Corporate or start-up? The differences in the career lessons you learn

a team meeting in a conference room

When I was at uni, my dream job was to be a management consultant at one of the big 4 accounting firms. I wanted a position at one of these firms because I felt that big corporate’s provided you with incomparable learning opportunities. I believed that exposure to their resources was the best way to learn EVERYTHING. I still believe that experience at these firms is incomparable for those who successfully apply.

At the time, I didn’t think I’d be working in a startup when I graduated. My experiences now differ greatly from my counterparts working in large corporations. Whether you work for a small startup or a big corporation. Both have many lessons they can teach us. Here are some of my observations.

Corporate vs Start-up Culture.

The things you learn at large corporations seem unique to those environments. You get distinct insights into how successful enterprises run on a daily basis and you learn how to navigate internal politics within large corporations from an early stage. Large companies, more often than not, offer job security and stability for their employees. Whereas smaller businesses are less secure for lack of financial resources. Large companies’ financial resources often provide opportunities for training, learning, and development. It sounds like a DREAM!

company culture is important whether you're working in startup or a large corporation.

So, is there another way to develop business knowledge quickly? During my last year of university, I worked part-time at a start-up. I didn’t realise how big this opportunity was until I’d graduated. This opportunity helped me understand how corporate learning contrasts with start-up learning. There are many advantages to developing as a junior employee in a start-up. This includes: developing problem-solving skills, growth in discomfort, exposure to leadership, and personal influence on company culture.

Problem Solving.

When there are only 5 people in the company, everyone must multitask to figure out problems, even the ones that may be outside your remit. For me; this was organising the cluttered CRM system, streamlining unnecessarily long recruitment processes, and calculating the time restraints and capacity of our sales coaches. There is no formal training on the processes of such tasks. You still need to dive in and learn as you go. Not only has this developed my problem-solving skills, but it has given me a foundational understanding of how a business operates. I have developed the ability to see the entire business as one picture and have learnt to perceive threats to its survival.

Growth in discomfort.

With every employee forced to take more responsibilities than their job title prescribes, there is a constant uncertainty. You question yourself on whether you are doing the right thing. When COVID-19 hit, most of our recruitment contracts stalled. Our regular tasks changed, and we had to develop new ways of working.

I’d argue that much of ExP’s success directly results from the difficulty of the last few months. Everyone worried about the survival of the company. It was up to each individual to work at their best to see us through that crisis. Yes, all companies, small and large, faced difficulties during lockdown. However, it is difficult to replicate the same pressure felt in startups in larger companies. Personal failures aren’t as debilitating to the overall company. This only part of the extensive experience possible through being part of a start-up team. 

Exposure to leadership.

The feeling of uncertainty is partly because of the leadership qualities of our CEO. His transparency with our current financial pressures and his delegation of responsibility, enabled everyone to understand what was at stake. Some CEOs may feel it is important for employees to feel secure, and shy away from telling them negative news. I think this may work to the detriment of everyone involved.

Shout-out to John, our CEO, for his approach. His willingness to communicate difficulties with everyone empowered us to make better decisions. How is this relevant to start-ups? Well, at start-ups, you gain much more exposure to the C-level leadership. You work directly with them and can learn from them. This exposure is critical and impossible to replicate at large corporations.

Personal influence on company culture.

Organisations that have had little to no external investments have unique internal cultures. This is especially true of start-ups. Start-ups develop their corporate cultures from their employees. Your ability to influence company culture higher than in large organisations. Adding to that, you find where you belong faster. Your daily role will include covering tasks and projects that you would never have dreamed of, if you were working for a big corporation.

Working for a startup.

When you work for a company of 10 employees, you contribute 10% to the feel of the company. Therefore; you can influence the direction, and feel of the environment where you work. When you work for a company of 1000 employees, your contributions are still vital and add to the company’s success. However, your influence on the company seems hidden compared to your input at a start-up. Especially with company culture.

Learning and development.

I have a friend who recently got a job with one of the big 4. I was unsuccessful in my applications for all 4. I don’t believe in coincidences. It wasn’t meant to be. We can learn from every situation in life; whether good or bad. I have learned that if I’m constantly humble, diligent and hungry for learning, it doesn’t matter how a company perceives my abilities. No matter what results my applications bring, my potential is unlimited. I will learn what I need to at that point in my life. This realisation wasn’t immediate for me, and won’t be immediate for everyone. It takes a gradual mental shift.

Would I change anything?

Given the opportunity, would I change anything? Perhaps developing an attitude of learning earlier in life would have been beneficial. That being said; I wouldn’t know about the incredible opportunities available if I had changed my journey.

Yes, I advocate working at a start-up. Although, the underlying message and paradigm shift here is deeper than that. Change your mindset towards learning and personal development. I invite you to consider the quote below and remember that every day is an opportunity for learning. Regardless of your employment, health, or family circumstances.

“Education is yours to obtain. No one else can fain it for you. Wherever you are, develop a deep desire to learn.” – Russell M. Nelson.


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