7. Should you work at a startup or a big company?

August 03, 2018

I wrote this post for my newsletter, sign up here to get emails in your inbox.

Last year, I was looking for a new job and this question was stuck in my head.

Should I join a big famous company or a small startup? 🤔

So, I asked around and here’s what I learned:

Brand name matters. It always has. I like the idea of telling someone I work on a product they use and like.

But, it doesn’t matter as much as your own skills though. You can’t get the job you want if you don’t have the skills for it.

If you join a big company you might not get a lot of responsibility right away. You are part of a team that has a joint responsibility of making something happen, this is pretty common. It can stunt your personal growth.

That said, the work that you do is amplified 10 times because of the scale or reputation at which the company operates.

On the other hand, startups don’t have hundreds of employees and will hand over a lot of responsibility to you. They will give you a lot of flexibility to learn and grow but might fail to provide the same scale/amplification a big company can.

These are big tradeoffs!

I felt like making the wrong choice will have big consequences on my career.

Then I started thinking about it in a different way: What would work better for me at this stage in my career?

In the early years of your career, you’re still learning the ropes. You’re picking up technical skills from your peers: how to write good code, how to build something for production, all of that fun stuff.

You’re also learning some people skills: how to work with other people, how to communicate your ideas, etc. They don’t teach you that in school. These skills are probably more important than the technical ones, but that’s a topic for a future issue.

At this stage, you want to focus on personal growth by taking up challenging responsibilities. This is what startups can give you.

You are in charge of a piece of the product/service. The company needs everyone to do their job well for the company to succeed. There’s little redundancy.

Over the years, the rate of growth slows down, you might feel like you are saturated. You can continue your personal growth by asking for a challenge in a different skillset or ask for more responsibility.

The first time around, I asked for more responsibility. Soon after, I was managing 40 people at the age of 23. I can’t imagine a big company trusting that kind of responsibility to someone with anything less than 10 years of experience. I learned a lot more than I expected, it’s a story I’ll share some other time 😉

If the startup you are working for doesn’t have any the kind of challenges you want to work on, find a different startup that does! (This is what I did last year, I wanted to work on design systems but my employer didn’t have a need for them)

This can also be a good time to find a big company that can amplify your efforts.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of scope of personal growth at big companies, but it’s usually bundled with other lessons. Being able to work with other people and ship stable features reliably is far more useful here than knowing how to churn code quickly.

To make the most of your time in a big company, the key is to score a role or team with a big impact, a lot of users or a great reputation. Even if your work is narrow but millions use it, the net sum is bigger.

You might not get that directly. Big co. are risk averse and might take some time to warm up to you before handing you any big responsibility.

So when is the right time to make the switch to a bigger company?

Here’s the bad news: it’s different for everyone. Everyone’s experience is different, personal motivation factors are different. I can’t tell you what will work for you.

Here’s the good news: your career is long, it will happen when you think it’s time for it too happen. It’s not a race, being early or being late will not hurt your career at all. Some folks start their careers at a big company, some never go there. These are all valid and happy career choices.

That’s not all, it’s bidirectional. You can work at a big company and come back to a startup with a better role.

The magic is in the balance. Don’t get stuck at a startup where you don’t have any real responsibility or at a big company with no communication with other people/teams.

Optimise for doing meaningful work.

The third option that I didn’t talk about is going on your own, I’m not qualified to talk about it just yet 😉

Question of the week: Do you work in a startup or a big company? What experience did you get here that you won’t get on the other side?

Hope that was helpful in your journey


Want articles like this in your inbox?
React, design systems and side projects. No spam, I promise!