“Should I look for a job at a big company or a small company?” is a very common question among job seekers, particularly those who are early in their career. I consider this to be one of the more important questions to ask when looking for a job. I’ve also come to believe that people tend to be wired to fit one better than the other.
I wrote a blog post on one particular difference between large and small companies recently, and it got quite a bit of interest. I decided to expand on this theme and write a more complete article on some of the most important differences. Note that there are no absolutes, only generalities, but these will help you decide what might be best for you based on how you are wired.
Big companies will tend to have more structure in two key areas: 1) organization and 2) process. Although I stated that there are no absolutes, you can pretty much count on this difference being true, because a company is unlikely to grow large without a fair amount of structure. Roles at large companies tend to be well defined, and there tend to be many written rules and processes that define how things are to be done. This may even extend to behavior guidelines such as dress codes, work-from-home policies, and working hours — things which are often either more relaxed or not even regulated in smaller companies. In a small company, you can usually pick your own phone and computer, whereas big companies often have standards for these.
Small companies tend to operate more by unwritten rules that the team members just follow. I often think of it like a football game. Large companies have well-defined roles and processes (diagrammed and practiced plays), and small companies are like a pick-up game where a group just agrees on what they will do, and if something doesn’t work, they quickly discuss how to do it better on the next play. The advantage of this is that small companies have more flexibility to deal with change or anything unexpected. The disadvantage is that it can result in botched plays because people didn’t really understand what other team members were doing.
A big company is primarily focused on keeping the company machine running. They typically have lots of structure and processes in place in an effort to keep things running as consistently as possible. If you work in a large company, you may feel your contribution is limited by this structure, and that your efforts have more to do with maintenance than improvement.
A small company has few people and few resources, and is primarily focused on surviving. There won’t be as much structure or process to limit your contribution, but you may feel limited by the capabilities of the team or the resources available.
I’ve heard it said that big companies focus most of their attention inside the company, while small companies maintain their focus outside the company. I think this is a great summary.
This is a direct result of the organizational structure differences already mentioned. In a large company, there are more opportunities to take a completely different job, or to ‘move up the ladder’. This is simply because the organization is large, so it’s more likely you will find a vacancy that fits you.
In smaller companies, your options may be limited because there are only so many positions available. Someone leaving a small company can be a great opportunity, as they will often look internally to fill openings. However, if people are happy and don’t leave, that can limit your options until the company grows enough to add new roles at the level you are targeting.
Big companies are very different than small companies in terms of how quickly they start and complete new projects. As a direct result of the organizational structure already mentioned, large companies typically have large projects with more people involved, and this has inertia.
A good analogy is piloting a small Cessna vs a 747. The Cessna can take off and land on a very short runway and make small quick turns, but it can only provide transportation for a few people. The 747 requires much more planning and time to execute any move, but it provides a service to a much larger number of people.
The process structure mentioned above also has an impact on speed, and this can affect even smaller, internal projects in large companies. Even projects that have few people involved will often need to play by the same rules as the larger projects, or will be staffed by people who are used to taking things slowly, simply because that is the culture of the bigger company. This is why larger company projects need to provide more impact.
A big company typically makes a big impact on the world, but you typically make a little impact on the company. Example: Boeing makes airplanes that carry people all over the world, but most employees are just one small cog in a big machine and have little say in the direction of the company.
A small company typically makes a small impact on the world, but as an employee you have the opportunity to make a big difference in the direction of that company.
In a big company, you are more likely to be hired to fill a specific, narrowly defined role. If you consider yourself a specialist, this may be great. If you like a wide range of responsibilities or like learning new skills, this may frustrate you. If you are leading a team and prefer to give tasks to whomever can get them done, rather than look for someone with the right degree and training, this may frustrate you as well.
In a small company, you often have the opportunity to do a wide range of things. Small companies frequently change direction, market, product, etc., and when they do, they typically look around for someone on the team who can handle the new experience, rather than go out to hire someone new.
In a large company, much of your time can be consumed with activities that don’t contribute directly to your own projects. This is especially true if you are in management. You will likely get emails from people outside your department asking for help or giving updates on what their group is doing. If you want to move up or around in the company, you will probably feel compelled to keep up with these other departments so you can speak intelligently about their progress and keep an eye out for opportunities. If your company is vertically integrated, you may have much more visibility into your internal suppliers or customers than you do with external suppliers and customers, and you may feel like you should stay involved to ensure greater success. Then there are the corporate overhead activities that may not exist in a smaller company, such as a regular corporate newsletter, updates from the CEO, or market news you want to stay up-to-date on if your company is traded publicly. With all of this overhead activity, it can feel like you don’t have much time to spend on your projects.
In a smaller company, there will be far fewer projects going on, far less overhead, and you will feel like much more of your effort goes directly to the work you need to do. For me, this has led to a much greater sense of accomplishment, because I see exactly where my effort is going.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t inefficiencies and failures along the way. Smaller companies are often working in new and untested markets or technologies, meaning that things often don’t work out the way you expect. This means your work still has the risk of not having the impact you hoped, but at least you will likely see just how it might have contributed to the mission of the company.
One way to view this is in terms of a path through what was once uncharted territory. In a large company, you are much more likely to be part of a team that is following a path that someone else has already created. In a small company, you are more likely to be a pathfinder. If you like working in an environment where more is unknown, and you enjoy the excitement and risk that entails, a small company is more likely to satisfy you.
The lower overhead in smaller companies means you will likely feel much closer to the real mission of the company, and you will likely feel much greater ownership for your work. This may well be true in a larger company if you are leading a project, but less likely if you are part of a large team.
A Rewarding Career Trajectory
When it comes to the type of company you work for, these day-to-day advantages and limitations end up having a big impact on how happy you are and how well you perform.
I personally prefer working for smaller companies. Through my experience working for both large and small companies, I’ve found the differences in my satisfaction to be significant. Keep these differences in mind the next time you are looking for your next job, and they will help you decide what will fit you best, and what will be the best step towards the most rewarding career.
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