May 1, 2017

Office Hours: Working at a Startup vs Working at a Large, Established Company

What to expect. The ups. The downs. The importance of Googling your way to victory.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

At a large corporation, regardless of the field, most entry-level jobs look pretty similar: an assistant or associate-level title, a manager who knows exactly what you’re working on, and consistent, predictable, often repetitive work—tasks that closely resemble the bullet points on the job description.

If you decide to work at a startup, it’s a lot harder to know what’s coming your way. But after helping more than 500 VFA Fellows launch their careers at startups across the country, we can shed some light on what to expect—and how working at a startup might impact your career later on.

So, what even is a startup?

When you read the word “startup,” what comes to mind? Three programmers guzzling Red Bull in someone’s aunt’s garage? Or maybe a Silicon Valley tech behemoth with a buzzed-about IPO and an office kitchen lined with $400 juice machines?

If so, let’s start over. The startup ecosystem in the US is much more diverse—and much more interesting—than what most mainstream narratives would have you believe.

For every tech startup with millions in venture capital and an in-house masseuse, there’s a bootstrapped operation making upright furniture, streamlining the logistical headache that is fleet management, or helping local entrepreneurs open up their own escape rooms across the country.

Because they can look so different, no precise formula can tell you if a company is a startup or not. But generally speaking, a startup is an early-stage venture that’s in search of a profitable business model—one that can be scaled up rapidly as demand for the product grows. Often, it’s a company that decided to take a stab at solving a knotty, complicated problem—the types of issues that make you say: It’s 2017, how is there not a better way to do this yet?

Most startups have fewer than around 80 employees. (The difference between working at a 5 person company and a 60 person company is pretty vast, but we’ll talk more about that later.)

So, Facebook was a startup in its early years, but it’s too large and established to be considered one now. Same goes for Instagram, Dropbox, Airbnb, Snapchat, Uber—you get the picture. It’s not the type of work that makes a startup, but the size, the pace, and the approach.

How is working for a startup different from working for a more established organization?

Your responsibilities will change more frequently.

The biggest difference between a job at a startup and a job at a bigger, more traditional company is the rate at which things change.

At a large corporation, you might do the same set of tasks for several years, until someone above you retires or gets a promotion. At a startup, your role and responsibilities will evolve frequently, even multiple times a year. Within six months, you might be doing something significantly different from the role you were hired to do. That means your skill set will have to grow at an equally fast clip.

The type of work you perform will necessarily change based on the organization’s current challenges. Whether launching a new product, working with a big client for the first time, redesigning the website, or trying a new marketing campaign, startups are always experimenting. If you’re committed to learning and adding value, your priorities will shift with every trial and error.

Generally speaking, the smaller the startup, the more frequently you’ll be picking up new responsibilities—because there are simply fewer people to tackle any given challenge. At a startup with 40 or 50 employees, you might have a fairly well-defined role. At a startup with 4 or 5 or even 15 people, you’re going to be doing a lot of blocking and tackling.

You’ll need to solve problems on your own.

At a large, established company, most roles are highly specialized, and when a new problem occurs, it will be addressed by the person or team with that specific set of skills. If you try to solve a problem that isn’t “owned” by your department, you’re likely to step on some toes.

At a startup—especially a very small one—nearly every problem is an opportunity for you to step in and add value. Your coworkers are more likely to appreciate an action-oriented, problem-solving approach.

You’ll have the opportunity to experiment.

Identifying and solving problems has one major professional upside: it allows you to grow your skill set and try new things.

If you technically work in marketing but want to gain experience as a programmer or designer, jumping in where you see the need can be a great way to learn and grow (as long as you keep up on your core responsibilities).

You probably won’t be managed super closely

At most large companies, being a manager means keeping a close eye on the people beneath you. It means fairly rigid expectations, a well-defined breakdown of responsibilities, and a good amount of time spent teaching new hires how to do their job.

At a small company, it’s likely that your manager will be too busy tackling their own projects to spend a lot of time managing you. You’ll have a lot of autonomy—and if you want to succeed, you’ll have to learn how to manage yourself. This means: setting deadlines for yourself, Googling your way to victory, asking for help when you need it, and probably burning some midnight oil.

So, what do startup employees actually do all day?

Generally speaking, if you work at a startup, you are either building a product or selling it.

At early stage companies, there’s less need for internal departments, like human resources and accounting. It often makes more sense to outsource tasks like office management and bookkeeping, or to have different members of the team pitch in rather than hire a specific person to do the work.

Building and selling, though, will always be core functions. Depending on the role, and the size of the company, sometimes you might be doing a little bit of both.

Here’s what titles and roles could look like at a typical software company for entry-level employees:

On the building side, you might have a job title like software developer, product engineer, UX/UD guru, product manager, or quality assurance specialist.

On the sales side, your title might include phrases like business development associate, account manager, content creator, customer acquisition, or community manager.

Spanning both sides are roles that involve things like operations, data analysis, and customer onboarding/success.

Don’t you have to know how to code to work at a startup?

Some people opt to work for large companies because they assume startups require programming skills. If you’ve heard that before, repeat after us:

You do not have to know how to code to be an integral part of a startup.

The vast majority of our Fellows—over 75%, in fact!—work in non-technical roles. We don’t need to tell you how valuable coding can be. But it’s absolutely not a mandatory skill to add value and have an amazing career at a startup.

The truth is really simple: startups need smart, dedicated people tackling all kinds of problems — technical and otherwise — in order to succeed.

Don’t think that you have to go the corporate route just because you don’t know Java from PHP.

If you work for a startup instead of a large corporation, how will that impact your career down the line?

One of the great things about the rapid pace of startup life is that you’ll have the opportunity to learn a variety of transferable skills.

Someone who has demonstrated that she can build or sell a product will always be a coveted hire, and will be able to find a job at a two-person startup or at a giant company.

Someone with a deep understanding of data analysis, or great community or content creation skills, will be able to perform those roles across any industry.

In every business, there are customers, there is a product, there is data, and there are operational challenges. By working at a startup you’ll learn how these pieces fit together, and be ready to apply that knowledge anywhere.

Experience working at a growth stage company is intrinsically valuable to other growth stage companies (and to larger ones with an entrepreneurial bend or experimental wing). Regardless of what you’re working on day-to-day, you’ll be constantly interacting with folks who have other functional roles, and these skills will rub off on you and make you better rounded, with a deeper understanding of how businesses are built.