What’s Better: Startups Or Established Companies?

“For my first job after school, is it better for me to work at a small company, like a startup, so I can get my hands dirty? Or a bigger, more established company, so I can build my resume?”

Some variation of this question is among the top three questions I’m asked by millennial job seekers today when I’m providing advice to our community of job seekers on FirmPlay. So I figured it’s time I provided a definitive answer, once and for all.

Ready?

There is no definitive answer.

Why? Because it isn’t about small or big, unknown vs brand-name. On their own, those terms are without context and completely meaningless.

What it is about is your personal preferences for a work environment, and your longer term goals. In other words, there’s no cookie-cutter answer; you’ll have to weigh multiple considerations to figure out what’s right for you.

So what exactly should you consider? While the list could be as long as you want it to be, the following handful of considerations should be at the very top:

Goals

Do you know what you want to do for a career? If you can’t answer the question “what do you want to be doing in 10 years” (and it’s ok if you can’t – I certainly couldn’t at the start of my career), then consider that smaller companies tend to be good for experiencing a variety of different roles. Smaller companies that are doing well – especially super-small companies, like startups – tend to have a lot of work that needs to get done…and not enough people to do it. So out of necessity, you’d be forced to take on a variety of roles (i.e. “wear multiple hats”) that stretch the boundaries of your job description.

Development

How do you want to develop yourself at work? If you prefer to learn by doing, smaller companies might be more likely to give you that opportunity (again, lots of work, not enough people, especially at successful small companies). You’ll often be learning because you have no other choice – others won’t have time or know the answer, so you’ll have to figure it out. You’ll need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. However, if you want a more structured, formal learning environment, larger companies are more likely to have existing trainings and where you’re more likely to have a clearer management structure within which you could learn the basics of the business or industry.

Risk

What’s your risk appetite? Smaller companies, especially startups, can test anyone’s nerves. By some estimates, 90% of startups fail. The enormous pressures a company faces in its early days can lead to stressful days and uncertainty about its future – which is directly tied to your paycheck. If you have loans or other major obligations, stability will be important to you. While “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “new”, be mindful of just how much risk you’re willing to assume in your first job. (But if a startup makes it? Well, the risk could be worth it.)

Skills

Is there a specific skillset you’re trying to hone? Oftentimes, the decision is made for you based on the skills you’re trying to develop. For instance, if you want to develop software for 3D printers, the majority of companies that you could work for are small in size. Similarly, if you want to design cars, you’re probably looking at bigger companies. So think hard about the skills you want to be using and developing in your first job.

This list could go on forever – so consider the above a starting point. Still, I’m willing to bet that you’ll start to get a feel for what’s better for you pretty quickly into this exercise.

After all, there’s no right or wrong answer. Only what’s right for you.

Vasilios Alexiou is the Co-Founder of FirmPlay, a new job search site that takes job seekers behind the scenes at companies using photos and videos…so they can discover a job they’ll love. He received a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.B.A. from Dartmouth College. Follow Vasilios on Twitter at @FirmPlay, and read his other posts at FirmPlay’s career advice blog.

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