As you approach your senior year and start applying to jobs, a question that might come up — but rarely does in college settings — is whether you would want to work for a small or large company. Often the brands paraded around during campus career fairs have well over tens of thousands of full-time employees; with Big Tech companies like Adobe and Facebook boasting 21,000 and 58,000 full-time workers, respectively, and Amazon is said to have over a million. While there have been numerous studies and articles done on the pipeline problem and the systemic injustice of corporate “target schools” (see this HBR article that asserts that ‘the school a person attends has an outsized influence on which career doors are open to them — and which are not”), we rarely think of the flip side. Yes, prestigious companies recruit from prestigious schools, and there is a whole conversation to be had on the topic of diversity and equity there, but this also limits the options of a “successful” first job out of college to the corporations that can afford to recruit from those colleges in the first place. Students rarely, if ever, see startups at career fairs or speaking at club meetings, and, consequently, don’t consider them as an option.
When considering all the factors of your first post-grad job, the size of the company might actually play a much bigger role than you think. As someone who has worked at a midsize company (over 1,500 employees) and currently works at a startup (where I was employee #4), I can speak to some of the key differences as well as which factors have become important to me.
Specialist vs. Generalist
During my two year internship at a company that, at the time, had about 1,500 employees, I worked as a market research intern in a team of seven. While I was fortunate to have a manager that occasionally let me explore roles outside of my own, most of my hours were spent sitting in front of Excel. Over the course of two years, going through the daily, repetitive motions of creating survey questions, sifting through data using pivot tables and creating graphs on PowerPoint, I can say fairly confidently that I can do end-to-end market research on my own. After dedicating enough hours during your first few years post-grad, no matter how unglamorous, you have a strong foundation to get you one step closer to where you ultimately need to be. I often hear from fellow recent grads that we call these first year or two of our working lives as “serving our time.” Despite the prison reference, this foundational journey toward becoming a specialist in your role can be vital if you know exactly what you want to do in your career. However, to say that this is the only way to get to where you need to be is a gross misrepresentation.
While during my internship I was doing the exact same (often monotonous) job duties daily, my startup experience couldn’t be more different. On such a lean team, your hands are everywhere — ultimately, you’re just trying to keep the business afloat. I’m doing something different every single day, whether it’s research, writing a blog post, creating corporate pitch decks, getting the newsletter out, running a university ambassador program, or getting testimonials for the website. The benefit of this is that I’m never bored, and I’m learning a lot very quickly. It’s also a great time for me to experiment in different areas of business. But as a generalist, I can do a lot of things at the surface level (e.g. learning a tool like HubSpot), but don’t have the time, resources or mentorship to learn any one thing deeply.
Think about what’s most important to you — really getting to hone your skills in one area, or having a variety of skills.
This is an issue I’ve heard from many new grads at various different types of jobs, no matter what size the company: lack of mentorship. Being a new grad can be scary — when you’re given new responsibilities and are still learning the ropes, having someone to rely on if you have questions or for when things go wrong is important. Without proper mentorship and guidance, especially the first few months of your job, the transition to work life can be difficult.
I was lucky to have a lot of mentorship and guidance during my internship. While I have friends at larger companies who also encounter this problem, most large corporations have new grad programs, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), or general mentorship programs to help you get on your feet. This is not true for a startup, where every single person is too busy doing at least eight different roles to hold your hand through the first few months. This is why you’ll likely see “self starter” as a job requirement for most startups.
If mentorship is critical for you, make sure to bring it up as a question for your hiring manager during the interview process. Some ways to ask this are: What are some programs or initiatives you have to transition new grads into the workplace? Or What networking opportunities are available to connect with people in different departments?
A common misconception with startups is that you’ll be paid far less for an entry level role than a larger company. This isn’t necessarily true — for an entry level job, at least, you are still likely to get industry average salary compensation whether you’re at a startup or public company. However, there are other things to consider depending on how early stage the company is. You likely won’t get free transportation, free lunches, chocolate covered pretzels and coffee on every floor. You probably won’t get really fancy company branded swag every few weeks. You might be lucky to even have a ping pong table. If these things are important to you, a larger company, or at least a later stage startup, is the way to go. What an early stage startup can (and should) offer you, though, is equity — especially if your compensation is lower than average. If your startup becomes one of the 10 percent of companies that don’t fail — well, high risk reaps high reward. In any case, never forget to negotiate.
This is more of a note for future jobs. Realistically, when you’re ready to move on to a new company, recruiters probably won’t be sliding into your LinkedIn DMs as often if you work at a no-name startup compared to a Walmart, Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs or TikTok. That brand name is great leverage to get you a better job title and negotiate a higher salary — and not just at other big companies, but at startups (where founders often look for “ex- [insert big name brand here] employee”) as well. However, don’t underestimate the skills that you can learn at a startup that are very attractive to larger employers, like being scrappy, having a fresh perspective and the ability to navigate ambiguity. Most people do go from larger companies to startups, but especially early on in your career, there’s no reason you can’t go the other way around.
Ultimately, whatever decision you decide to make, your early 20s is the time to find out what’s important to you. There is no wrong decision, only learning opportunities at very low risk. The biggest thing to remember is that your first job is not your forever job, so don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
Some questions you should ask yourself when deciding:
- Set your intention: What do you want to get out of your first job? Getting really good at the skills required for your career? Working closely with experts and industry leaders? Learning how to run a business from the ground up?
- How important is guidance and mentorship to you?
- What kind of corporate environment do you thrive in; do you need more structure or do you enjoy ambiguity?
- How important are factors like salary and company name?
- Are you risk averse or do you enjoy jumping into the unknown? If the latter, are you prepared for failure? What is your Plan B?