Should I start my career at a startup or corporate tech company?

One of the biggest questions I’ve seen young tech-inclined folks grapple with (myself very much included) is the dilemma of whether to join an early-stage startup or mature tech company as someone early in their career.

Throughout uni, I placed a deliberate focus on building experiences across a range of company sizes to answer this question, including:

  • A pre-launch startup testing with their first users

  • A seed-stage startup looking to scale their platform nationwide

  • A Series B scale-up expanding across several markets

  • Several mature global tech companies with 100,000+ employees

I ended up making the decision to join a more mature tech company (Atlassian) as an Associate Product Manager starting next year, but I would still advocate that you should strongly consider joining an early-stage tech company when you’re starting off your career (and absolutely try to get experience with one whilst in university).

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It comes down to what you want out of life, what skills you have, and how you like to work, and every role will have its own nuances in responsibility, team, skillset, etc.

I can’t tell you what’s best for you specifically, but what I can do is describe the general patterns of comparative advantage that I’ve seen in working for startups and corporates respectively.

A caution to the reader: these patterns may not be consistent across all such companies, and are things you should actively ask about when applying for roles.

Advantages of Starting at an Early-To-Mid Stage Technology Company

Breadth of Learning:

Whilst my corporate roles tended to focus on a more narrow skillset had a tendency to plateau, one of the biggest things I enjoyed about startups was how many different areas I learned about. My most recent role involved analytics, digital marketing, operations process design, competitor research, customer success, recruiting, graphic design, copywriting, legal work, you name it. In general, I have found the diversity and rate of learning at startups to be higher.

Fast-Paced Environment:

Whereas corporates usually take a lot longer to decide on and implement changes (layers of hierarchy, internal knowledge complexity, level of risk if something goes wrong, etc.), startups have the simplicity and flexibility to execute and learn quickly, which I found to be a super rewarding feedback loop.

Modern Tech & Tool Stack:

In corporate, you’ll probably spend time learning how to use inefficient internal company tools and company-specific processes. The opportunity cost is more useful learning; once you leave, this knowledge can’t be leveraged elsewhere. Startups tend to use a lot of super slick and easy SaaS tools to work more effectively, and better yet, if you find a tool or process you like, it’s much easier to get the rest of the company using it too.

High Autonomy & Ownership:

It’s equal parts scary and exciting how much responsibility you can get handed as a young person at a startup. Whereas in mature companies, a junior role might consist of making slides look pretty, you’re a lot more likely to own entire projects or even whole business functions as an early startup employee.

Potential for Equity in Company:

A distinct financial advantage of startups is being able to offer early employees a non-trivial chunk of equity. So if you think you’ve come across the next Uber or Airbnb, there’s a chance you might get hella cashed-up (but odds are, it’s probably not going to be that big).

Work on Unsolved Problems:

One thing that really attracted me to startups was the chance to build products for problems that had few or no existing solutions, something that feels really rewarding. In corporate roles, I’ve often found that work is more so focused on incrementally tweaking existing solutions to differentiate from competitors.

Advantages of Starting at a Mature Technology Company

Strong Brand Equity:

When you’re early in your career, chances are you don’t have a huge track record of work to show people “Hey, I’m vaguely competent”, and by joining a large tech company, there’s a brand name recognition whereby others presume you were strong enough to pass a competitive, structured interview process + got trained by experienced people in core work processes. For better or for worse, people use brands as a surrogate indicator for someone’s competence in their given field. Think ‘ex-Google engineer’, ‘ex-Apple designer’, etc. There’s an undeniable utility in having these sort of brands on your resume, both for exit opportunities at other companies, and obtaining investor interest if you wish to start your own venture.

Structured Learning & Development:

Especially as a junior employee, more mature tech companies have the upper hand in providing a ton of internal training course, and teaching skills that have been battle-tested and formalised by a successful company. Startups do have more ambiguity around how and what to learn at work, which isn’t for everyone.

Formalised Mentorship Opportunities:

The pool of people available in mature tech companies is an advantageous resource for finding mentorship opportunities across different skills and insights you’re looking to gather. Oftentimes, this even manifests in being assigned a dedicated mentor who helps align your work with your development goals. In startups, you don’t typically have this breadth of mentor access, and the onus is often on you to build a mentor relationship.

Immediate Scale of Impact:

You can join a mature tech company and instantly work on a product that affects millions of users (often including family and friends), which is pretty cool in terms of impact visibility. In joining a startup, to get to this scale usually takes many years, and that’s if they’re lucky enough to survive that long.

High Compensation:

Let’s not beat around the bush here. The big tech companies (at least the profitable ones) have the cash to offer salary packages that are a fair bit higher than most startups. Now, I would generally optimise for learning over $$$ in the earlier stages of one’s career, but money is nonetheless a tool that gives you the opportunity to 1. Fund your own ventures and 2. Fund your own learning by buying external courses and experiences.

Lower Risk:

A Google/Amazon/Atlassian-type company probably ain’t gonna shut down tomorrow. A blockchain for ice-cream startup? Dubious. I think if you’ve already built up some decent experience + skills, job security shouldn’t be a massive factor, but people have different levels of risk aversion.

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