This question originally appeared on Quora: What are the pros and cons of working at a startup and at a big tech company?
The size of the company is less important than the team, your manager, and the project. It's actually very hard to generalize. For example, the most credible selling point of startups is rapid promotion (employee equity is, unless that employee can set up a bidding war--and that's hard to do in a world where exploding offers are business-as-usual--usually a joke) but there are plenty of "social climbing" startups that use the best positions (as they form) to lure a more pedigreed set of people as they grow, shafting those who are already there. The selling points of big companies are their resources and the internal mobility, but self-directed internal mobility is rare without an exertion of political skill, and I needn't point out that access to important resources also requires such abilities.
So what am I saying? Essentially, size of company isn't that important of a variable. Companies tend to regress to the mean as they get larger, so while there are truly excellent and deeply awful startups, most big companies are fairly average in totality. That said, there are great teams within the large companies, and awful ones as well; to size up a big-company job, you have to be able to evaluate (and, possibly, negotiate) where you will land, and that's not always the easiest thing to do, especially if you're dealing with a company like Google that doesn't like to assign people until the day they join.
If you're not a founder, you shouldn't take employee equity very seriously. Certainly don't make the career or lifestyle sacrifices that you might make if you were an actual owner, because on a nickel (0.05%) or a dime, you're just not. 401k matching, health benefits, and work/life balance are going to do more for you than a token slice of someone else's company. That said, if a startup seems to do a good job of internal promotion and the pay is good (not all startups underpay) then it's probably worth it to take the startup job even still.
All else being equal, I'd be more inclined to take a job on the top team of a large company than at an unknown startup, unless in a founding role at the latter. That might have more to do with where I am in my career than any universal truth, though. That said, there are startups with some really good teams that you wouldn't usually find in a large organization (large companies tend to want to spread their best people around, preventing the existence of the "super-teams" you'd actually want to be on) so that's a factor to consider, as well.
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