Big company or start-up - which is the best option for you?


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The Independent Online

Having worked for huge corporations all my working life, I found myself in March taking the scary step of quitting my corporate middle-management job and, along with a substantial pay cut, becoming the fifth employee at a small start-up called Scratch.

While some people will say ‘What sort of nutter does something like that in the middle of a recession?’ I’ve found it an incredible experience. Having worked at one of the biggest businesses in the industry to a fledging start-up, I’ve had the opportunity to work at both ends of the company size spectrum. 

So, what are the good and bad points of working for both types of company and which is the best option for you? Allow me to share my two pennies:

The advantages of working for a large corporate business:

  1. Working in a large company provides access to a host of resources. From specialist training courses to additional qualifications or corporate trips at the company’s expense, they’re all at your disposal to use.
  2. Large businesses become large by doing what they do well. Tapping up more experienced colleagues and best practice means you can learn plenty from them. They also have experts in each area of business in which they operate and, chances are, they will help and support you.
  3. Having a well known company on your CV can open a lot of doors, especially if moving within the same industry. They’ll always make the job you do sound far more complicated than it actually is. Use this to your advantage when job seeking and you’ll be surprised by how good your CV looks.
  4. While a large corporate will have its core business, with its size comes a huge breadth of support roles and departments. If you don’t know what area of business really interests you, you might want to see what life in human resources, finance, operations or sales looks like before choosing your career path. A large corporate has all these departments, just go ahead and take your pick.
  5. While there’s no such thing as a safe job in today’s environment, working for a large company is usually a less volatile environment than a start-up. For those who are risk-averse, a large company will allow you to sleep better at night, offering greater security.
  6. Corporates tend to have a more steady work pace than a start up. Being more established and slower, drama occurs less often and, even when it does, it’s still less heart stopping being a small cog in a large machine.

The disadvantages of working for a large corporate business

  1. Making changes in a large business is often like trying turn a container ship around. It can be slow, cumbersome and incredibly frustrating at times. In these instances, entrepreneurial spirit is crushed under the weight of bureaucracy, leading to an (often deserved) reputation of dullness.
  2. Chances are, you’d have a rather defined job specification. With this, you don’t learn every aspect of the business, and tend to only learn your small part in the full business in which you operate.
  3. With so many different characters, departments, cliques and factions in a large business, there are daily lessons in diplomacy and politics. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on your skill level of playing this game, but I feel most people would rather be judged on how well they do their job, not if their face fits.
  4. It can be frustrating when management makes decisions that are inadequate or wrong in the eyes of the people on the ‘coal face’. Maybe they do this because they don’t know any better (there are plenty of directors of businesses that have not experienced all roles/departments in the company) or they have accountants or shareholders to please before what can be perceived as doing the right thing for the company. Either way, it can be incredibly demotivating for those involved.

The advantages of working at a start-up

  1. I can’t enthuse enough about the personal fulfilment from doing something for yourself in a start-up business. Knowing that the business can succeed through your ownership and actions is incredibly motivating and exciting compared to the corporate shackles.
  2. In a start-up, you are the master of your own destiny. Yes, it will be incredibly hard work, long hours and poor pay for some time, but there’s no better opportunity to fast track your earning potential and go into any aspect of work that excites you compared to climbing the greasy corporate pole.
  3. If thinking on your feet, sharpening your entrepreneurial skills and flying into unchartered territory sounds exciting to you, then you should work at a start-up. If that sounds totally terrifying, perhaps not.
  4. As start-ups are often small teams with undefined job roles and rather cash-strapped, you’ll need to get involved in all aspects of the business. This allows for great teamwork to thrive, and your knowledge of a full working business – from finance and marketing to HR and sales – will be greatly improved.
  5. Two words: more fun.

The disadvantages of working at a start-up

  1. It can be scary at times. Nothing can be taken for granted as to the future of start-up businesses, so a steely nerve, a healthy disregard for risk and large cahunas all come in useful!
  2. You can’t rely on other departments to pick up work you can’t cope with or have little knowledge of, as there aren’t other departments and little in the way of formal support. A good level of diligence is essential.
  3. With low pay and 12-hour days very much the norm, chances are the office cleaner earns more per hour than we do. Working for a start-up requires a long-term view on earning potential, and often your own personal circumstances dictate whether this is possible or not.

So, which is better and what option is right for you? This boils down to two things: your attitude to risk and your experience. Working for large business clearly involves less risk, and if you are inexperienced then having the diversity and resources in a large business can be used to your advantage. However, if you’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak and the idea of climbing the corporate ladder to get a nicer office bores you to tears, perhaps a start-up is better suited.

Personally, I would suggest starting at a large business and then know when to go it alone. Make the mistakes and gain the experience on someone else’s expense and then learn when to get out at the right time or decide to go to the top. If you can strike this balance, or find a large business that thinks and acts like a small one, you’re very lucky.

Daniel Litchfield is head of sales for ready-to-cook meals company Scratch