Choosing Between Start-Up & Corporate

Are you deciding between working for a large corporation or a start-up? The answer is in figuring out which culture better fits your personality. Before we get started, let’s clear the air on the definition of a start-up company and the stereotype built around large established organizations regarding innovation.

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What’s A Start-Up Company?

According to Wikipedia, a start-up is “a company or project undertaken by an entrepreneur to seek, develop, and validate a scalable business model” and is a new business “that intends to grow large beyond the solo founder.”

The definition is fluid, and the category is broad. The nature of the business can be anything. It does not need to be an R&D powerhouse or a technological breakthrough. A start-up can still bring fresh approaches to solving problems with existing technology.

Founders can come in all ages and backgrounds. A company can still be considered a start-up for a long time after founding, with no defined rules as to when it stops being one – probably until it stops striving to disrupt, change, or enhance a traditional industry mindset; or when the business has reached a critical mass.

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The Innovative Culture

Large corporations are often stereotyped as slow-moving and rigid, whilst start-ups are perceived to be deep-seated in innovation. Innovation is a mindset, and it is not necessarily the inherent quality of every start-up. Innovation can happen in both large organizations and start-ups, as long as the leadership creates the conditions for it.

Remember that the biggest companies were also innovators in the 20th century, and in fact, they may better understand the concept of innovation as they have expanded over time. The truth is, many established organizations and big brands today continue to adapt and evolve to stay ahead. Yes, organizational transformation is challenging and contributes to the speed at which big companies can innovate, but we cannot assume that an innovative culture solely exists in start-ups alone.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the rivalry between these two working environments.

Initiative

Do you take the rein or take the backseat? Given that the size of a start-up is small, it demands proactivity from its employees. You will likely work without supervision and be entrusted with early responsibilities. If you are not someone who jumps at the opportunity to take the initiative, or you feel that you are better at following established processes and best practices to solve problems, the corporate environment may suit you better. That said, the ability to take the initiative is always a desirable trait anywhere.

Impact

Entrepreneurship is about action, and so makes the team supporting the entrepreneur. Every employee plays an indispensable role in a start-up, and every contribution counts to its success. You get your hands dirty in projects at early development stages and see them through to launch.

Joining a large corporation is like swimming in a vast ocean with fish of all sizes. With its layered verticals and structured hierarchy, there is no individual contribution, and it takes collaboration across teams to get things moving and create an impact.

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Adaptability

Unlike large firms with established protocols and guidelines to govern their daily operations, a lot can happen in a day of a start-up. As start-up businesses are focused on growth and change, expect fast pace and unpredictability. The beauty of operating on a lean structure allows for start-ups to be agile in their business practices and shift goals along with new insights. If you are good at dealing with the unexpected, the start-up environment is for you.

However, do not simply imagine the chaos. At the core of any successful start-up, there should always be contingency plans and prep work to improvise and manage a crisis. On the other hand, the corporate environment is generally less volatile, offering a more stable job.

Multitask

One day you are the salesperson; another day, you are responsible for Human Resource; and in the next, you are managing publicity and running an event. Just what exactly do you do? Everything! That’s the start-up life. The fun part is the adrenaline, and the upside is the learning. The downside is the overwhelming responsibilities.

In most established firms, you are assigned to a specialized role. If you are looking after marketing, you do just that, and the closest you may get to finance work is budgeting and explaining processes to auditors.

Training

No one person knows everything or is good at everything. Having to multitask also means having to learn on the job and by yourself. The learning curve at a start-up is steep, but it also means that you have plenty of opportunities to experiment.

Meanwhile, in a corporate environment, you can enjoy the luxury of training and development programs to help you grow in your career – gradually.

Multitask

You are likely to gain exposure to the decision-making of senior management and be involved in strategy in a small start-up. This shall serve as an invaluable experience, especially for early-career individuals. Even in failure, being part of the operation allows you to witness pitfalls first-hand and learn from them.

Start-ups offer broad exposure, whilst specialized corporate roles offer deep exposure within an area of focus. With experience and training, you can grow to become a subject matter expert. If you are looking for development beyond your expertise, it is worth noting that some organizations offer job rotation programs to expose employees to different functions of the company.

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Communication

Mostly everyone knows everyone. It’s one big team in a start-up. There is less hierarchy in its structure, and hence the culture is less formal, and so is communication. There are opportunities to build strong relationships with colleagues, exchange thoughts, and contribute ideas and feedback.

In large corporations, especially those with global allotments, it is hard to get to know everybody. It is also not unusual for corporate employees to be only familiar with those in their immediate teams and the few others they have worked with.

Communication is more formal in the corporate environment because of the clear line drawn across functions and the reporting structure. When a problem occurs, everyone knows which team to assign and who to escalate to. Trying to solve another team’s problem may be perceived as crossing the line. This is a luxury for start-ups, who sometimes wish for such accessibility to specialized teams.

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Remuneration & Benefits

With limited resources at a start-up’s early stage, its employee remuneration cannot be as attractive as those offered by large corporations. Established organizations provide a more standardized income following industry and regional salary benchmarks. Some companies and sectors are known for their generous bonuses, not to mention employee benefits such as medical insurance and gym memberships.

Hot start-ups may pay better as they mature and advance through the funding rounds. However, don’t avoid the young and unknown ones because they may be “the next big thing”, and you only stand to lose out on not being part of its rewarding journey.

Work-Life Balance

Long working hours are inevitable in a start-up, but that’s not to say that they do not occur in corporate roles. Work-life balance is essentially a concept of one’s own and that of your employer’s expectations. Always find out more about the work-life balance culture at the job interview.

Without big teams to assign responsibilities to and being close to “owning” the success or failure of the start-up, it’s hard to go on long vacations without thinking about work. In this general aspect, a corporate job may offer more order in life.

Job Security

There is lower job security in a start-up as you may not know how well the newly established business will perform in the market. A role in a large corporation is indeed more stable, but one may argue that as start-ups are so lean, employees are less likely to be retrenched.

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Progression

An employee’s contribution does not go unnoticed in a start-up. As such, one may progress through the ranks quickly, although there are no clear paths to advancement. Many start-ups offer their employees big titles. This is because compartmentalizing job titles in a multitasking environment does not mean anything. With almost everyone in the small business having to face the client, an impressive title may also help establish credibility.

On the other hand, large corporations go with standard job titles and have defined promotion tiers based on performance management processes. To stand out amidst a structured hierarchy, or better known as to climb the corporate ladder, it takes more effort, possibly a consistent appraisal rating score of “exceptional performance”, and a longer time.

Recognition

Admittedly, big well-known brands look impressive on a CV. At the same time, the industry is also always on the lookout for up-and-coming start-ups. Employers appreciate both start-up and specialized experience as long as you demonstrate how you can contribute to their continued growth and performance.

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Passion & Confidence

It may sound cliché, but it is true. As you evaluate your options between start-up and corporate, neither option will work if you do not believe in the company’s product offering and have confidence in its market viability and scalability.

Being with a company is like choosing a partner. You’ll need to have faith in the other party, enjoy every minute spent with him or her, and know that the relationship will go somewhere – in the right direction, of course. The start-up life is not for everyone. So is corporate life. Sometimes, you have to try both to know.