Start-up v Corporate, which do you prefer?

Helen Anderson on October 08, 2018

In the software world, there are some very strong opinions on 'Corporate Life'. Some Start-ups want to stay that way forever, moving on new proj... [Read Full]
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I've worked both, and I prefer my current situation.

Small Stable "Family Owned" Company.

Like a start-up:

  • I can be a generalist
  • My contribution makes a big impact
  • More room to experiment
  • Small teams make collaboration easy

Benefits from corporate world that carried over:

  • Job stability
  • Tangible benefits (Health insurance, PTO and 401k as opposed to % stake)

Small Stable "Family Owned" Company.

I think longterm I'd love for this to be my life. Currently more on the startup spectrum, which is cool for a while. I wouldn't mind exploring the corporate scene in the future, but your option seems ideal.


Sounds like you're living the dream, with the best of both worlds.

How do you find being family-owned contributes to the culture of the workplace? I've worked in family-owned businesses, not in tech, and there was a different dynamic than when you're simply working for a manager who doesn't have so much of a stake in the success/failure of the business.


The biggest thing is that it's really hard to separate your individual goals from the goals of the business, so they tend to stay aligned very well. In a large corporate environment, it's easier to set yourself up as a technically successful employee, but that has a net value loss for the business.


It's more a scale or spectrum than an either/or proposition. Startups begin to take on more "corporate" characteristics as they grow. It's interesting to see exceptional cases like the French game developer Motion Twin, who have organized themselves along anarcho-syndicalist lines as a worker-owned cooperative and seem to be doing well by it. But the corporate system evolved symbiotically with the broader capitalist context they and we operate in so corporations that prioritize growth (and unchecked growth is the standard by which capitalists measure success) will have an easier time of it with the traditional approach.

From an individual perspective, I'd say it's most important to figure out what you like and don't like and calibrate accordingly. I like having day-to-day stability, health insurance, and considerable autonomy within a particular area of focus so I tend to gravitate towards small-but-not-tiny companies and maturing startups.


Thanks Dian, I hadn't heard of Motion Twin, sounds like a groundbreaking structure and corporate culture.

I agree that there is certainly some middle ground and it's not a matter of one v the other, but have found it interesting to see start-ups who are growing fast and are now ten years old trying to buck the corporate norms and keep the start-up culture.

My immediate team is small and has autonomy in our domain and our organisation is not so large that we are simply a cog in the machine which I like.


I was going to answer neither because I had bad experiences in both environments but this morning I read this tweet:

and read the linked article: Here's How (and Why) Entrepreneurs Are Getting Venture Investors Out of Their Companies

Basically some VC funded companies that were focusing only on growth (what VCs want, especially with the insane amount of money going around now) understood how that could kill them in the process.

This obviously reminds me of Basecamp and other similar companies that decided to aim for profitability from day one and sell a product to their customers.

I think it's important to ask ourselves from time to time, whom are skills are truly benefitting. It's not about "sticking it to the system" but to understand if we're truly creating software for a purpose or just to help someone aimlessly accrue capital.

The middle ground between "ACME corp" and "company whose purpose is to survive until sold to ACME corp" it's a good place to work :D

Another example:

A billion dollar company with no outside funding 100% owned by the cofounders. That's something!

Mailchimp's a really respectable company. As a user, it sometimes seems like they charge too much or could simplify things, but if it was so easy they wouldn't be so successful.

Also not afraid to be bold with their branding. The new design is a pretty radical departure, but really coool.


Neither. If you are working at a startup you're making VCs richer. If you are working at a giant corporation you are solidifying the status quo. I think there is something viable somewhere in between the two that is more sustainable and better for the general industry.


Yup. I think that is a valid way to go. There is too much exploitation in the VC ecosystem overall. I'm mostly just upset it took me so long to come around to that conclusion.

Think of the time it took the world to realize the Earth was not flat ;) We're in the middle of a revolution and it takes time to take the veil off old structures of exploitation.

Imagine the time it will take for us to realize the ancient Egyptians were really smart, built structures we can't understand, and probably didn't think the earth was flat... but I digress.

/End ancient civs were NOT dumb rant

Definitely, and there is lots of knowledge that is lost today because we think in terms of immediate profits for stakeholders.

Regarding the "earth was flat" thing, it is not meant to say that ancient civilizations were dumb, but that some systems of beliefs kept people from accessing a proper understanding of phenomenon, for the sole purpose of keeping them in the dark.

We live in a similar system of belief today (exemplified by the title of the post: "corporate vs start-up?" without offering alternatives, although that was probably not the intention of the OP), and it is keeping us from making the right decisions about technology and society.

The corporate model has brought the planet to its knees and the startup model has contributed to create the orwellian environment that was mentioned in a different post. We need to realize that and propose alternatives that do not socialize only the costs as is the case today.


In my opinion this is a rather sad way to look at the world. You seem more concerned with minimizing other people's benefit from your work than maximizing the utility.


No, it's very different. He seems very concerned about maximizing the utility and maximizing other people's benefits from the work, except that the people he targets are the 99% and not the 1%.

That's not sad, that's a very positive way to look at the world. Last time I checked the corporate world and the so called startup world as an institution have done nothing to make the planet a better place (ie increase benefits for the whole ecosystem) and everything to increase a very limited number of stakeholder's benefits.


I'm concered about equality which requires being aware of the status quo and how my work benefits those already in power. So instead of twisting my words into sadness consider your own worldview and how it is framed in terms a scalar metric called "utility". The world and the people in it are more than simple numbers and metrics.

Please do enlighten me on what you're doing for a living and the great strides you're making for equality.

No need to be snarky. One huge stride that I see in David's reply is that he is considering alternatives to the mainstream model because he realized that the model is not benefitting the people it should benefit.


At my age corporate is about the only route left to me now. Start-ups see gray hair and wrinkles and send me away. In the past, though, I have worked at a start-ups that are no longer around for one reason or another.

Financial stability is a big factor at either.

The start-ups I've worked at failed primarily due to financial mismanagement. Things like paychecks bouncing and various government agencies and law firms wanting to get your testimony can make you question working for a less than solid company.

While a big corporation might be "too big to fail" that doesn't mean your job will be protected. "Reductions in Force" are a way of life at many companies when stock prices drop and institutional investors demand action. Mid-sized private corporations being run by investment firms are perhaps the worst since they tend to nickel and dime every request.

There are some good jobs at larger corporations where you can get a lot of the benefits of a small company with good financial backing and benefits. These are the great if you can find them. However, these things can change suddenly due to upper management shifts. For example, I've know people who worked in such a situation for 10 or more years who were laid off when upper management decided to go "big corporate" and replace everyone with consultants and contractors.


While I am with the others posting here that being somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is best, I tend toward the corporate side of things because of one main thing: stability.

Larger businesses are better able to absorb economic downturns or mistakes, and a more rigid staff structure usually means better roadmaps toward success. Both these make the job itself more stable, and layoffs or termination of employment is more likely to be something that can be seen from far off.

In addition, codebases tend to be larger and more mature, which brings a certain stability to the code itself. Big businesses also have the tight deadlines that smaller startups do, and larger teams tend to degrade software quality overall, but in the long term these issues get tend to get ironed out, and time is more able to be allocated to fixing these issues of scale.


One other interesting angle: non-profit organizations. It could have characteristics from either end of the spectrum, depending on size. But (theoretically) it is more about service of your target market. And less downward pressure to squeeze more profit from users.

Most people think of non-profits as organizations which raise money and give it out. But there is no rule against non-profits charging for services. Check out Ghost, for example.

In general, I like the idea of companies where success benefits everyone, not just a few people at the top.


I've had a bit of experience at a very large company. I much prefer startup. I'm getting experience here that I would not be able to get at a big company (After all, they only hire senior devs, right? 😛) I am also on good terms with all my coworkers, I can talk freely with my boss and offer suggestions or say why one idea might not work. We don't have "office politics". I like that everyone here is on the same level, we do not have executives getting paid several times more and nobody knows what exactly they do.

Sure, sometimes I have to work a little later, but that's nothing compared to the benefit of having a healthy work environment.

Frank Carr mentioned stability, I think that's an important factor as well. Startups are not stable. I'm at a point in my life where the lack of stability is not a problem. If I had roots somewhere, and a family, and no safety net, then I think corporate would be the only choice.


Corporate really is horrible and work is global so it is never left at work.

I say find a software company where software/tech is the main product. Stay far away from company's that just have an IT department.

Corporate IT is often ran by non-technical people with good intentions as they think an MBA may represent IT better - they don't. It only createz more politics, micromanagement, and senseless processes.

Ive been at this 22 years and haven't worked one place for more than 4 years and dont see it ever happening.


I've worked at a growing startup and, currently, I'm at a medium sized corporate. The problem with the startup is that you get a lot of responsabilities and sometimes can't focus at just programming, because you are helping with client support, or helping the sales team, organizing events, etc. That can be really overwhelming. On the other hand you can expect to grow really fast and earn a lot better as the company grows. It's like a risky investment: you either get a lot of profit or lose it all.
One risk you take it's that you don't have a well defined carrer path, so, when the company achieve stability don't expect to grow any further.
I guess where to work really depends what are your short term and medium term objectivities. Currently I am seeking stability and work only 8h/day (at the Startup, at least here in Brazil, you have to work, in general, 12h/day), so I think working at a medium sized corporate is being the best thing to me


This is really a matter of personal preference and timing, but from my experience the best is working at a startup that is doing really well.

I worked at Google, MS, and Amazon - learnt a tone and had great career growth.
Joined Slack when we were 100 people and that was one of the best times of my life.


I didn't really think about my preference on this one much while I spent several years in a non-dev role at Microsoft. But since leaving there and making a career switch I've worked at two companies around the 50 employee mark. Both of them were transitioning out of the startup scale and mentality and I've found I don't have much appetite for it. Perhaps my time at MS shaped me without me realizing it, but I have no desire to constantly be fighting fires and squeezing every release out the door by the skin of our teeth. I'd much rather work in an environment which has been through that crucible enough times to shape the processes and roles in the organization to the point of making a release "boring" because everyone knows what they're doing.


I've never worked at a start-up, but I have studied their culture and work ethic before at University. The corporation I work for at the moment is huge and because of that, changing direction is like trying to move an oil tanker. It takes a lot of effort and no mistakes can be made. That being said, I know I'm protected down to the letter of the law here for anything employment related.

But I have to adhere to stringent rules, there's no flexibility and the higher-ups have an incredibly old mindset.

I would have thought a combination of the both would work quite well. The financial stability and management of a corp, but with the social welfare and perks of a start-up. But corps hate spending money.


I have been in a start-up for the past year. Honestly, I have enjoyed my time there. Everyone knows each other by name as the company was small. It really does feel like everyone is working together to achieve a common goal - to push the company to make it big. I was a generalist, doing Android, a little of frontend and a little of backend. The scary bit of it at a start-up was making important decisions, not knowing if they were the right ones or not.

I enjoyed the fast-paced startup culture without having to go through so many layers of communication just to get something done, as is the case for many big corporations.


I think it highly depends upon the way one thinks.

Everyone has a different method of thinking, I like to think simply. That led to me to the realization that I have the ability to create software from scratch so I want to have my own goals and reasons to work on something. I can't have someone tell me what to do especially if it's against my will.

So I completely disregard the impact that working for someone may have on my CV.

however there might be people who would like to be led or by someone to accomplish or people who want to witness career growth for them working for a corporate organization will prove to be healthy.


I worked in (several) large corporates for many years and I didn't liked it at all.
Anything was restricted, I had no possibilities to choose my dev environment, things were blocked by firewalls (e.g. GitHub, NPM or DockerHub) and I was not allowed to visit conferences or workshops. Everything was prohibited because of company guidelines.
Once, my boss told me I wasn't allowed to visit a conference because he thought people use it as a vacation.

However, I'm working in a small company (approximately 30 people) since 1 1/2 years and things changed for me. The bosses do their best to provide the best environment as possible. Free choice of hardware, we can decide which tooling we're using. Conferences and workshops are no problem, because they want us to have a good knowledge about things. My employer even gave me the possibility to visit DockerCon in San Francisco this year (I am from Germany by the way).

So I would always prefer smaller companies over (large) corporates.


Some more pros and cons:

The Startup:

  • more visibility into the company as a whole
  • adopting technical debt from the MVP, depending on when you joined

The Corporate:

  • learn how to do things at scale (for larger teams)
  • learn how to do things "the right way"
  • small cog in a big machine

I generally prefer working at startups because things move a little faster, which I like.


I've done lots of both in 40y and I have to say I prefer corporate. Startups are fun, but always feel one missed delivery from bankruptcy. It could be an age thing too;my last job was a startup and it was exhausting and beyond stressful. Life is too short to do that at my stage in life. Give me stability, regular hours and time for hobby projects


I prefer startups, but corporate is normally much more stable of a career


I much prefer the startup agility! But having a cush Corp job can be nice sometimes. Depends on life stage I guess.

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