The Risks and Rewards of Working for a Startup

The first decade of one’s career is a web of tough decisions and tradeoffs. It’s just as much about setting yourself up for success and learning new skills as it is about figuring out what you really want to be doing in the long run. This journey may mean that young people, those lucky enough to receive multiple job offers, may find themselves choosing between the corporate route or a job at a startup. Others may be struggling to sort through their job search strategy in the first place—do they put all their energy into finding a job at a scrappy startup or at a big brand?
Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to each decision. And regardless of where you wind up, you may just find yourself looking across the fence one day, thinking the grass is darn green on the other side. Coming from some folks who have seen both sides of the career world—both corporate and startup—here’s our take on the benefits and setbacks each path may offer.
Working for a startup
Corporate: Big company benefits
Large companies—and by big, we’re talking corporate, perhaps several thousand employees—give you all the benefits of big bucks, often with the dinosaur pace that can accompany the decision-making process when you have a lot of people involved. Large companies also give you the option to learn best practices and access great equipment and resources. The benefits don’t suck, either.
But, here’s what you may experience at a big company.

  • Structure: This point alone is often enough to make people want to stick with the biggies. Some people love structure, they like a good process and find stability appealing. You may find that corporations “have their shit together” from a process and workflow perspective (even if it’s a slow one). Unlike startups, where you may have a lot of people (with not a lot of experience) touting big titles, big tech companies have the backing that comes with years of accumulated expertise.
  • Resources: We’re not just talking nuts and bolts like laptops and monitors that work, we’re talking large-format printers, fat travel budgets, fancy schmancy lunch cafes, conference rooms, coffee bars…well, you get the idea. Big companies have folks entirely dedicated to employee rewards and perks.
  • Silos: Sometimes, companies get to be so big that business units don’t talk to each other. Think of it like your extended family…you know you have cousins located across the country, but are you really in touch with what’s going on in each other’s lives? This silo effect means that sometimes work gets done (twice!), there can be a ton of frustration and the company becomes inefficient.
  • Mentors. Big companies often mean there’s more leadership for the pickin’. Have a job in marketing but know you want to be kicking ass in project management one day? There’s a director you can talk to about it. In sales but want to eventually move to marketing? There’s a VP you can turn to.
  • Limitations. The limitations at big companies can be silly. Sometimes they get so stuck on their black-and-white process that they’ll lose good people over short-sighted rules. For example, they may not budge when it comes to raises; hiring processes may take longer; sometimes even firing that person who brings everyone down? That, too, can take far too long. At a small company, you could probably have a “get real” conversation about these challenges. Big companies may be by-the-book, to a fault.

Startup: Roll up your sleeves and buckle up for the ride
Startups have a reputation for being fun, wild (in a good way) and exciting. The idea of coming together with your peers to make something, to build something—that’s appealing for all the obvious reasons. There’s a distinct pride that comes with being a part of a company’s growth.
Starts may offer:

  • Many hats. If you want a startup job, embrace the idea of generalist. On any given day, you’ll have the opportunity to do many tasks, many of which aren’t in line with the job description you signed up for. It’s a hands-on way to rapidly build a portfolio and gain experience.
  • Chill culture. The ping pong tables, in-office happy hours and wear-whatever-you-want mentality tend to be true.
  • Flexibility. Startups and tech companies tend to be a lot more accepting of the idea that you can work from anywhere, with flexible hours—if you “get shit done.” You’re less likely to have to clock in and out at specific hours.
  • Innovation. Any company can try to be innovative and anyone can innovate in any role, but startups are innovative at their heart, due to their very existence. Just their existence means that they are trying something new, going against the grain and approaching problems differently. You may find that startup culture is more open to your random ideas than a big corporation.
  • Growing pains. As startups grow, they need to have more discipline. Startup leaders need to show, well, more leadership. A lot of young startups struggle with their rapid pace of hiring and often inexperienced leadership team, which can lead to low morale.

Could the mid-size business be a solid hybrid? Perhaps. These are wide generalizations about corporate life and startup culture.
What’s been your experience at both? What advice do you have to share with other young workers who are evaluating which way to go?