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Startup or Corporation? Decide Your Next Career Move

Feb 27, 2020 | 12m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Where and when to position yourself for maximum impact
  • Signs that it's time to change companies
  • Whether stock options in your salary are for you


A New Dilemma

Today, the idea of lifelong company loyalty is no longer an obligation. With wave upon wave of new startups making the business landscape more diverse than at any other point in history, dissatisfied workers, uncertain fresh graduates and professionals seeking growth and learning may be facing a new dilemma - too much choice.

Startups are lean, mean and quick, appealing to those who are bold, innovative and tired of traditional business models. At the same time, new routes to career advancement abound in corporations eager to take in dynamic individuals moulded by the fast-paced startup culture.

For those looking to seize the opportunities lurking out there, it is always good to be prepared no matter which point of your career you are at. Let the following observations steer you towards a more informed decision when choosing between life at a startup or corporation.

Key Differences Between Startups and Corporations

Just as a full-sized tree sports multiple branches, large corporations comprise multiple smaller entities and departments; the scale and stability that a corporation holds are apparent to all. Conversely, a startup can be likened to a sapling that is still growing, with its future size and stability still currently uncertain. Corporations appeal to much of the working population as they offer steady growth; they progress slowly but smoothly, similar to travelling aboard a tram on a pathway that was planned and established by previous generations.

Meanwhile, the speed of growth in a startup is best described as a runaway train, where you are responsible for building new train tracks even as you blaze along freshly laid ones. While startups can reach their destination more quickly than they would otherwise, they also risk derailing from their expected growth trajectory and ending up nowhere.

You may also find it easier to learn from others while in a corporation – due to the large number of people it employs, there will always be somebody there who possesses new knowledge. In a startup, it might be more difficult to find opportunities to be coached or guided by others, as the teams are busy and constantly pressed by time and workload issues. As a result, people do not have the time to micromanage others, so you own your results. You have to take ownership of your own learning curve and be self-motivated to learn – no one is going to look over your shoulder constantly and point out what you need to do.

This means that you might be learning as you go at a startup, but without knowing what the ideal approach or solution is. However, over time, as you start building your own processes and understand how things should be done given the set of circumstances, you will arrive at the best-case practices for that particular startup. The experience gained by this hands-on, independent learning is a springboard for greater things down the road.

Conversely, larger corporations already have best-case practices cemented in place. There is less room for creating a solution to a particular problem from scratch, and a lot of your work will consist of executing these best practices accepted by the corporation.

Your learning journey is not always smooth sailing, and consequences can hurt. If you screw up in a big way while in a corporation, you may be shaken but ultimately safe – the impact absorbed through the hierarchical system. Commit the same type of mistake in a startup, and your continued employment could be at real risk.

Above all, the key difference between startups and corporations is regarding how much time you’re given. In a startup, the progression from concept to launch could be a matter of days, while some corporations have lead times stretching as far as three to six months.

Planning in corporations is measured in terms of quarters per year, backed by an annual budget to ensure financial stability throughout. That scale is practically unheard of in startups – most plan and assess budgets in terms of weeks and at most a quarter ahead. Even then, things change so drastically in the startup field that plans determined in October may look completely different by December of that same year.

Corporations also require multiple approval levels and implementations may take weeks because actions taken can and do impact entities in different parts of the world. All relevant stakeholders have to be brought on board and the approval cycles initiated, where everybody involved has to agree to what has been pitched. Contrast this with a startup, where some teams may be more likely to start implementing without going through any approval – in a corporation, this would be unheard of.

When it comes to decision-making, time is not the only differentiator between a startup and a corporation. Consider for a moment the impact matrix, which quantifies how much effort you put in against how much impact you can create, along an x/y axis. At a certain point in the matrix, you can find a sweet spot where low efforts can create high impacts.

Such opportunities are few to none in a corporation, where many decisions of a low-effort, high-impact nature have likely already been utilised and baked into the business framework as best practices. In this situation, the key lies in optimising on a smaller scale – contrast that with a startup, where you can still find low-effort, high-impact opportunities. Exponential growth can bloom from these impacts, because the base of a startup is so low, many processes are still in their infancy and not yet systemic.

When You Outgrow Your Company

Are you constantly feeling unmotivated and lethargic at work? Perhaps even the daily act of going to work feels like climbing a mountain, and you’d much prefer being late and spending as little time as possible at work. If you’re starting to look for justifications to avoid arriving to work on time, that’s the first clear indication that you’re not in a place where you belong.

Even if you initially found the environment stimulating and challenging, if it has turned stagnant and unrewarding, there’s nothing wrong with leaving for brighter prospects. If all your decision-making at work is centred around what’s best for yourself rather than the company, that’s another strong sign that it’s time to move on.

However, before you take that leap of faith, it’s best if you’re prepared for life on the other side, especially when making the switch from a corporation to a startup or vice versa. Startups come in all shapes and sizes, and it is essential that you first research the domain that you’re planning to enter – your strategic thinking and input has a more direct impact in a startup.

By extension, you also want to identify potential growth areas overlooked or untouched by other people. This comparative advantage will help you avoid stiff competition over saturated business areas and put you in the driver’s seat steering the company towards new growth. As your business model may not be as extensive as that of an established company, any comparative advantage becomes more meaningful.

If your sights are set on going to a corporation, information about the specific company is generally easier to find. However, corporations look for specialists, not generalists. You’ll need to deep dive into the functions that your desired role oversees. As a value-add, you should work on specific skills that will help you shine in the role. Unlike a startup, strategy planning is largely handled by senior management; if you don’t find yourself in that position, it would be more relevant to think tactically to navigate through the work.

Change inevitably means that some old processes and practices will lose their relevance; likewise, operating in a radically different environment requires a different mindset. It’s good to be curious and question everything in a startup. In a corporation, excessively questioning the status quo may paint you as a poor fit or even a troublemaker. Conversely, in a startup, failing to ask enough questions can hold you back from creating more value – that’s why you want to investigate the purpose behind every process, and if anything can be further optimised.

While it is much more welcome in a startup, questioning and optimisation is still doable even in a corporation. With that said, the scope and scale of your enquiries should be narrowed down. You mainly want to ask why the work is done the way it is, improving certain aspects of the process after microscope-like examination.

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Former Chief of Staff




Starting Your Career