It's a question that many of us ask: Should I work for a startup or a big company like Apple or Facebook? How do I determine what's best for me?

Early in my career, while interviewing at a startup with fewer than 10 employees, the CEO asked me what kinds of companies I was interviewing with. When I told him I was also looking at bigger companies like Yahoo!, I was surprised by his response: "Then you don't know what you want. You can't be serious about going to both big and small companies. There are huge differences, so be clear on what's important to you now and moving forward with your career."  

Over the years, I've worked at companies of all sizes and learned that what he said rings true: while it's great to explore options when looking for a role, there are fundamental differences between small and big companies to consider before pursuing either.

It can be beneficial to have experience in both camps, but do so with intention and thoughtfulness, not based on the best offer or perks. Think about where you'll be challenged, thrive, and what best fits your goals. The ultimate resume builder is tenacity and impact.

Here are three points to consider if you're torn between working at a startup or big company:  

1. What do you want to accomplish?

Joining a small company, or startup, comes with challenges. There may not be enough resources, you'll experience product and business changes, and there's a higher chance of turnover. However, a startup is ideal to learn quickly on the job and as challenges come up, make impactful things happen, take on more responsibility, touch a range of disciplines, and foster a broader set of capabilities and expertise.

At a bigger company, your role is clearly defined and measured, so you can more easily become an expert, though more structure comes more politics and red tape. While structure for promotion and job level are generally clearer, promotions are sometimes only given when someone leaves and a role opens. Well-known, big brands offer a certain amount of prestige for future opportunities and networking. When I worked at The Economist Group, I was often told that having that brand on my resume would serve me well in future opportunities. Having larger brand experience gives other companies confidence that you've met certain criteria.

2. What structure and processes do you prefer?

Larger companies like Google or Facebook are more established, and therefore have more structure in place for onboarding, training programs, and reviews, which can be essential to growth.

Smaller companies may be less organized in terms of how they're structured, but this can also provide the opportunity to contribute or provide feedback on new systems or processes, making an impact on how the company functions.

In the case of the interview with the startup CEO mentioned above, I ended up accepting the job with Yahoo! even though it was clear I was better suited for startup environments at that time in my career, I wanted experience at an established organization in order to grow.

3. What challenges do you want to face?

Challenges come with any company, but size matters. At a larger company, it's likely that there are more people that can block you from advancing. Promotions are more systematic and there's greater emphasis on titles and official responsibility.

Small companies have more flexibility, often valuing ideas over titles and tying career progression to your contributions and impact. Depending on how small or new a company is, there's also risk in its success and longevity. Can you see yourself growing and developing there? Does the company have a sustainable business strategy? Understanding the business model, path to profitability, and how your role contributes will enable you to have the most impact and move your career forward.

I was once recruited to kickstart a new sales initiative at a growing software company. They had an established software product, but wanted to experiment with an early instantiation of a SaaS product. I appreciated the challenge and went out to sell a SaaS video offering to major media companies, which then became a key component of the company's IPO 18 months later. I was aware of the risk, but excited about the opportunity and potential impact. In this case, it worked. 

Ultimately, your career goals and the structure that best supports how you thrive will impact what size company is right for you. Your career is a journey with highs, lows, mistakes and wins, so if you're considering it, go for it. If you hate it, leave and try something else. The most valuable thing you can do to for your career is to create meaningful experiences, chase something you're passionate about, and make "learn something new" a constant goal.

Published on: Aug 30, 2018