles, and these skills will rub off on you and make you better rounded, with a deeper understanding of how businesses are built.
Still have questions about the ins and outs of startup life? Let us know in the comments!