Startup or Big Company After Graduation?
When I graduated from college in 2008, I don’t think I knew anyone who was going to work for a startup, but things are very different on the East Coast, where it seemed like getting a full-time offer from Google or Goldman Sachs was the ultimate achievement. I worked at Google for two years after graduation, and then left to explore other opportunities and ended up at Pulse, a small startup in Palo Alto, where I currently work.
So now that I’ve worked at both a startup and a big company, which is better for recent college graduates? Despite articles that claim otherwise, I don’t think either one is the right choice for everyone. I believe it depends on a large number of factors, but I’ll try to cover some of the most obvious differences. Please keep in mind that this represents my biased experiences in Silicon Valley working at Google and Pulse. Also, by “startup,” I mean joining an existing startup, not founding one yourself, though that is certainly an option as well.
Compensation and Benefits
Available engineering talent is scarce, and everyone is hiring, which is very good news for college grads, as they are a fresh influx of talent. Facebook and Google are sucking up a lot of this talent pool and I’m pretty sure the base compensation package for college grads has gone up substantially in the past few years as the market demand for engineers increases. At a large company, you are pretty much guaranteed a nice salary, health insurance and 401k contributions, as well as the non-monetary benefits like free/cheap food, onsite gyms, etc.
Startups used to, and maybe still do, invoke the image of people subsisting on ramen and barely getting paid, but with VCs pumping money in startups, this is hardly the only option. Of course there are also startups with very low salaries and larger equity offerings, but there are also many startups hiring aggressively that have solid funding and can offer competitive salaries and benefits, as well as some equity.
If you are healthy and young with few financial responsibilities, I would suggest that compensation not be a major deciding factor, and to look more critically at some of the other factors.
If you’re just getting started on building a career, try to think about where you can learn the most. Big companies can provide a very solid technical foundation, in terms of general knowledge, coding practices, and working with large-scale systems. They may also pay for you to continue taking classes per semester, which amassed over a few years, can get you a Master’s degree. Many larger companies also have internal training classes for popular programming languages, design patterns, etc.
At a startup, the learning that takes place is arguably more varied. Depending on the size of the startup and how transparent the internal processes are, you’ll learn a lot of things that are maybe not in your “engineer” job description. Some non-engineering things I’ve done at Pulse that I never did at Google (maybe it’s important to note here that these contributions were not because I had two years of industry experience, but because of the inherent difference in working at a startup): recruit at a career fair, conduct full-day interviews, answer customer feedback emails, represent the company at conferences, contribute to high-level discussions about our vision for the company, actively shape our unique culture.
A large company is a good place to ramp up your technical knowledge. Startups expect people to be able to hit the ground running, and I’m pretty sure wasn’t prepared after graduation to work at a place like Pulse, as my undergrad experience was very theory-heavy and coding/application-light. But if you’re interested in working for a startup, don’t just assume that you don’t have enough experience. It doesn’t hurt to take a look around, and many engineers downplay their own abilities, despite a track record of accomplishments.
In general, you’ll work a lot more at a startup than at a large company, and you’ll have a lot more responsibilities. There’s no getting around that, but when the work you are doing has real immediate impact, it’s incredibly rewarding. Startups move fast, and pretty much everything you’re working on is critical to the product, which is definitely not true at large companies.
Big companies have a large existing user base, so you can theoretically reach a lot of people with what you do, but if you’re a regular college grad, chances are you’ll be working on a pretty small part of the codebase, and it may not even see the light of day. Projects get cancelled all the time–the ones we hear about are only the ones that have been released publicly. My impression is that if you move a few notches up the corporate ladder, you can have substantially more impact and ownership over projects.
This section is fairly biased because I personally feel like I have much more impact now. I feel obligated to note that there are also plenty of startups that never really take off or just never get a substantial amount of users. However, the successful startups that have millions of users (where your work would have real impact) are almost all hiring, including Pulse.
Future Career Opportunities
Working at a large company that has a reputation for good engineers is undeniably good for your resume. That’s why startups that have ex-Googlers almost always advertise that their team includes ex-Googlers–it implies a certain level of quality to the engineering team. Moving up the corporate ladder at a large company can be mind-numbingly painful though. That’s why people say that the fastest way to get a raise is to quit (oh and also find a job elsewhere and negotiate a higher salary).
What if you work at a startup for a few years, and it fizzles or never really takes off? Someone recently asked me if that would mean starting over from scratch. Now that I’m fairly involved in hiring, I was sort of astonished to hear that point of view. To me, startup experience stands out as a huge positive that indicates that you are probably self-motivated, take initiative and can adapt and learn quickly. I would imagine that this would be true for big companies looking to hire as well, as these are traits that are desirable in any company.
Also, at either a startup or a big company, you will be building a network of connections that will be invaluable to you during your career.
If you’re trying to decide between startups and larger companies, please don’t make any decisions based on what you hear from me or other people. I’ve painted a view of startups and big companies with very broad strokes that is hopefully helpful but by no means comprehensive. Try to visit different startups or larger companies, talk to as many people as you can, and see where you might be able to imagine yourself. Companies vary so much in terms of culture, product, and team, that the decision to be made isn’t really just startup or big company, but where you think you would be excited every morning to go to work.
- How to Join a Startup Right Out of School
- Are All Engineers Better Off Joining Startups?
- How Effective are Technical Interviews?
- Work/Life Balance at a Startup — Just a Pipedream?
- Thoughts about School and Work