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Startups vs. Big Tech: How To Decide Which Path Is Right For You

Career Guides

When considering the benefits of startups vs big tech companies, it’s not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. Ultimately, your choice should come down to what you’re solving for—in other words, what are you optimizing for in your career?

Are you looking to make as much money as possible? Are you hoping for job security? Are you looking to learn a lot and build specific skills? These are just a few questions you might ask yourself before deciding between a startup and a big tech company.

Any job can be a good or bad fit, depending on what you’re trying to optimize for. The best way to make sure a role is a fit for you is to make your “job fit” list. What are those things you’re most focused on getting out of a role? And how well does a particular job check those boxes? This guide is a starting point to differentiate how the benefits of startups and big tech companies can best serve you.


The Benefits Of Big Tech

Quick note on “big tech.” Most people read that and think about going to work for Amazon, Google, or Facebook. The important distinction here is whether you want to work for a large established company, or a smaller, less established company. Most large tech companies (like 5,000 employees or more) will offer a fairly similar experience.

Job Security

If you are purely focused on job security and looking for the safest move, big tech is likely the best fit. It’s just a fact that big companies are more mature and less likely to fail. However, don’t think this means you’re assured not to be impacted by layoffs. Recent news has proven that layoffs are a reality for businesses, regardless of size. Job insecurity is just less likely to be a significant risk at a big company versus a smaller one. But in reality, job security is somewhat artificial. There are risks in whatever you do, so make sure what you’re doing is worth it.

Baseline Salary

If landing a sky-high salary is your top priority, you’re likely best off pursuing a big tech job. Generally, big public companies like Google or Microsoft can afford to pay higher upfront salaries. Additionally, when it comes to equity, big tech companies are already public so it’s easier to know exactly what your equity is worth from the get-go.

Building Skills

If you feel like you’re not quite where you want to focus in terms of building new skills — for example, you have a CS degree that you felt was mostly academic rather than hands-on — it can potentially be easier to build some basic skills at a larger company. Startups are lean and have an all-hands-on-deck mindset, so you will be expected to figure things out and run with it. At a larger company, you operate much farther down on the proverbial totem pole, so there is less urgency and more time to build rudimentary skills. Those larger companies are also used to hiring larger amounts of people, so their ability to onboard and train new people is much more scaled than a scrappier startup.

Brand Awareness

Many individuals value being associated with a well-known, reliable brand while building a resume. When a future employer sees Microsoft or Facebook on your resume, those names do some legwork for you and communicate certain associations. However, if you amass a collection of middling or failed startups on your resume, it can be difficult to communicate your worth. This often leads some people to start their career off trying to associate with a strong, established brand before taking the risk of working for a startup.

The Benefits Of Startups

Opportunity to Learn

While big tech will help you hone rudimentary skills, startups will help you learn new skills. As someone that is owning a larger piece of the puzzle, you will have the opportunity to explore many areas of the business. While you might join the company primarily in a growth role, you could find yourself leading product launches or working in other areas that are new to you. You’ll also get extremely close, one-to-one mentorship because teams are small. While not as far along or stable financially as a big public company, being this far along does lower the risk of failure.

Network

Over the course of your career your network will become more and more important. Your network will provide the people you work with, hire, get mentorship from, sell to as customers, raise money from, or potentially co-found your own company with. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll get a network by working at big tech companies as well, but the bonds you form while working with other people to build something up in the early days is a unique experience.

Autonomy

Tech companies exist on a broad spectrum. Early-stage companies have one or two employees, while a company like Google employs hundreds of thousands of employees. As they grow, each person owns a smaller and smaller piece of the puzzle. If you go work at a large, late-stage company, chances are you’ll be working on one aspect of one feature of one product in one division. The work you do will be super granular and you won’t really be able to make a large-scale impact. The earlier you join a company, the more autonomy and ownership you will have over the work you do and the big-picture company vision.

Equity

When you join a large tech company, you usually have an idea of what your equity means when you sign on. But joining an early-stage company at the right time can have huge financial rewards down the road. Particularly if you’re one of the first 100 employees, the financial upside of having equity in a company that gets acquired or goes public is an untapped resource. This is also why some smaller companies pay less in cash.

So What’s Right For You?

A lot of people will argue that there is a right or wrong answer, but that’s just not true. Finding the right role is a function of mapping what a job can offer with what you’re optimizing for in your career. No job will tell you what should be important to you. First, you have to decide what is most important to you professionally, and then you have to do some leg work to understand what roles will solve that. Whether you find your home in big tech or a startup, success will come as long as you’re focused on what is most important to you personally.