Startup vs. Established Company: Which one is right for me?

When you're at the very beginning of your career, one of the most significant decisions you will face is whether to join an established company or an early-stage startup. These two paths are very different, and the benefits and rewards vary markedly between them. We touched on some of the decision points in our guide to launching your career, but here, we're going to offer a more in-depth look and advice. 

There was a time when joining an established company was the ultimate goal of anyone entering the job market. Corporations, consulting firms and investment banks were traditionally held in high regard. Startups weren't really part of the mix, but over the past few decades, this view has shifted. 

Tech companies like Google and Facebook grew from their origins as scrappy startups to become some of the largest and most valuable companies in the world. As a direct consequence, joining a startup is seen as a real and viable alternative. Startups present a world of opportunity, but they also have a fair number of challenges. Larger, more established companies still have many advantages and benefits, and which avenue you choose depends on many factors. 

To help figure out which path is the best one for you, there are some of the key questions you should ask yourself. 

What is your appetite for risk? 

If you're someone who is extremely risk-averse, then you can probably stop thinking about working in a startup right this moment. Startups, by their very nature, are high-risk situations. Around 90% of startups fail within the first three years, so the risk of your job or workplace disappearing in the near future is a very large one. If you can deal with this, then you can expect a wild ride that offers numerous learning opportunities and a unique experience. There is, of course, a chance that the startup will take off and become the next tech unicorn. Not knowing the outcome is the risk you take.

Compare this to a more established company. By their very definition, these large companies are more stable, steady, and less risky. They've been through rocky patches and matured to the point where they're on very solid foundations. This means there's less danger that the company and your job will simply disappear, and you can feel assured that you'll have adequate time to grow into your role and learn. If this lower-risk situation holds more appeal for you, then a role in an established company would be a good choice for you. 

There is, however, another factor to keep in mind when considering your appetite for risk. Even though you are just at the beginning of your career, if you have a good university degree to fall back on, or if the consequences of something not working out are minimal, then taking a risk on a startup early on might be worth it for you.

If you’re ambitious and you’re willing to work hard, you don't need to place too much emphasis on security. What you need to focus on instead is to always optimize your learning curve. Try to find work environments where you feel that you're being challenged, you’re working with the most ambitious people and you’re receiving lots of responsibility.
- Oliver T. Neumann, Co-Founder of Cargo.One

What kind of impact do you want to have, and when do you want to see it?

One of the best things about being part of an early-stage startup is that you will be able to play an integral part in the company's growth and operations. Teams can be small and tasks can be broad. As a result, you'll be involved in many different areas, and quite often, you'll see the results of your efforts in a matter of days. Also, in startups, there is often easy access to the founders and the C-level team. This means that if you have an idea, your chances of having it heard and picked up on are high. Having this type of influence can help to make you feel part of the bigger picture.

At a larger, more corporate organization, the impact of your work, and your contribution will be more limited. The bigger a company is, the longer it takes for decisions to be made, and the slower the change of pace is. You are also unlikely to have much contact, if any, with company founders or C-level management early in your career. This means that even if you have a brilliant idea of how to make things work better, the likelihood that you will reach the right person and have them listen to you is, unfortunately, quite small.

Do you thrive under a heavy workload? 

If you're the kind of person who loves to take on huge projects and herculean amounts of work, then a startup environment will be heaven for you. In their early stages, startups are often trying to accomplish very big goals with relatively few resources. As a result, you'll end up involved in multiple areas, work long hours, and probably have little vacation time. The upshot is that you'll learn new skills and play a big part in the creation of something. 

Some areas of the corporate world have a reputation for hard work too, but the working hours will be a lot more fixed in this scenario. In an established company, your job role will be more defined, and you're less likely to be pulled into other projects or areas if they are not part of your normal job description. This reduces opportunities for learning but may provide a more stable and manageable work life. Your chances of burnout are much less in this type of large company, whereas in the tech and startup world, this is more common.

How steep do you want your learning curve to be?

Joining an early-stage startup can either help or hinder your learning curve. On the one hand, you'll experience big learning opportunities in a startup, jumping into different roles, progressing rapidly, even leading teams in a short space of time. Often, you'll be learning by doing, and without much external guidance, you'll pick up many new skills along the way. On the other hand, this opens you up to making mistakes and doing things in a way that might not be best practice or optimal. 

In a more established company, the learning curve may be less steep, but there will be strong guidance and supervision along the way. You'll receive excellent training, and the company will invest in giving you as much preparation and attention as possible. You may also be surrounded by more experienced team members who can act as mentors, giving you great opportunities to learn from other successful people. The learning will be steady and effective. 

How much do you care about brand names on your CV and external validation?

When you're at the beginning of your career, a corporate brand name on your CV can add real value and better pave the way to future opportunities. If you're joining an early-stage startup, it's unlikely to bring much inherent brand value. Occasionally, there will be opportunities to join startups that are surrounded by hype, but if these end up tanking, your personal career might be impacted. If a brand name isn't important to you, then you can go to whatever startup appeals most to you.

Alternatively, having a big name brand on your CV in the early stage of your career can be a very smart move. The external validation a prestigious employer provides is a real advantage, and it will make each of your subsequent career choices that little bit easier. It will make securing a job at another big name company easier, and you can always opt to get a job at a startup after that.

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