Pros and cons of working at a startup or corporation

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Recruiting season is upon us, and students all around campus are diligently preparing for interviews and doing practice business case studies. If you are contemplating whether to intern or work at a corporation versus a startup — a common choice for Berkeley students — here are some advantages and disadvantages to consider.

One benefit of being employed at a corporation is that they offer stability: You know how much you are on track to earn at established corporations. If you’re instead looking for short-term financial gain, equity or partial ownership is a huge draw to joining a startup. If the startup you work for is successful, you could become extremely wealthy within a few years. However, taking a portion of your salary in equity can be a huge gamble because if the startup fails, you will have lost earning potential at a bigger company. 

Big companies will often have more opportunities for mentorship and guidance from seasoned employees. Many even have designated and formal leadership roles and programs. For example, some big tech companies offer 20% of projects that you can take on outside of your core role so you can learn about other departments and explore new roles. Moreover, promotional pathways are often built into roles, so you have a better idea of how you will move up and grow in the company. 

Corporations are also more hierarchical than startups, and employees tend to have more defined roles. Because of this, internship and full-time roles can be more specialized, in that you are hired within a specific team under a bigger department and are expected to do only one type of task. While this can enable you to hone your skills in that position, your job may feel tedious or repetitive at times.

This past summer, I interned in big tech in small and medium-sized business sales, a tiny subset of the sales organization at the company. I didn’t have much of a chance to learn about other types of sales, such as large client sales or midmarket sales, and at times, this felt limiting. 

Startups are often the exact opposite. They provide opportunities to wear multiple hats, so you are less likely to feel as though you are tied to or stuck in a single role. When I interned in marketing at a startup, I was tasked with doing consumer research, analyzing emerging trends and case studies, coming up with a content marketing strategy and creating a content library from scratch. At a large company, these tasks would all be individual roles, but at a startup, I was able to explore them all in one summer. 

This freedom and flexibility can be exciting, especially for young people just beginning their careers. Still, because you may constantly be hopping around from task to task, working at a startup can often feel unstructured, and it is easy to feel lost. It is worth thinking about what kind of environment you work best in — being told what tasks to do and how to do them, or having flexibility in the kinds of goals you reach and learning to achieve them on your own. 

For companies that have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees, one significant drawback is that you may not always be able to see the impact of your individual work. 

During my time interning in big tech, the revenue I generated and the sales I closed were combined with my teammates to give an overall total amount of ad revenue, so it was more difficult for me to see the significance of my own sales in the grand scheme of things. You may be more likely to feel like a “little fish in the big sea” at a corporation. Corporations tend to be more bureaucratic and have stricter policies and protocols for making decisions, so it can also feel like things move very slowly, and you don’t have as much control over how the company operates. 

At a startup, you can often see the tangible results of your own work more clearly and quickly: Your content could be created and posted on the same day, whereas it could take weeks, if not months, at a corporation. 

While the points I’ve outlined above are all relevant, I believe community is one of the most important factors to consider in assessing your fit at a startup or a corporation. Because you are on a smaller team, you may be working in a more intimate setting such as a WeWork or even the founder’s garage. Getting to know a small group of people really well and learning and growing together can foster a cooperative culture and sense of community that may be harder to find at a large company. 

Ultimately, you should evaluate what learning environment, structure or level of flexibility is most important to you. While you can work on high-impact projects at either a corporation or a startup, the pace of work is something that can have an impact on whether you feel fulfilled in your job. Given that some young people may have less monetary or family obligations, I think that taking the risk of working for a high-growth startup early on can be an exciting and unique start to your career, given the fact that corporate jobs will always be there to transition into later.

Contact Amrita Bhasin at [email protected].