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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Startup or Corporate: Which is Better for Your Career?

When it comes to the classic job-search duel between startup and corporate, you probably know the basics of each type of workplace: Large companies have set hours, but startups are more flexible. Large companies offer benefits; startups offer free food. (And free travel. And free concierge services. And office pets.)

But what’s not talked about quite as often is whether a startup or corporate job is better for your career in the long run. Think about it: A startup may provide more flexible hours now, but will it give you the ability to move up into a senior management position in the future? A corporate job may be the perfect place to get structured on-the-job training, but will it give you the creative thinking skills you need to open your own business in a few years?

After working in both environments, I’ve been exposed to the benefits and shortcomings of each option. So, if you’re undecided about which path to take, consider these questions to help you make the most of your career—both now and in the future.


Do You Know What Your Dream Career Would Be, or Are You Still Deciding?

When I worked at a startup, I had a lot of roles: I managed a team of employees, wrote training manuals, designed internship flyers, answered the phone, and interviewed prospective employees (and that’s only the beginning!). We only had a few people on the team, and we were all expected to pitch in wherever needed. And at the time, that was great—because I had no idea what I really wanted in a long-term career.

When I made the move into a corporate position, I had a better idea of my talents and the things I enjoyed doing—and so, I was able to take a more focused position, without having to wear all those other “hats.”

Overall, corporate positions tend to have narrower roles: If you’re a manager, you manage. If you’re a business analyst, you create reports. And so, if you already know the role you want or the direction you want to go in, this type of environment can really help you grow and hone those skills—without having to focus on a bunch of other responsibilities.

If, on the other hand, you’re not quite sure what kind of gig you want to end up in, a startup role can help you gain skills and insight into multiple positions. (And, you may just decide that’s exactly what you want in the long run—a dynamic job with a variety of responsibilities.)


What Resources Do You Need to Reach Your Goals?

Even though I graduated from college with a degree in management, I still felt like I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I landed my first leadership role. And since it was in a startup under a boss who didn’t have much more experience than I did, most of my mentoring came from management books and online resources; I didn’t really have an in-office mentor.

When I entered a corporate position, I found that I had many more resources at my disposal: My co-workers had a wealth of knowledge, my bosses (and their bosses) had years and years of experience, and there were guides and manuals for everything.

Now, here’s where the big difference comes in: What do you personally need to succeed? If you thrive on taking risks, taking initiative to get the resources you need, and learning from trial and error, you may not need the resources of a corporate position to reach your eventual career goals.

But if you prefer that readily available vault of knowledge and experience—and need it to advance to the position you want in the timeframe you expect—you might find a corporate position more helpful. It all depends on how you work and learn best.


What Kind of Influence Do You Want—and How Quickly?

I’ll admit, I was naive when I entered the corporate world. Even though I knowingly entered the company at the bottom of the organization, I didn’t expect to get so frustrated with my lack of influence—but the reality was, I essentially had no say when it came to decisions that were made about me and my team. This was, of course, after I’d left behind a position at a startup, where I had much more authority over and visibility into business decisions.

In general, you’re going to have a lot less influence in a big corporate office than you would in a small company. And if you have a C-level position in your sights, it’ll probably take you a lot longer to get there.

On the other hand, you’ll probably have much more insight into the inner workings of a startup office, as well as the ability to voice your opinion—and actually have it heard. However, moving up in rank may look a lot different. If the position above yours is CEO, it may not open up—ever. And so, you may have to expand your role in other ways, making the route a lot less straight to get to your eventual career goal.


What Environment Will Really Help You Succeed?

Overall, you have to consider which factors are essential to help you work toward your goals. Will you do better with an always evolving, “think outside the box”-type mentality, or a structured environment that allows you to methodically work toward your goals? Neither is better than the other—just different. And it completely depends on your personality, work style, and unique needs to determine which will be the best for you and your career.