Dear Lifehacker, I’m job hunting right now, and I can’t decide between pursuing a job at a smaller company with a lot of growth potential, or a larger, more established organisation. What are some of the things I should consider when choosing between the two? Sincerely, Stuck in the Middle
Deciding whether to go with a large or small company may actually be one of the most important decisions you make while job hunting, especially if it’s early in your career. That being said, there’s no right or wrong answer, and it will largely depend on what you hope to accomplish and how you work best in an organisation.
Keep in mind there are also almost no universal truths in this area either. For example, larger companies may offer better benefits packages, but you may come across the exception. If you find a company with less than a hundred employees that still offers a compelling package, talk to your interviewer or recruiter, and learn more.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of things to think about.
The Advantages of a Big Company
Large corporations are large for a reason. Success collates with itself and over time, a small company becomes a large one, gaining unique perks and advantages in the market. Here are a few that can help you:
You Have More Obvious Structure
When you enter a large company, you’re taking part in a machine that’s been around for a long time. As such, there is typically an established way of doing things. As soon as you walk in, you will know what your job is, how you fit into your department, and you’ll even learn the obvious pathways for promotions over time. This isn’t the right route for everyone, but if you want to go into a job with a sense of stability and a well-defined path for advancement, larger companies typically have great templates already in place.
The Benefits Packages Are Better
Larger companies, in general, are better about providing benefits like gym memberships or higher superannuation contributions. The smaller a corporation’s revenue is, the less likely it can afford to pay for benefits.
Of course, this only matters if you take advantage of available benefits. A study by ADP showed that just over half of eligible part-time employees of large companies actually enrol in company benefits plans. Similarly, only 77 per cent of eligible full-time employees elect to sign up. Regardless of what size company you work for, it’s always good to find out what benefits are available to you.
You Can Switch Jobs Without Leaving
Large companies need a lot of people working a wide variety of jobs to operate. While your specific role may be specialised, it’s possible to change positions and explore a new area without leaving the company. Developers can become project managers, designers can become marketers, or the senior VP of a web browser can become head of a mobile operating system. It may still require some hunting, but if you already work for the company where you’re applying for a new job at, that’s one less thing the recruiter has to worry about.
The Problems at a Big Company
Working for a large companies isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, however. If you’re angling to get in at a Fortune 500 company, here are some downsides to consider:
Changes Happen Slowly
Shaking things up at a big company can take a lot of time. Even if your company is open to new ideas (which isn’t always a given), getting your department to move to a new model or create a product can take a lot of time. For example, in May 2010, legendary design guru Matias Duarte left Palm for Google to be the new User Experience Director for Android. Nearly 18 months later, Android had a new look, but, according to Duarte, it took a long time to get there:
Coming in and being put in charge of the design and UX for this enormously successful platform that now has years of legacy behind it. It’s completely unlike getting behind the steering wheel of a zippy, agile little car. It’s more like driving an aircraft carrier.” He gestures as if he’s pushing a button, “Okay guys, turning left! Are we turning left yet?”
While not everyone takes on projects as ambitious as redesigning a mobile operating system, many of us will want to leave our mark on the company we work for. This may be easier in a smaller company than a large one.
You Won’t Know Some Coworkers
No matter how social or friendly you are, if you work in a company with hundreds or even thousands of employees, it will be impossible to know everyone. Inevitably, some aspect of your job will be affected by someone you’ve never met. It may be the CEO, the head of payroll or the legal department, but someone will make a decision that determines how you work and it may be difficult or even impossible to speak to that person directly. A good company will provide a method for employees to voice serious concerns to upper management, but this isn’t always guaranteed or effective.
Your Fulfilment Can Be Determined by Your Surroundings
A related problem is that your success and happiness can be determined by where you are placed within the company. Working with a dysfunctional group can bring down the quality of your work, despite your best efforts. It may even affect your ability to move up in the company. As one Google engineer puts it:
“Your quality of life will vary greatly depending on the team you get assigned to. Being part of a good team will make your life wonderful, a bad team will make your life miserable. Whom you work with has a major influence on your career (don’t expect promotions in a dying product).”
Of course, working with unpleasant people is a universal threat, but the damaging effects can be more pronounced if there’s a web of superiors and management departments between you and the part of the company you’d rather be working for.
The Advantages of a Small Company
Working for a company that only employs a few dozen people may not offer the same scale as a Fortune 500 corporation, but there are still a few perks to being employed at a place where everybody knows everybody and everybody calls you friend.
Your Success is Visible
Unless you work near the top, accomplishing something significant at a large company will probably never reach the ears of the CEO. At a small company, however, great work can be seen by everyone. This makes it easier to distinguish yourself with certain skills. Your actions are also more significant. As Dean Medley, Senior VP of recruiting at Medical Methods points out:
“Every success you have in a small business is magnified by a hundred. When you land a new account, it’s a huge deal.”
Especially if you’re starting out in a new career, working for a small company is a great way to establish your abilities and gain references and reputation that can follow you for years.
Your Company is More Agile
Being able to work closely with all of your coworkers doesn’t just mean they can see you. You also have access to a lot more of the company’s moving parts. Being able to speak directly to your upper management and voice concerns or pitch ideas can result in much faster movement. What may take days or weeks of submission and approval processes at a big company may take knocking on your boss’s door at a small one.
Your Responsibilities May be More Varied
In a larger company, you may be able to switch to a different job and exercise a different skill set without leaving your company. In a smaller company, you may be required to exercise a different skill set without leaving your desk. Especially in a startup environment, you may be called on to fulfil more roles outside a narrowly defined job description. One day you’re working in Photoshop, the next you’re diagnosing PC problems, and by Friday you’re updating the company website. If you like using a variety of skills without changing jobs, a smaller company may be more suited to you.
The Problems at a Small Company
Just because you can call up your company’s CEO directly doesn’t mean all your problems will be solved. Here are a few things to keep in mind before joining the underdog:
Your Failure is Visible
Knowing your company’s CEO can see it when you land a big client is great. That can become a double-edged sword, though, when you screw up. Obviously, a good employee would want to minimise failure regardless of who can see, but it never feels good when the majority of your coworkers all know when you’ve made a mistake.
The Benefits Package Are Smaller
As stated earlier, smaller companies typically don’t have as extensive of a benefits package as larger companies do. If you’re in a startup situation, you might be able to hold out until the outfit grows enough to begin offering things like health insurance, but be aware that hoping for something to come from nothing is almost always a gamble. If you need benefits and the company you’re applying to doesn’t offer them, it’s more prudent to find one that does rather than hoping that you’ll get what you need some day.
There May Be No Legal or HR Departments
Small companies often don’t get around to setting up things like legal or human resources departments until they’ve been established for a while. This can be nice as it simplifies the roster of people in your company, but it also means that there’s no one in the company whose sole job is fielding complaints. Particularly in the legal department, keeping a lawyer on retainer is expensive, but there’s a reason for that: knowing whether something you want to do is legal is extremely valuable and difficult to figure out on your own.
Ultimately, what company you go with will be largely determined by where you fit best. Not everyone is built to thrive in a corporation with thousands of employees. It’s important to keep in mind not just where you’ll get paid the most or have the best benefits, but where your particular personality and set of skills can be utilised most efficiently.