Big company or tiny startup? Size does matter

Ang Boehmer

Every company has its own way of doing things. Some are rigid and strict — ever had to punch a time clock or meet a dress code? — while others may pride themselves on being free and open. I’m not prejudging one workplace culture over another, though you may be asking who would pick “rigid” over “free”?

The answer: Lots of people.

Some workers will fare better at a big corporation, largely because they thrive on structure and a system of rules that’s clearly spelled out in black and white. They rely on process, need clearly articulated targets and goals, and find a system of checks and balances on their actions to be refreshing rather than stifling.

Then there’s a whole other group of workers that would suffocate to death in that kind of environment. These people don’t enjoy being micromanaged, or having to conform to a set way of doing things. These fancy-free folks tend to thrive in the loose organization that’s common among startups. It allows them to dispense with the bureaucracy and get down to business.

The startup life for me

I’ve worked at big corporations and I’ve worked at startups. If I had to choose between the two, I would pick a startup every time. My main reason? There’s plenty of rigamarole that must be managed at a big company due to the sheer number of employees, while the only real rule at most startups is typically, “Get your shit done and don’t be an asshole.”

Too bad the rest of my life isn’t that simple.

It’s not just an aversion to regulations and paperwork that have me running toward the startup world. There are plenty of reasons that the draw of the small employer has far more power over me than the prospect a job in big business.

5 ways working at a startup is better than at a big corporation:

1. R-e-s-p-e-c-t, I’ll tell you what it means to me

Aretha nailed this one back in 1967. It’s true that the law requires your employer show you basic respect and common decency, but what that looks like at a startup verses a big corporation can vary wildly. In the corporate world, interoffice politics are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective), and anyone who has worked at a big company and not been backstabbed, thrown under the bus, or just run afoul of seemingly pointless rules is not really participating. While some managers believe this kind of environment inspires the employees to work even harder, it also creates an atmosphere of fear, willful subordination and apathy.

The startup culture is often way different. Because the staff is limited, employees have no choice but to work closely with their coworkers, which tends to foster deeper personal relationships and prevent the type of backbiting that’s common when strangers are competing for limited rewards. You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to see other people make mistakes. It keeps everyone humble and respectful towards each other.

2. Beware the high cheese

I’m not saying that the culture is lame at all big corporations. There are exceptions to every rule. That said, I’m the type of person who’s skin crawls every time I’m exposed to “motivational” videos, slogans, posters, games, and pep talks. It’s all cheese to me — evidence that management is trying too hard and using “off the shelf” tools without understanding the unique personalities of those they are trying to motivate.

By comparison, it’s been my experience that the staff at a startup requires no false motivation. Face it: there’s usually a small number of employees, and they are working together all the time to create a business from scratch. If you’re not motivated at a startup, your co-workers are going to catch on quick. At that point, chances are you won’t be working for a startup anymore.

3. With great company, comes great responsibility

I like to feel that I am in control of my own destiny. I want to know that I am judged on the quality of my work, more than I am as part of a team. The bigger the operation, the more people that receive a memo any time someone screws up. Or worse, the rules are changed for everyone in response to one person being a jerk. You’re going to get far more personal attention at a startup. It’s part and parcel of working in a small group. This can be scary for some, as you’ll have to take responsibility for any mistakes you make (they’ll be obvious to your coworkers). But the idea of “group punishment” is anathema to most startup cultures. If one person does something wrong then that one person is spoken to. If that person doesn’t fix the problem, they’re gone. Makes sense, right?

4. Who’s the boss?

The battle between hierarchy and decentralized control is on prominent display when it comes to the management structures of different sized businesses. In a large corporate setting, there is a specific chain of command that may be lengthy. There may be so many people in that chain that some of the links feel the need to prove they’re the boss. This can lead to boss confusions (“Wait, who is my direct supervisor again?””), or the dreaded “multi-boss” situation, where an employee reports to multiple managers who all have competing standards and ideas of what they want.

At a startup, the employees ultimately report to the CEO. They’re aware of ownership’s end goals for the company, and the whole team works together to reach them. If startup employees are reporting to multiple managers, it’s because they genuinely need to be kept in the loop on project progress.

5. It’s a culture club

Startup culture is an amazing thing, not just for the sense of freedom it provides, but also because the employees are in charge of creating that culture in the moment. The same can’t often be said for large corporations, which are forced to plan every team-building event down the last detail. Again, when dealing with hundreds of employees, there’s not a lot of room to wing it.

You can also hide from the culture at a big business, smiling along while quietly seething at “Hawaiian shirt day” or whatever hallow group activity has been added to the schedule for today. At a startup, you are immersed in a culture that is arising organically — it’s a living thing, and you’re helping birth it into existence.

At Marxent, the culture sees everyone striving to have a laid-back environment that is fun and collaborative. No one wants to be stressed. So why not shoot some nerf guns at each other and relax? Being in this environment improves our quality of life at work, and even more importantly, it improves our quality of life at home.