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Ask HN: What are the big differences working at a startup, bigco, old smallco?
97 points by aniijbod on Dec 2, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments


-Better pay, benefits, stock options

-More organized in all regards (sprints, HR, ramp up, training, etc.)

-More "name recognition" e.g. when you tell people where you work, they immediately know/are familiar with the company

-Hours will usually be between 40-60 per week

-Not often mentioned, but with so many people, you're more likely to make "work friends"

-Siloed into your specific role - if there's a new technology or idea you want to implement, there's usually a few levels of approvals you need to go through

-Can feel like you're just a small cog in a big machine

Startup (not "established startup" e.g. multiple rounds of funding):

-Immediate impact -- you're usually defining the direction of whatever you're working on

-You get a chance to "wear many hats" i.e. work on various different projects/tasks

-If there's any equity/options, there's a possibility these become lucrative (although I would assume this is unlikely)

-Usually your hours are more flexible

-Can get "lonely" if the team is small

-Pay is usually below market or if you're a founder...nonexistent

-Can have long hours e.g. 80 hour weeks


The middle ground of the two. Almost all the pros and cons of the above, but just not as extreme. For example, HR is usually more organized than a startup, but not as organized as a BigCo. Or, you have more of an impact on the product than at a BigCo, but less than at a startup.

That is a solid response.

I’d add some of the obvious. At a startup people are spending more team creating, taking advantage of technical advantages and asymmetrical opportunities, taking ownership and getting things done. More likely to work directly with a higher ratio of people that are innovative, outstanding problem solvers or seem smarter than you in one or more areas. Learning everyday on the job, but also “putting the chairs away” everyday. Can be painful if some essential role, say marketing or sales, is not sufficiently covered by the band and thinking from those specialties influencing the offering.

Software creation does not currently scale well, so overhead exponentially increases, specifically middle management and project management. The Peter Principle comes to mind: “an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence.“ You have products and systems and real customers, so a lot of time becomes spent on negotiation and compromise. With less ownership or more specialized ownership often comes less stress. At larger companies more likely to be able to achieve work/life balance, but will also encounter political manipulators. At larger orgs more likely to have mentors and educational opportunities, but may also include cargo cults. With rich sources of data and systems at scale more opportunity to explore your theories as your leisure (as long as you can get access). More likely to have a crippled “secured” laptop where you can’t install or even security update software until it is IT approved. Large organization means more likely to find communities that match your interests — as long as the interest isn’t entrepreneurial ;)

Slightly off-topic, but I can't believe the long hours you guys in the USA work as standard. In the UK, most jobs these days are 37.5 hours. Only a few do 40.

Of course there may be (rare) occasions where you need to work overtime, but 40-60 hours on a regular basis seems crazy. 80 hours is insane. People here simply wouldn't do it. I doubt anyone gets any more productive beyond around 30 hours a week.

Keep in mind that hours don't necessarily translate to productivity.

But yes, Americans work a lot of hours, and in the white collar professions this is especially the cultural norm. Living at the office or being tied to one's computer at home 24/7 (or both) are pretty typical.

Does this require a stay-at-home partner? I don't know how I would ever be able to handle my daily life, stuff like cooking, laundry, sleeping, errands, going to the hairdresser, working out, hanging out with my partner... and I didn't even mention the kids!

It generally does. The exception would be very well-compensated people in the corporate world who can afford au pairs and nannies, and, effectively, the modern equivalent of household servants. This is how the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world "lean in" and "do it all" — lots and lots of hired help. There is no other way.

I am not rich, and I ended up the single dad of a two year-old recently. So I am still trying to figure that puzzle for myself. Fortunately, I do have the flexibility of being self-employed, but on the other hand, if I don't work (long hours), neither I nor my son will have much to live on.

I realise it’s anecdata, but in my case I can say with conviction that the larger the company, the less likely I was to make friends there.

Oh, there are definitely more people. But the rigid division of labour means they’re often siloed off and you’re less likely to interface with them outside of highly structured interactions such as meetings, though this can be offset by both informal after-work drinking sessions (if so inclined) and in companies with more “cross-functional” proclivities.

The more substantial obstacle is just the nature of the people big company jobs tend to attract. They can be highly capable specialists, but big companies also are set up to extract value from relatively unremarkable entrenched maintenance specialists and ordinary cubicle dwellers. The latter are also less likely to be unusual and/or “interesting”, and more likely to jealously guard work-life balance and get ready to bail at 4:59 PM. I don’t mean to say that’s a bad thing, but it certainly makes them less socially accessible.

They’re also more apt to make small talk mostly about sports, a form of default male interaction that got on my nerves enough that it was a factor in my moving on from several jobs early in my career.

It may just be a place and time in my life thing, but the only enduring friendships and social networks I’ve gained from my time in W-2 land have been in very small companies of maybe half a dozen people.

Great summary. I would add that at a BigCo, you can survive business failures by changing teams or getting reassigned, often moving upward in the process if you're motivated to do so. Failures could include a toxic boss or co-worker, a failed project, or even your own mistakes.

At a Startup or SmallCo, you do the same thing by changing employers.

I started my career at a SmallCo, and am now in my 20th year at a BigCo.

+1 for work friends, but I would also add that small startups have a bigger chance of strong comradery. You work long hours with the same people on something you all feel is important.

I'd like to add realistic departure opportunities if you get tired of the job:

BigCo: No sweat, I'll get another job by name dropping BigCo and its people who are likely also well known.

StartUp: I can never leave, too many customers rely on me, I have too much riding on this.

SmallCo: Notice of intent to leave + maybe a month or two to find/train the next human.

One of the big differences is generalization vs specialization.

If you're at a big company, odds are there is someone for every task that needs to be done. It's not just that someone can pick it up but I mean it's a part of their job description. If you're looking for mentorship from a specialist, it's great.

At a smaller company, the same tasks have to be done but odds are whoever is available with some basic aptitude (or willingness to learn) can pick it up. You'll end up with a broader range of experience. If you demonstrate skill (or at least competence+enthusiasm), you're likely to do it again because most likely it needs to be done.

Went from a 120,000 person company to a 12 person company and this is so true.

If you’ve got great leadership, a small company can be an incredibly fun, almost artistic like experience to work at. A

That being said I really enjoyed my time at Bigco. It teaches you a ton about bureaucracy, the inevitable issues large groups of humans has, there is a built in social network, lots of legal protections, etc.

There’s a good line in “Accidental Empires” about how, in large companies, appearances and ability to work within the system are more important than actual ability with regard to advancement. In startups, there is no system, which is what makes it “so damn fun.” I think that’s right, but the flip side is that a big sturdy business has theoretically figured out an angle that they can exploit into the ground in the market, and you can learn a ton by seeing how they do that, how various subgroups within the company navigate the larger system, et al. So both definitely have their benefits from an educational perspective, although I definitely think smaller in general tends to be more fun because of how much you can shape your surroundings and see immediate feedback in changes to the system. But fun isn’t necessarily the most important thing always.

It is my opinion that Cringeley is a fraud. He did a kickstarter and completely failed to deliver.

Separately if you live your life in service to a bohemeth, learning nonreproducible skills in maneuvering their bureaucracy you are likely to have a miserable pointless career.

There’s so much more actual learning and effective transferable skill and power in working to achieve things versus serving an internal bureaucracy that rent seeks.

I’m reminded of the John Boyd line: “Do you want to be somebody, or do something?” Winning the respect of your incestuous peers is hollow outside in the real World if you don’t actually deliver real effective results. But so many of these B-Ark people do so well at big companies with minimal actual Skills other than sucking up and dodging blame.

I don’t have strong feelings about Cringley. He admits in the book he basically wrote an industry gossip mag, so I took the whole thing with a grain of salt and just tried to enjoy it.

That said, I think your other comments are correct but somewhat miss the point. Certain types of work you can pretty much only be exposed to within a large company that can muster the required volume of funds / expertise / reputation. And learning to corral diverse groups of people with competing needs and priorities is pretty much the definition of a transferrable skill.

One example from my own life: I’ve bounced around financial institutions (mostly banks and credit card companies) for the last several years. To continue building the skills I’m interested in, I need a better understanding of the internals of big banks. It’s simply much more difficult for me to try to learn those things in a small company or startup, unless I can get one of the few spots available in a company like Monzo, which would require me to not only get the position but move away from my friends / family / etc. (And then I’m still looking at a small company’s new vision of how a thing should work rather than seeing how it actually works in most situations today.) There are always tradeoffs, and sometimes a big company will have positions that are better suited to your current goals.

>Separately if you live your life in service to a bohemeth, learning nonreproducible skills in maneuvering their bureaucracy you are likely to have a miserable pointless career.

If are a bigco and you actually care about doing a good job, you should try to find the groups where you are recognized for doing a good job and being innovative. I've worked for bigco's and seen everything from the "Analytics Expert" who spends all day rearranging slides and survives by navigating the bureaucracy, to people who are building services on top of AWS. Plenty of people are content to just do the bare minimum and find the bigco groups that allow them to do this. Don't be in that group.

A lot of great answers!

Don't forget the majority of bigcos are not software companies. These are companies like Ford, GM, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, etc. Basically, these companies use software as part of their business, but are not fundamentally software companies.

The worst jobs I've ever had was being a software person in one of these non-software companies. Few of the positives (e.g. having a great set of great senior software people and practices to learn from) existed, but certainly all of the negatives did. At one of them (I didn't last long there) there was constant talk of us "Being agile like startups" which meant that people did a lot of useless work just so Directors with minimal/no software background could generate 100s of slides to demonstrate how agile and entrepreneurial their groups were.

If you want to work in software and want the positives of a bigco, work for a bigco software company. If not in a software company, in the technology org of a bicgo that actually sees software as a core strength and not just a cost center or value-add.

Very good points!

In addition to that, there is a third species of company that seems to be especially common in my industry (telecom): the nominal tech company. This is a company whose business model theoretically makes big engineering demands; it may not be a software company per se, but operating and gluing together tech is unquestionably the core mission behind its products and services. Yet, instead it's an overwhelmingly sales-driven company that mostly just pays lip service to engineering.

This type of company is insidiously bad for an engineering career because it has the outward appearance of being tech-focused. It's only with time that you realise that 80% of the staff hold management titles and do little but parry e-mail and hold meetings, that there are 20 VPs (in a company of a few hundred or a few thousand) who are usually on golf junkets, and the agenda is set mostly by blinged-out, testosterone-amped sales execs and the MBA frat boys who supposedly run sophisticated development and infrastructure groups. A tell-tale sign of such companies is that underneath ten layers of "management", you'll find three H1-Bs stuck somewhere in the back, sharing a cube, who are the only ones in the company who actually know anything about the technology. They are critical to the company, but because of their indentured H1-B status, the company is equally critical to them.

In the short term, working for such companies can be really cool. They usually have severe problems retaining serious engineering talent, so if you walk in there with substantial skills, they'll think you walk on water when you bang out a few lines of Bash or Python for basic housekeeping tasks. But you'll soon notice very high churn, or, at the other extreme, lots of people who have been there 10-20 years and have become deeply entrenched maintenance specialists in the company's internal systems and processes. This looks like tech work to them and others, but robs them of portable marketable skills. The moment they are laid off, they'll find that the world has moved on and that they have vanishingly little to offer other employers.

Can we get "Ask HN" prepended to this? I was completely confused when this headline didn't navigate to a blog post.

I'm going to frame this a little different... More as the difference between a high growth startup, a big public company, and a small stable company.

The large public company aims for predictability. They thrive based on economies of scale, which are achieved through standards. They work a lot on systems. Decisions frequently seem irrational, because things that look good in a unit get sacrificed for the benefit of the whole. Depending on the company, compensation can be better. Benefits usually are. (Google outpays YC, but Walmart may not outpay a small retailer) There is a long gap between idea and impact, but the impact can be huge. (One person can help a big company cut $20mm in costs - if the PE is 20, that's $400mm in enterprise value) But you may spend months fighting petty battles. Bigger companies tend to be more cost focused. Hours tend to be more predictable. If you're a superstar, you can usually stay employed even if there are ups and downs. (Big companies have layoffs, but the top 10% can usually find work elsewhere inside)

In high growth startups you have a lot of autonomy to make decisions. The distance between idea and implementation is very small. The energy and urgency is much higher, even on things that may seem small. Compensation is much more equity based. Hours are much less predictable. You can do a fantastic job and still get fired if the company implodes.

Small stable companies are usually family businesses, and frequently run as such. You get treated well by the owners, but you'll never be one of them. Benefits can be good, though overall comp will not be outstanding. They can be very friendly places to work, where everyone knows everyone.

My recommendation is to do both in your career. Working at a big company can teach you how to work with a lot of stakeholders, big teams, management and often working with mature stuff. It comes often at the price of bureaucracy and a "can't do" attitude. You may also feel underchallenged. In a small company you learn how do things in a more direct way and often have more flexibility.

Both are good things to experience.

Exactly my experience after working several years for many big corporations and startups. I would add that might expect much worst work-life balance as a foreign developer working for an american startup.

bigco - There's going to be a fair amount of project management and process (which is absolutely needed). Part of the learning curve will be learning how to effectively work across teams/departments. Also you will probably see a reorg/layoff at some point. It won't be as bad as you imagine. Expect at least some training and formal learning opportunities.

old smallco/startup - Can be very ad-hoc. Someone needs a new computer? Run to the store. Some things you might expect may be missing such as HR or tech support. You may not receive much if any training.

startup - Generally longer hours, generally exciting as you're creating something new. product, client launches.

My previous job was at a company that fluctuated between 15-25 people, not exactly a startup so you can call it "old smallco". My current job is at a company of 4-5 thousand with multiple offices in different countries. My experience is as follows

Pros of "smallco":

- Felt like a family business, friendly atmosphere, great relationship with everyone

- You get to do things outside your job spec and consequently acquire a broad range of skills

- Design freedom, your input is never dismissed/ignored

- "Vertical" knowledge of the product (design, manufacturing, testing), familiarity with every component even if completely unrelated to your skills

- Virtually no bureaucracy, very small time-to-fix (from identifying a problem to deploying the fix)

- Never boring


- Job insecurity. The company can basically go under any day

- Salary is not amazing, raises are infrequent and small

- At some point you are basically the expert in your domain. This means there's none more experienced than you to teach you new things or give you some great insight

- No rigorous process, minimal documentation, you basically end up hacking together stuff as you go

Pros of bigger company:

- Higher job security, better salary, benefits and career opportunities

- Better process, your work is more organized

- Plenty of people around you that can help you learn and advance your skills


- Little freedom to design, you need to stay in your "lane", improvisation is a no-no. This is not bad per se, it's just not as exciting

- Months go by and you still don't know 1/4 of the people on your floor. Relationships are more formal

- Bureaucracy is sometimes infuriating. Need another chair? send an e-mail to the correct department, wait a day or two. Need to use your favorite text editor instead of the company standard? You need approval from your manager.

Never worked in a behemoth like google, ms, intel,etc. but I expect the pros/cons to be even more accentuated.

Big companies are a safer bet. The company should be around in a few years, they have established best practices, good compensation, normal hours (~40/week). Even if one later deiced to work at a small company, it helps to have gained the experience and credential of working at the big company first.

Other comments have good observations about big vs small.

One of the main markers of a startup is there tends to be One Big Challenge to get the company to The Next Level (generally talked about as a funding round, but that's just a convenience). Initially you're finding product / market fit, then you're figuring out a scalable go-to-market, then you're scaling the product, then you're launching a new product, etc.

It's weird to go through one of these transitions, because you'll need to change your focus pretty drastically. Sometimes you'll feel sidelined, because your department isn't the one primarily on the hook. If you're figuring out how to build a sales team, engineering gets chill and potentially complacent. The most successful startups have leaders that paint a clear picture that gets all departments working autonomously towards the same goal.

This is different than a smallco, because without a war chest of cash, your options are more limited. Because cash flow dictates the cadence of the business, and that's never going to change. This can feel more stable, but does mean you'll have to occasionally make hard choices that delay a valuable project or work on something outside your speciality.

If in Smallco or startco, you have toxic co-workers you have toxic or politically aggressive co-workers, you'd better be very savvy on how to deal with them because you can't avoid them. In bigco, it's easier to isolate yourself from politics because you may have co-workers who are more willing to deal with them so you don't have to.

Here are some thoughts I wrote up recently comparing my previous work at Google to my current role at YC, written from the perspective of an individual-contributor software developer: https://corbt.com/posts/2017/10/28/small-companies-and-the-p...

Both workplaces are great, and while I'm personally happier at YC I could see the decision going the other way for somebody with different preferences.

Generalized personal observations: Stability: startup, small company, bigco Pay:smallco,startup,bigco Personal growth: bigco,smallco,startup Technical growth:bigco,smallco,startup Hassle:bigco,smallco,startup

Piling on...

BigCo: constant criticism and "evaluation" of your performance. Emphasis on meeting whatever deadline was decided internally. Lots of people on your project who you don't know what they do.

>Emphasis on meeting whatever deadline was decided internally. Lots of people on your project who you don't know what they do.

The most important defense against this is your manager, who can keep your team away from projects with nonsense deadlines and goals. That's why, when you take any job, you need a good manager and hopefully your manager's manager is good as well. Otherwise all the foolishness from above will roll down to you.

If the entire division is full of these kind of nonsense projects, chances are the good managers will leave. Don't work at these places unless you have no choice.

Here's something I've noticed when working at a big company. It's extremely easy to get vendors talking to you. They will always call you back. It's actually kind of a big deal, if solutions from third parties can offer significant benefits to what you're working on and you have budget to spend.

The flip side is that they always call you. You can't stop them calling you, even after you've told them multiple times you're interested.

I think this is an artificial separation. There are only 2 kind of companies - those which make money and those which don't. For real experience , imho, I would suggest to work for the 1st.

I think you're misunderstanding the question. This is like someone asked what is the difference between beer, wine, and hard alcohol and your reply is "there are only two kinds of drinks: those that get you drunk and those that don't". Duh. They want to know more about the experience of the types, not to be dismissed.

My point is, using your analogy, you can get drunk with all 3, but what matters is people you are drinking with.

Except most startups start at the latter and strive to become the former. So you advocate avoiding any pre-profitability company?


Over 20 years in the workforce, here's my notions from working for:

3 big-corps (over 30,000 employees each)

- Huge well organized career ladder

- lots of corporate resources for growing a career

- more possible to change jobs without changing companies, usually through changes in divisions

- good places to move up title-wise between smaller companies

- work tends to be more specialized, you'll end up doing really only one kind of work and if you want to do something else you need to change jobs internally

- less flexibility and personal touches

- benefits are usually pretty good

- you will be not much more than a number to the higher organizational units in the company

- can get you positioned to work on hugely impactful work that will affect millions of people

- time to impact can be very long...

- tend to be very bottom-line focused and conservative

- lots of processes and procedures

- as a performer, lower stress, as you move up management ranks gets medium stressed

- may be a dozen or more layers between the lowest employee and the CEO

- hiring and recruiting is a well oiled machine

- these companies decide where they want to be and simply put muscle behind to make it happen

1 med-corp (< 2,000 employees)

- definitely some aspects of working for a big-corp, mostly bureaucratic nonsense

- they're trying really hard to become a big-co so more flexibility and risk taking is possible

- jobs tend to be less specialized in some cases

- less opportunity to move around, but you'll also find that these are the places with 20+ year employees

- tend to have better benefits in order to attract talent from big-co, but can't always match on pay (often in denial about the state of the market)

- feels like several small-corps (~100) in practice due to divisional structure, even the lowest employee is only 5-6 steps from the CEO

- most tasks are 1-5 people deep, so if one person isn't good, they can usually scrounge up another person who can take it on

- recruiting is functional, but thin

- growth desires can sometimes get in the way of sustaining operations

1 small-corp (~100)

- I didn't actually have a good experience at this place, so I may be colored by it

- there's often more people available to take on specialized tasks, but still lots of multi-hat wearing

- most tasks are 1 person deep, so if they aren't good, the entire company feels it and grinds to a halt

- very easy to get overwhelmed picking up slack for less capable staff

- everybody knows everybody

- organizational "feel" will be deeply linked to the personality of the C-level execs, they'll know you by name and have a reputation for you in their mind

- a good size to put behind one major product push, or 5-6 small ones, but might be too few people to handle

- are often in the middle of huge growth which means everything is in chaos

6 tiny-cos (<20 staff)

- imagine every kind of job there is, welcome to doing all of them, often at once

- in terms of professional capacity, I grew the most in these kind of companies (while career titles grew the most in big-corps)

- if you have a good team, can be extremely rewarding

- better than 90% chance that things will go bust and you'll experience hours and stress unlike anything you can imagine

- everybody is customer support and sales

- absolutely no room not to pull your own weight

- company direction is dictated almost entirely by the capabilities of just a handful of core people...who may not even be the C-levels or founders

- work should be very focused on getting an MVP out the door and getting initial customers, then moving up to the next size

- often are getting ready to grow very fast which can be very tough

- everything is always in chaos, but you have huge impact on the company almost every day

- I love working in these places, but can't do them back to back, the stress is crippling

>feels like several small-corps (~100) in practice due to divisional structure, even the lowest employee is only 5-6 steps from the CEO.

I worked for a med-corp (~3000 people) that was like this because they had spent 10 years growing by acquiring other companies, but had done a poor job of really integrating all these disparate products/teams.

One of the best parts of that job was that every org was very different. Some were legacy products that ran on maintenance revenue and technical support. Others were fast paced and were focused on the product/engineering team improving the product. Some orgs had "hero" culture where people would rather put out a fire than prevent it.

I met lots of different people, got to see and work with a lot of different perspectives, and learned a lot. As you said, there were plenty of great people with 10+ years of experience who were 10X multipliers on my own education.

The company eventually paid for their inability to integrate these products and teams by getting acquired by a private equity firm. It was fun while it lasted!

for career ladders at diff companies, its pretty cool to look at http://levels.fyi

I'm not exactly a prolific poster, but if you look at my post history, you can probably get some additional insight on the BigCo situation especially non-tech. One thing I'd like to talk about is the bureaucracy in big companies, which is often criticized but actually has some rationality to it:

To some, the bureaucracy seems like a byzantine game with unwritten rules designed to have you fail, but it's actually a lot simpler and far less nefarious than that. What it really comes down to is that BigCo has a lot of leaders aligned across a lot of functions, and getting large, impactful things that HN-types like to do will generally require buy-in across multiple leaders and their managers. You have to get good at building consensus to get buy-in, and that means thinking very hard about your ideas and the value proposition to the organization as a whole, but then also to the individual stakeholders. Critical thinking and analytic skills are very important for sure, but you need some measure of emotional intelligence and soft skills to see things through. This still matters in a smaller org, but bigger companies tend to get proportionately more top-heavy, and that means more people to influence to get a big idea through.

I've said this on HN before, that it's been my experience that startups and smaller companies take a dim view of big company talent. I'd challenge that, as people who have been successful in getting big things done in a big company likely had to overcome a lot to do it, and that's a set of skills you want as you start to grow and scale.

With all of that said, I'm leaving my management post with a BigCo at the end of this month to join an established startup, hopefully to help them scale the sorts of processes that I'm good at - and is probably at best a lateral in terms of my current level. I've always wanted to try it, and I figure in my mid 30's it's now or never, and somehow I've convinced my family that we should go 2500 miles west to the Bay Area to do it. This isn't to say one is better than the other, but I'm absolutely certain that the variety of experience will make me a better leader going forward. Some of the best advice I ever heard (from a former CFO and current board member of a BigCo), which I will pass on here, is to take advantage of opportunities that will broaden your horizons and make you an overall better leader - even if that opportunity might not have the same "prestige" in its level, job title or brand recognition. There's a lot of competition as we progress in our careers, and sometimes being that person who has "done that" versus some vague exposure in a prior management rotation, will get you ahead. Try on a few different hats, see what fits.

From the personal growth perspective;

Bigco can mean being constantly surrounded by experts and having to compete with more experienced coworkers to get the fun projects or extra responsibility that make a job rewarding. It can also mean lots of easy learning from well experienced coworkers.

Smallco can mean less expert coworkers to learn from but lots of room to grow and lots of experience gained from extra responsibility.

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