Is A Startup Or A Corporate Job Better For Your Career?

Do you want freedom or structure, equity or compensation, dogs or suits? Exploring what goes into the right job fit.

Is A Startup Or A Corporate Job Better For Your Career?
[Image: Flickr user Sean McGrath]

Dichotomies create dilemmas: white or wheat; liberal or conservative; gas or electric; and for the aspiring careerist–startup or corporate. Each has its trade-offs–on one hand you get to bring dogs to work and maybe nab some equity, on the other you get better paid and greater security. So how do we choose?


First, when it comes to gigs, we have to recognize something that Twitter product manager and philoso-blogger Buster Benson emphasizes: that jobs are a matter of fit. “There is no perfect glove,” he says. “The perfect glove fits the hand that buys it.”

Much of the dichotomous dilemma can be resolved, we think, if you find an environment that helps you expand your skill set in meaningful, measurable ways. So how do we know if a startup or a corporate gig fits us?

Do you know what you want to do?

As Avery Augustine writes for the Daily Muse, the startup situation is awesome if you’re looking to buffet the many facets of the working world. When she was on her startup grind, she managed a team, wrote training manuals, and interviewed prospective employees among other things–such is the nature of “many hats” you have to wear on a small team. The diversity of experience is great if you’re trying to figure out which path you want to take, she says, or if you realize that your thrive on dynamic days.

In contrast, corporations have stricter confines. As she says:

If you’re a manager, you manage. If you’re a business analyst, you create reports. And so, if you already know the role you want or the direction you want to go in, this type of environment can really help you grow and hone those skills–without having to focus on a bunch of other responsibilities

What resources do you need?

The next big question is resources. Entrepreneurship is classically defined as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”–in other words, in the context of entrepreneurship, you’re not going to have a ton of resources (or certainty) at your disposal. This means that you’re (probably) not going to have a mentor within the company who can help guide you–Augustine’s startup boss wasn’t much older than her. That lack of authority is a blessing for some people: GitHub, for instance, prizes employees with a sense of self-direction.

But a corporation, being a larger and more mature organization, will have more mature people in it (whether the people are also larger depends on the company, we think). This can be an asset, since your bosses and colleagues will have institutional knowledge that you can draw from.


The question, again, is one of fit. As Augustine says, if you prefer making your decisions on your own and taking the intiative to get the right things done, then you might not need the structure of the corporate world to grow yourself as a professional.

What kind of impact do you want to make?

“I’ll admit, I was naive when I entered the corporate world,” Augustine says. “Even though I knowingly entered the company at the bottom of the organization, I didn’t expect to get so frustrated with my lack of influence–the reality was, I essentially had no say when it came to decisions that were made about me and my team.”

As her story shows, a lack of influence, pull, power, or whatever you want to call it can have toxic effects on people: Even the great Google has problems with employees feeling like they’re gears inside a genius-y machine, but a machine that they can’t have much of an effect on.

The smaller size of a startup, then, allows for greater power within the organization–so if you’d love the opportunity to hold greater sway in making decisions, that might be a better fit. But remember what Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker as he become Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility.

How did you decide on a corporate or startup gig? Have you ever made the switch from one to the other? Let us know in the comments.

Hat tip: The Daily Muse


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.