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I'll graduate next year and the campus drive has secured me a couple of jobs with what we call the "big" companies. But I had approached a startup recently as I really liked their projects and am also currently working with them, as an intern (though I work from home, keeping contact with my mentor there). I like the way they work, and they're offering me a position of software engineer with a nice pay-package.

But the question is, if I join this startup as my first job, will I, should I choose to switch, be accepted in any of the "big" companies? I'm sure many of you must have encountered such a situation from either perspective - the job seeker or the employer.

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closed as off-topic by MichaelT, Bart van Ingen Schenau, GlenH7, Kilian Foth, Robert Harvey Oct 26 '13 at 17:05

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I think people work at startups for the freedom. Not the exit opportunities. –  BlackJack Oct 28 '11 at 23:10
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So far my happiness at companies has been inversely proportional to its size, although personal conflicts can happen anywhere. The larger the company, the more pointless my job seems. If you already know and like the start-up, why switch? –  Job Oct 29 '11 at 4:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The way I see it, you're asking the wrong question. When it comes to joining startups, the question isn't usually "is this the right time for me in my career". Instead, it's "am I the right kind of person to take/is this the right amount of risk for me".

Startups are not easily/well described in terms of career. They are better described in terms of risk.

There are loads of risks that you are taking on with a startup, including financial, personal life, health, legal and career ones. The potential rewards are commensurate - some succeed spectacularly, most fail, and some fail spectacularly. On average, the payoff is worth the effort. At a regular job, you'll see mediocre rewards, with the occasional above average and occasional below average spike. The top most rewards and worst failures are kept at a distance from you.

From a strict career perspective (do not discount the other components! think carefully of the financial, personal, health and other risks!), ask yourself whether:

  • You are generally a confident, self starter, who is comfortable taking personal responsibility for the next stage in his professional development.

As the least experienced member in a startup team, you may end up in an awesome situation, with a great mentor who takes loads of care to nudge you along in a good direction. Most likely, you'll be dropped into a warzone, and find yourself doing grunt-work which may not be useful for anything specific once you're done (and which you may not even be able to describe!). That is, unless you have the chutzpah and self drive to learn how to contribute

  • You are comfortable with failure

Most startups fail. Most likely, the startup you're joining will not succeed. Even if it does succeed, it will most likely (at least initially) fail you from a career perspective. Ask yourself if you are confident in the knowledge that, after the first one fails, you will come back stronger, learn your lessons and do it all over again. And again. And again.

  • You know how to offset risk

I've listed some of the major career risks. From this perspective, knowing how to offset risk means, among other things, that you can, or have already, find your own mentors, outside of the startup. You know how to balance your work/life and take on side projects for your own development, outside of work. You know your field and have a good map of where you want to go, and have done the due diligence on the startup to make sure that what they want you to do will teach you skills which match up with your long term goals

Startups are popular now, and there is an unusual amount of support available for starting them and joining them. If they are the right thing for you, this is a good time to go for it. But don't let that be a major factor in your decision. You may be the right kind of person for them later on in life, or not at all - in which case, joining one right now is probably a bad idea.

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Too ...much ...bold –  mbillard Jan 10 '12 at 22:07

Yes they should. Fresh grads are still young enough to handle the 80-hour weeks and the all-nighters. They are naive... er... I mean enthusiastic enough to work the 80-hour weeks for little pay to do something cool. Once you get older and have a family and kids, you will simply not be able to do anything of the sort. You won't have the time, the energy, or the enthusiasm.

So my answer is, yes, you should join a startup fresh out of school. You should do something cool while you still can. Then when you are older, and you want more stability and better hours, you should join a big company.

Of course, there are always exceptions. If you get an offer from Google fresh out of school, you should probably take it.

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But my question is how do the biggies look at people who've gained their first industry experiences in small companies. When I want to switch to a big company, will I be accepted there? –  yati sagade Oct 29 '11 at 8:42
    
@yati sagade: As far as I can tell this should not be a problem. For example, I have just switched jobs from a small startup to a large company. However, all I have is anecdotal evidence, so take it with a grain of salt. –  Dima Oct 31 '11 at 2:43
    
80 hour weeks in order to "do something cool"? Just remember you only have one youth when following this line of reasoning. –  joshin4colours Jan 10 '12 at 17:52
    
What if it were 80 hour weeks at Google or Facebook when they had just started? –  Dima Jan 10 '12 at 17:59
    
@Dima What if it were 80 hour weeks at MySpace or Pets.com? Working for a startup with dreams of "hitting it big" and becoming rich and famous is a poor choice IMO. Work for a startup because it suits your personality. –  joshin4colours Jan 10 '12 at 21:27

While I agree with Dima's response, there's also a different side to the coin that you should definitely not dismiss:

Especially working from home, while the technology is cool (I'm sure), your ability to learn from experts in the field is greatly lessened. In a startup (or any other small company), there are a select few that you can learn from, whether it's through their code or any number of forms of mentoring.

In a large company, there are (generally) many more experts that you can latch onto and soak up knowledge from. Not only that, but there are (again, generally), multiple domains in which you can specialize in a larger company and domain experts in each of those who can help guide you.

Another perk to joining a large company is that if you don't like what you're currently doing, then chances of switching gears a bit and targeting another domain is much better than a startup: If you don't like what you've gotten yourself into, more times than not, the only way out is the door.

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No, When I graduate, I'll be joining them where they're located. It's just the internship that is done from home :) –  yati sagade Oct 29 '11 at 8:40
    
Some large companies are surprisingly closed to moving within the company. Others are much more open, your mileage may vary. –  Cervo Oct 30 '11 at 2:01

Joining a startup as an entry-level is a bad idea IMHO if the startup will not have you working directly under a group of senior developers who can take the time to mentor you.

Startups are much faster paced, and they don't have time to teach you the best practices.

Here is my take on it, if you join the big company:

  • You will have a known and recognized name on your resume

  • You will work with a large assortment of professionals from a variety of backgrounds

  • You will have more flexibility to explore where you fit in the company, you can transfer to other departments and divisions if the work isn't to your liking.

  • If you are not a good fit for the corporate world and you are unhappy, then you will appreciate moving to a startup and appreciate startup culture even more.

I started out corporate and went to startup because I learned that I hate working in a big company. I truly appreciate my job now much more than I feel I would have if I didn't have the bad experiences early in my career.

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So, what do you hate about large companies? –  Job Oct 29 '11 at 4:50
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@Job Probably that they dashed my utopian libertarian fantasies that intelligence and hard work will be noticed and elevate me within the company. I found out after a while that the only people who got ahead connived, manipulated and stood on peoples shoulders to elevate themselves. I also found that politics was more important than being right, especially if you accurately predicted looming disaster that executives were blind to. –  maple_shaft Oct 29 '11 at 13:37
    
@maple - I think small companies are worse. You have the kingdom builders that actively protect their domain. Nobody will challenge them even the boss's because after all, if they leave they're the only ones that understand their kingdom. If you show any ability beyond the top dogs then they will actively knock you down so as to maintain their spot in the pecking order. Sure, it is harder to get noticed in a big company unless your mouth spews manure, but if you are good, you will eventually get noticed and rewarded. It's hard not to get noticed when everyone wants you on their team. –  Dunk Jan 10 '12 at 18:45
    
I ran with a flailing (20 years) startup and the worst part was being a fresher trying to instill best practices. Best part of working for a big (3000+ sw employees) company is that I have several senior folks that can advise me even when they aren't always right. –  Rig Jan 11 '12 at 5:10

In my experience, early in your career it is even more important to gain a broad range of experience. This can be achieved regardless of size of the company. It depends more on how the company is managed, its culture and whether in your role you will be exposed to the things you want to learn. Start-ups may be a valid choice depending on your personal situation and again on your role in that company.

In the past large companies were considered to be more stable than small companies, let alone start-ups. With restructurings and rounds of lay-offs at even the largest companies none of the roles are safe anymore. Things can change in a blink.

My recommendation to you would be: Being in the early stages in your career you should look for a role in a company where you can learn and ramp up your experience. As a hiring manager, I'm looking more for what you have done and learned and what your experience is rather than what company you have worked for. You having worked for a start-up would not put you at a disadvantage, and I have hired for companies as small as 50 people and as big as over 100,000 people.

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+1 for pointing out that large companies arent necessarily risk free. –  GrandmasterB Oct 29 '11 at 6:24
    
That was very motivating and comforting, John :) –  yati sagade Oct 29 '11 at 11:20

It's going to come down to your personal preference. You should weigh which one pays more. You can balance the insurance, as a full-time job will include those benefits but I don't think a startup will. Though if you're under 27 you can remain on your parents insurance if they allow you to. Which job is going to push you as a programmer and keep you interested. What are your long-term goals? If you want to one day make your own startup, I would work for one now to get the inside look at how to manage a successful startup. Do you see the startup you're interested in growing into something large?

I think startups offer more exciting things than a job at a desk. My personal preference is the startup, but you have to weigh the pros and cons.

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Hi Cornelius, Stack Exchange isn't a social network: asking people to contact you for help in answers is not appropriate. –  user8 Jan 10 '12 at 21:21

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