[Career Advice] Big Companies vs Small Companies

Random Observation/Comment #450: All companies (no matter how big) are made up of teams of around 5-9 people. Why?  Because they’re effective at that size. You build camaraderie with peers and your ideas can be heard. For software, any larger is just too hard to PM.


At a mock interview night, someone asked me “Do you think I should work for a big name company or a small start-up?”  Clearly, there are benefits to both, but which ones should you do first? Should you even switch? Which one preps me for a better career path?

  • Strategy 1: Start at a big name company first and then move to a start-up afterwards.
  • Strategy 2: Work at a start-up first because taking risks should be done earlier in life than later
  • Strategy 3: Start your own company and be your own boss.

Here are the main things to consider:

  • Training.
    • Big companies usually have more cookie cut training courses and groups devoted to weaning you into the corporate world.  These build a great base and help you learn with fellow peers that will work for other areas of the firm.
    • Start-up companies throw you in the deep end and expect you to take on the “well if you don’t know it, learn it and teach us about it too” mentality. The whole team is probably young and filled with that energy to take charge and push forward.
    • With the education revolution at hand, I think there are enough free online courses that can put the onus of training in the hands of the employee. Proactive learning is key to keeping yourself relevant and marketable in an ever-expanding career cut by a very rapidly growing work force.
  • Camaraderie.
    • Big companies provide 1-2 year programs specifically for graduates that creates an amazing community. This is not only great for networking, but also conducive for learning. These training courses give a simple syllabus of the general knowledge you should know as you grow in your team.
    • Small companies have less of these structured programs because if you’re not geek enough to take the long way learning it through trial and error, you’re probably not hard working enough to be in a start-up.  There’s an air of competition, but I don’t think most places are meant to steal recognition from each other.
    • Competition is healthy in most cases, so I don’t see how this is any different from High School or College. Everyone gets graded by management by some bell curve and people are still rewarded for popularity/recognition/distinctions.
  • Opportunities.
    • Big companies usually have a larger hierarchy of middle management and also a larger number of groups you can move laterally into. There are hundreds of different roles that can be taken on with unique experiences based on team build and process.  If you get an opportunity to step back and look at the company as a whole, you’ll find its own ecosystem of dependencies and you can see where you fit in best.
    • Smaller companies usually reproduce a similar, but smaller ecosystem depending on the specific product. They take the lean approach to deal with usually the same sized problems.  If you compare Google as a small company to Google today, you can see there’s definitely more time spent on research/dev and side projects.  Smaller companies may provide a form of this, but don’t have the same bandwidth of overhead to do so.
    • From a bigger picture, “opportunity” may also refer to staying connected with a larger network, but I believe these are not limited to the level 1 degree of separation. The importance of network/camraderie is in branching out further and getting your brand out there.
  • Resume Builder.
    • Big companies with big names will often get your foot in the door for the next interview. When recruiters sift through resumes, they really do look for familiar name drop companies because they have contacts in those areas and can easily fact-check those roles.
    • Smaller companies that may be lesser known by most people in the world are fine if you’re entering the same industry and it’s a noted competitor for the new company you’re applying to.
    • That company’s reputation, no matter the size, will reflect your overall worth and value added. For example, financial institutions often look at the top performing sectors/products  within companies (instead of just overall company ranking). Either way, it’s all about getting through the screening. After that, I think one can easily give pros to their teams and experiences.
  • Experience.
    • Big companies are known to have bureaucracy and fairly complex processes implemented. While this is a negative thing for most people, it’s a fact of life about all large companies. A big red flag for hiring people from a smaller company is their disdain for these impediments and following the process.  Your new company will probably have some processes and you’ll need to know how to handle conflict resolution.
    • Smaller companies have their own drama, but be sure to tactifully address this concept as it usually becomes a concern in the later sections of the interview.
    • This is a two way street. Moving from big companies to small companies means easing off the process focus (which is usually easier), and from small companies to big means being flexible to following certain rules.

At the end of the day, I chose Strategy 1 because I was unsure where I wanted to go. I thought finance was a jumping point to another career path so I chose names that are easily recognizable. If you choose Strategy 2, however, you’ll probably jump from small company to small company building your technical experience quickly and then big companies will evaluate you based on your skill rather than the company name. It may be harder to get through the resume screening, but most opportunities that happen after 5 years of experience are through your networks.  In both cases, learn as much as you can and build a solid community of professionals.

Let me address Strategy 3: Start your own company since it doesn’t really fit into the categories above.  Entrepreneurship is tough, but completely worth while if you can take the risk. Realize that putting everything into a company means sacrificing a lot of free time and money with very high risk of failure.  That being said, if you have the idea and the right resources on your side, go do it.

Make sure you put a plan around your product and vet it before dumping $20k+ on it.  Having a start-up of your own and failing is a huge plus for all the areas mentioned between big and small companies for getting that next position. You’ll build grit and learn a tremendous amount along the way.

~See Lemons Speak for Itself