Big Co. or Startup

TL;DR: "What is the biggest difference between working for a big company or a startup?". Large question with very variable answer. No matter what they say, it can feel almost the same in Big Co. and in Startup. It usually means there's something wrong happening with the startup or something good going on in Big Co.


I get this question quite often: "What is the biggest difference between working for a big company or a startup?". It's an interesting question and even though I was in both positions a number of times it is harder to answer than it seems. Especially because badly managed startups can feel like Big Co. on important points like speed and issue ownership.

Here's a bulleted list of typical major differences. I am purposefully ignoring the situation when the startup has no money to pay your salary. Many people imagine this is the main difference but it's not. This situation is an edge case that exists in both worlds - small companies (aka startups) and big (aka Big Co.) ones.

Bulleted list of  differences as I see them over years:

  • issues ownership:
    - in a startup, you own every problem which arises, there's no separation by function or title, or department. You solve (or try to) every problem you see or you should not be there.
    - in Big Co., you don't care about other people's problems, you only care about those assigned to you or your department. It's often seen as overstepping your boundaries if you wanna help outside of your official purview.
  • speed of action
    - in a startup, you should take action now. If there's no progress tomorrow then something is wrong. Also typically you take action when you see a problem, not after you called a meeting about it and asked three levels of permissions.
    - in Big Co., you need to think if the right people are "on board" with the action you are taking and if you have permission to do that thing. This typically leads to meetings and more meetings. The actual action becomes last and least of a problem until everyone is on board.
  • understanding the value you add
    - in a startup, you see that you are adding value - by solving problems, by helping colleagues to create a better product or serve customers better. There's usually a clear line of sight between your action and your company results. And that is immensely motivating!
    - in Big Co., the line of sight is blurred. Between your work and your company's results (or just anything remotely useful and visible), there can be so many steps that you won't feel you are adding any value. It's actually your boss's job to find the link and make sure you understand it. Your boss must make it visible for you (unless you are the boss, of course :)).
  • amount of meetings
    - in a startup, there will be meetings but hopefully mostly ad-hoc and focused on solving the concrete problem. You will actually have time to do some work and you will be the boss of your calendar. At least you should be!
    - in Big Co., you will feel that meetings are your job. Especially if it's a multinational company you won't even know where did meeting invites come from. They come during the day, they come during the night, they stack over each other.    
  • career path planning
    - in a startup there's nothing like career path planning. You are gaining experience and learning every day and every hour. That's your personal growth in action. Last thing you want to do in a startup is to plan careers for people.
    - in Big Co., career plan will be the first thing you will meet during onboarding. Human resources people will be big on it and in my experience, it will mostly feel awkward to fit into a career path. On the other hand, good career planning system can tell you a lot about quality of the Big Co. you are joining.

Sure, there are many more differences but for me, these are the main ones. They directly affect my motivation and visibility of purpose and related results (at work). Yours might be different. I'd say, go try both and then decide for yourself.  


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