Should you choose to work for a startup?

Big Corp vs Startup, Should you choose to work for a startup?

Next week, I will be representing Nautilus Cyberneering at a developer event in the island of Tenerife. Nautilus is a startup company developing open-source software and is currently growing its team. The fact that I am attending to network and recruit potential contributors and team members has made me think about my career and ask me the question: should you choose to work for a startup?

Looking back at my career

I remember that my parents always wanted me to start out working for a large corporation.

My parents’ belief mirrored what many people still think: Larger companies are safer, stabler, and offer greater opportunities for personal and financial growth.

Today though, looking back at my career, I must say that I never tread along this path. My parent’s ideas though well-intended and reasoned did not materialize. On the other hand, though, I must say that I gave it a shot. During my last year of college, I interviewed with several of them, but in the end I chose to work for a start-up.

In this post, I will share my experience during my career working for startups, why I chose to become part of their team, and why I have always preferred working for startups or small companies.

At the end of the post, I will also share my view on why I think that large corporations are not necessarily the right choice at times depending on what you seek or how your personality is.

The first time working for a Startup

I remember that I went through several interviews with Unilever, Intel, Bain Consulting company, etc. but in the end, life showed me another option that I found more interesting, working for a tech startup. The startup I chose to work for was called Inflow. I consider myself very lucky for having had this opportunity and have been part of it.

Reasons why I joined Inflow

At the time I joined the company for various reasons:

  • First, I liked the people who represented the company and whom I met.
  • Second, during the visit to the company, I saw pulsing energy and a proactive positive attitude combined with a down-to-earth practical mindset where everyone helped everyone.
  • Thirdly, even though the company was growing rapidly and it had already over 100 employees when I joined, it did not feel bureaucratic in any way.
  • Fourth, it was the year 2000 and they were in an interesting industry, data hosting, and expanding into Europe.
  • Fifth, they gave an undergrad who had slipped into a presentation to master students an opportunity.

I will never forget that presentation, it was very enjoyable and interesting and I enjoyed the energy from the presenter. The presenter’s name was Dan Rojas, and later on Dan happened to become my superior in Ireland where we opened the company’s first European Data Center.

My experience at Inflow

While at Inflow in the USA I spent several months training and got to know the internal organization and operations. The company was not likely the standard startup since it had a lot of structure with established processes. In hindsight I factor that this was due to founders and responsible managers common military background.

Also another thing that I came to appreciate was the internal management style. Our managers were always leading by example. Their main goal was to serve their team by constantly getting rocks out of the way. If you needed something you could just go ask for help and the would act. Additionally you were also expected to be proactive, which I loved and thrived on.

My first project

To give you an example, in Ireland, my first project was to set up the data center’s networking cable infrastructure. Initially it appeared to me as an overwhelming task. The reason for this was my ignorance about the topic. I was a recent business major with no technical knowledge in this area.

I proactively contacted my technical colleagues in the USA and discussed everything with them. By the end I effectively set up the company’s most modern cabling infrastructure. We installed Cat 6E cabling which at that time was the latest in Ethernet cabling.

However there was one small detail that I had been unaware of. The cabling was not the standard within Inflow. This small detail made me receive a reprimand from Dan. He was right in giving it and I learned from this mistake, but he also said that I had done a good job since we now we had the most modern cabling infrastructure possible.

All in all, I spent a year at the company to later go help get my family’s business out of bankruptcy. I learned a lot about leadership, respect, process, documentation, and teamwork. In a way, I can say that this one year set the base how I work, collaborate, and perceive my role when managing others.

Later work at startups and small-sized companies

Hereafter I spent several years fixing and working in my family’s business. We got it out of bankruptcy, improved all its IT infrastructure and internal processes, and made it profitable again. It was a major feat. The first challenge I encountered was that many employees had given up on the company and its management, so I had to focus on building trust again in management and especially in me, a rookie and youngster in the eyes of almost all my 50 colleagues.

It took me some time but through leading by example as I had seen at Inflow I succeeded in doing so. Overall I must say, though the situation was dire and it took a lot of sacrifices. Nevertheless. I liked the experience since it gave me a lot of chance to try out ideas and implement changes quickly, and learn new things by doing.

This characteristic of small companies is what I have always appreciated. Their small size has usually not created the bureaucratic layers and processes yet so that it can move and implement change quickly. Besides this since there are not many employees, it is likely that you end up doing many different things, thanks to which you will get tremendous opportunities for growth and learning.

My experience working at larger companies

Now, on the other hand, even though I cannot say that I have ever worked for a large international corporation, with thousands of employees, the largest company group that I have worked for had over 150 employees and invoiced around 30 Million €.

Company culture and management style

The company was hierarchical, with department managers who were not very approachable and open to discussion and suggestions. Each department was measured and goals were set by higher management and the owner of the group.

Given this, each department had its own goals and agendas, not necessarily aligned and optimized. Information was not shared openly nor collaboration between departments was incentivized. There was no mutual trust and people were always blaming each other.

In addition, the leadership style was completely different. Managers did not solve problems for their team. They expected their team to solve problems and do as they were told. It was more management through commandment rather than actual leadership. Not very pleasant as you might imagine. I stayed there for two years and learned to maneuver this political departmental game as purchasing manager.

Observations from this period

During my time at this company and also when working with other companies such as suppliers etc. I came to appreciate the difficulties that bureaucratic structures bring with them and which elements originate it.


The single most important and relevant factor for me is leadership. Over the years I have learned that leadership defines how a company evolves on many fronts, since it sets the tone for:

  • Processes
  • Reporting
  • Goal setting
  • Resource allocation

These directly define the work environment an sets a template for as how people interact and behave inside the company and which agendas they develop.

People and culture

As a result of the previous the culture is shaped and it affects organization’s agility and internal degree of collaboration and sentiment. Elements that are crucial for long term development of the company as a living institution, but especially for the work environment that you will encounter if you join it.

As a matter of fact a company’s culture has proven always to be the most important factor when I was to choose to work for a startup or any other company.

Now, should you choose to work for a startup or a large corporation?

As usual, it depends. There are many things you need to consider.

From my experience startups always have these traits:

  • Can move faster
  • Are more flexible in their processes
  • Offer opportunities for employees to learn and grow quickly
  • Have less resources
  • Can make you resilient to working under stress

On the other hand, large corporations:

  • Are more bureaucratic and political
  • Have strict formal processes
  • Are often inflexible and slow to implement change
  • Have more resources
  • Do provide internal training and mentor programs
  • Have often an international setup

These two lists can be endless and here is a list of some additional articles on this topic that may interest you:

My advice to start out with

Know yourself

First and most important, give some thought to what you are looking for in your next job. It essentially depends your preferences. For instance, if you are proactive and like learning new things quickly and being able to try out new ideas, then working for a startup might be a good choice. However, if you prefer stability and a more formal work environment, then working for a large corporation might be a better fit.

Then on the other hand if you do not like political games etc. then a large corporation may not be the place for you and so on.

The all important company culture

A company is defined by their people, and in a startup even more so. It is a small growing company which is establishing itself and defining it operations. Given this, try to meet some members of the team, they will be a good indicator of whether you would like working with them, since you will likely see and work with them. Ask them for example about their day to day.

This is important so you get a good feeling of where you are getting into. You will be one of a few and people are more open and less hierarchical more like a group of friends or family. Usually everyone is expected to get things done so that everybody can make progress. Progress for which, from time to time you will end up doing all sort of things, sometimes not exactly related to your job, but things which need to be done. Also since things need to get done you will likely at times work with the CEO and other managers or departments.

This however, is not likely to happen in larger, and more mature companies such as corporations. Here, there is a good chance that the culture is already very developed and layers of processes exist which make it much more formal. Also, you will be one of many, so competition for positions will be fierce, and politics will be part of your career. In addition you will likely not meet anyone outside your department until you climb or work on cross-functional projects.

For me after 22 years out of college I think that the most important in choosing a company is its culture. People and culture are the core, and key to know if you will thrive in its environment. In fact, I think a lot about it and even another post on it here.

Final thoughts on whether to choose to work for a startup

These are just a few things that I would advise anyone to consider beforehand but some things you can only fully experience once you are inside a company. To give you an idea I will try to give some insight into this in another post in the future regarding Nautilus in my next post.

Now, do you have any experience working for startups or large corporations? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of each? Let me know in the comments below!