I’ve had the joy of working at a variety of companies through undergraduate co-op terms and full-time employment. I’ve worked for some of the largest companies in the world (Siemens and Exon Mobil for example), I’ve worked at startups, and I’ve worked for established companies with small teams. I’ve been the first hire at a startup and I’ve been one of over a million employees. Over my range of employment experiences I’ve come to understand that the type of company you work for will drastically affect your day to day experience, what success looks like, and where the pitfalls lie. Before we get into the differences, let me say that I have enjoyed every job I’ve ever held. If you look for it, I think it is possible to find joy in any job.
What follows is some of the things I’ve learned on my work journey in mechanical engineering and web development. Everyone’s experience is different, but this is how it has been for me.
The first step to working in a job is getting hired in the first place. In my case, all large company jobs or job offers were found through a standard HR application process followed by (occasionally many) rounds of interviews. I am not a fan of interviews and I get pretty stressed out when I have to go to one; this may be one of the reasons I seem to be heading towards smaller companies. In a small company or startup, mistakes in hiring can be very damaging to the organization so hiring is often done through networking. I’ve acquired my jobs at startups and small businesses through contacts in team sports or past jobs. If I had an interview it was informal, with the company owner, and a decision was probably made about me before I was even offered an interview.
Getting up to Speed
Many large and established businesses have formal programs to bring on new employees. Sometimes I’ve been assigned a mentor or I’ve been trained by someone else doing the exact same job I’d be doing or an outgoing employee I’d be replacing. In contrast, a startup might just start handing you work on the first day as you might be the first person to do that job at that company or you might already be the most experienced person in the area that you were hired for.
All the large organizations I’ve worked for, the most common expression of success was “how much money did I make/save for the organization”. This is not the only way to measure success, but it is an easy one to describe. I once had a supervisor on a co-op job tell me with glee that the work I’d done over the past week had saved the group over $100,000 and 6-months lead time if they had outsourced it. They offered me a full-time position once I graduated.
Success at a small company can look very different from that in a medium or larger firm. While opportunities to make a lot of money for your company in a short period of time may be fewer, your actions have a lot more impact on the overall success of the company. As a result, flexibility and the ability to work hard to learn new skills quickly and get a wide variety of tasks done can be an asset. Often, in a startup, there will be no one that has all the experience with a task that needs to be done. If you can figure out how to do it and make it work, your company will succeed and so will you.
Opportunities in a large company typically look like salary increases, bonuses, and promotions. Bonuses can be large depending on who you work for but they are often tied in part to the yearly success of your firm. The result of this is that even in a year that you do very well, you may not see the same bonus as a year that you aren’t on the very top of your game. A typical goal in a large firm is to move up the ladder into positions with more responsibility and power. Large companies also tend to have more perks than startups because they can use their size to bulk by things like extended health insurance, fancy parties, and big and beautiful buildings.
Startups tend to run a little closer to the metal in smaller spaces and less room to play around financially. A lot of startups began in their founder’s garage or basement. If your startup offers stock or stock options, you may have an opportunity for a very big payout if your company does well. In a startup, your actions have much more impact on the success of the company so it is likely that the results of your hard work will be rewarded when the company enters the stock market or gets acquired. There also isn’t much of a ladder to climb since often the next level up from you is often the company founders. Instead, you get the joy of building new and typically exciting things. You get to perform under pressure and see your actions turn into success for your company.
Large companies can be full of dead end jobs. You can get promoted and work hard to get good at a certain job, only to discover over time that you don’t really like it; but, by then, you have such a specialized skillset that moving to another job is difficult. It can also be painful to work hard, only to see your organization as a whole do poorly. It is completely feasible that you can be an asset to your company by still be laid off due to factors completely out of your control. You may sometimes find difficulty figuring out who your boss is or having to decide between following the instructions of your boss or of their bosses.
With startups, statistically 1 in 10 start-ups. It is completely feasible that you can be an asset to your company only to have it go under due to factors completely beyond your control. It can be difficult to find salary increases, especially at the beginning and promotions are unlikely if the company is small. Finally, your mistakes can really harm a small business, which is likely going to be populated with your co-workers turned friends if you’ve been there for a while.
Where I Landed
I like startups. It is almost impossible to find a job that is secure in today’s world. A big company can lay you off just as easily as a small company can go under. In a startup, I get to have direct impact on the success of our company and to build cool and useful things every day. I have a huge variety of work and I get a ton of flexibility so that I can do things beyond work that I think are important. A startup is also a really great place to learn a broad range of skills and I find I’m happy when I’m learning something new.
Startups aren’t for everyone. You may have different motivations from me and most of my classmates are very happy working in big company jobs. Most importantly, consider the things you love about your job and find something that works for you.