Where do you work? Take a second and answer that.
Did you feel that spark? Was your first emotion positive or negative?
I’ve been on both sides of the coin.
On one hand, it can be a delicate feeling that illuminates your life, where you just know you’re on the right path.
On the other, it could be a marathon with no end in sight. You could describe what you do, and be proud of your accomplishments, but you couldn’t very well explain why you do it (besides the money, we all knew that).
If you’re not on either end of the extreme, then you fall somewhere in the middle.
Our profession is a key part of our life. Its an identity or a person we become, and we spend over a third of our lives as this person.
Isn’t it worth it to evaluate how you feel about work? How to recognize what makes a good job good? How to work towards something we love?
It’s time to be honest about what work means to you. There is no reason to be apathetic about your place of employment.
You’ve heard the adage, “Mondays aren’t so bad, its your job that sucks.”
In this multi-part series, I’ll discuss the factors that can make a job invigorating, and provide you real ways to predict and measure satisfaction.
In this article, I’ll give you the hidden pros and cons of working at large corporations versus small companies and startups – using boats as a metaphor.
When joining a new company, a huge factor to your happiness will be company size and the organizational structure.
How large companies are different.
Large companies are like a capital ship cruising through the ocean. Outfitted with the a vast amount of resources and crew, the voyage is easy. A ship that large moves slowly, and life on board is not overly exciting. Each crew member has a specific, well-defined job, orders are followed to a T, and it becomes difficult to stand out. Crew members are regularly replaced.
Let’s talk about systems at large companies.
Despite outward displays of a flat hierarchy and fair company structure, it is the nature of large organizations to be bureaucratic. There are too many moving pieces to handle things case by case. In these organizations, there will be systems in place which serve the company at large rather than specific people or projects within.
This results in decisions you might find unfair or rules that seem to have no good reason behind them.
For instance, at large companies, you could be hired three days after a promotion eligibility cycle and be ineligible for promotion that year, even if you exceed all other performance criteria.
In the same vein, large companies inevitably have tremendous internal competition. There will be thousands (yes, thousands) of new hires like yourself looking to get a raise or promotion. It becomes hard to stand out, and politics can become a factor in your career trajectory, which is the norm for large companies.
Lastly, there is a lot of luck at play. It is common for the hiring managers and department heads to pick from the new stack of people. There is usually no hiring group that optimizes placement based on merit and skills, the first year of career can be dictated by your entry point into the company, a decision made by a stranger.
Its inevitable for large groups to develop power structures.
These structures often control the trajectory of the individuals underneath them – which can be very limiting to your career.
Unfortunately, you can be put in a position to pick people and alliances over the correct course of action; it is simply the nature of the game at a large company, and even this can be enjoyable for some.
As you move higher up the food chain, you will need to play this game in order to survive. The competition is simply too high, and the needs and wants of those within said power structures will always overshadow those not within a group.
You can tell I personally value career advancement from the negatives I perceived at larger companies. There are still a lot of positives, too.
One major upside is career stability.
It’s unlikely you will be laid off without knowing in advance at a large company. You can depend on a large company to employ you for several years, even when markets change and layoffs begin, you often get plenty of notice and can plan your exit.
Another (serious) upside is benefits.
The benefits are usually quite good, you receive nice equipment and can get reimbursed for extras. Health insurance and retirement savings options are seamless and setup quickly. Most companies also emphasize continuing education; there is no better way to keep your skills sharp at work, so take advantage of any resources you receive.
Networking is very different at large companies.
Any large company with a healthy culture has great internal communication. There are often groups based around each functional group (technologies, financials, design), and you are free to reach out to anyone.
You would be surprised at the people that would respond to an interesting email. Managers, even directors will typically make time to hear what employees think, even if its just to gather intelligence.
There is great ease in this environment.
There’s no doubt about it – working at large companies can be a lot more relaxed. All performance is measured proportionally to the group.
This is a double edged sword, it means you can coast or put in little effort and survive for quite some time. It also means it’s much harder to be promoted based on achievements.
There are 6 questions to ask yourself about working at a large company.
1. Is performance measured with respect to your experience level? Is there a quota or limit on the number of people that can be promoted?
2. Are there any rules or regulations regarding career advancement?
3. How easy is it to get transferred to another department, role, or project?
4. What are additional benefits aside from healthcare and retirement? What are the best ways to take advantage of them?
5. How open is the company to internal communication? Are there knowledge groups for your particular area? What extracurriculars can you get involved in?
6. How long do people typically work at this company? How long does it take them to get promoted from each level?
How working at a small company or startup is different.
Small companies are like a small warship. Agile and maneuverable, they avoid stormy weather. Each member of the small crew is invaluable, their job functions are crucial, and they often have multiple responsibilities. The ship moves a lot faster and consumes less resources, but could face peril in a storm.
At smaller companies, we figure everything out together.
Depending on what stage the small company or startup is in, rules and regulations will be in development, or even non-existent.
This means although there aren’t as many resources for you to follow, and you could be the one to define your company’s processes.
If you’re a resourceful person, or you enjoy improving existing structures – you would enjoy the opportunities faced at a startup.
If you work better under well-defined and directive leadership, then you might fare better in a corporate role.
This means there are less obstacles between you and your work. There is a smaller hierarchy for you to consider when making decisions, and you will most likely complete work faster and can accomplish more.
You will have a better chance to take lead on projects, which often leads to quicker promotions as the startup grows.
However this also potentially means that things are being mismanaged by the lack of different perspectives. Beware of small companies in bad situations due to their past decisions.
It’s definitely more flexible.
On par with less regulations, there are less employee standards you have to live up to – this means you may be able to get flexible working arrangements.
But of course, there are sacrifices.
During intense periods at a startup, you cannot hide behind the accomplishments of your team – it simply isn’t big enough for that.
Everyone must do their part, and everybody’s part is crucial to the company as a whole. No coasting allowed – you will need to put in the hours to get the job done, no matter what, or risk consequences for the entire company.
This could be perceived as a negative to some people, or a learning and growth experience to others.
There may be a time where you will need to make sacrifices to ensure the company’s well being. This may mean staying late, putting off friends and family, etc.
Your life may revolve around work for more than 40 hours a week. At large corporations, you can get away with doing the bare minimum for quite some time.
I’m not trying to scare you, and a lot of this depends on the startup, but you need to be aware of the trying times that every startup goes through – when it’s make or break.
Within a small company, you will always be around the same group of people.
This makes the relationships between you and others paramount.
Negative sentiments between team members lead to a loss of trust and a failure of the business. This is why small companies will always hire culture-fit over experience.
I urge you to build one on one relationships with everyone at your small company – you will need this trust later on. At a larger company, you should definitely make friends, but know that you might not end up friends with everyone, and that’s alright. At a larger company, you can may end up being transferred or assigned to a new project.
One major advantage is the opportunity for growth.
You have tremendous opportunities, as most individuals in a startup are wearing several hats, especially pitching to partners or potential customers.
You will have the opportunity to pivot or take charge of the role you want, as long as you take initiative. Enjoy this freedom, and your help in these other areas will be appreciated.
If you take advantage of the opportunity, and become a valued and reliable part of the team, then there is no doubt your satisfaction will grow along with the company.
I would recommend you go above and beyond within the area for your role, establishing expertise and consulting for the rest of the group. You can eventually identify other areas that the startup needs help with and repeat the process there.
The elephant in the room is the risks involved.
Unlike large corporations, startups usually face formidable threats to their existence. There will be work that will be crucial for the company to become profitable, and failure isn’t an option.
This means if you show signs of being unable to handle it, you may be let go sooner rather than later. Even worse, if you end up flubbing a major project, everyone may be in jeopardy. That’s a lot of pressure.
There are 6 questions to ask yourself about working at a small company or startup.
1. How are you getting along with others?
2. What rules and regulations exist for your job function?
3. Can you recommend company practices; are they open to change?
4. How have the responsibilities of other people on your team changed over time?
5. What critical tasks does your team handle?
6. What happens if someone fails at their task?
7. What other areas of the company do they need help with?
No matter what ship you board, know that you always have the freedom to board another.
Do not settle for a trip in the wrong direction, at the wrong speed, or where you are not the captain – if that’s what you want.
Explore your available options, and you’ll then have the perspective to say: I have a great job.