Old(ish) and established, or hot new startup?
June 18, 2014 4:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a good position; I'm being pursued by two big tech companies for a public policy/government relations/privacy role, at a regional (ie multi-country) manager level. One is an established giant, the other is a hot, extremely well-funded and rapidly expanding startup. But which to choose? Hope me, MeFites!

What I'm looking for is personal experience working in tech companies, particularly the differences in working for:

a) a established giant such as The Fruit Company or The Googles, or

b) single-app VC-funded startups going through rapid growth (eg Lyft, Sidecar, Uber, Tinder, Snapchat, Whatsapp) acting on the 'move fast and break things' disruption philosophy and bent on world domination, local laws be damned.

The work in both options is attractive to me, but I'm coming from the public sector, so it's not clear to me what the working cultures in these kinds of businesses are like, what the people who work there are like, or what kind of salary I could expect or negotiate for.

Would my future prospects be better with the big giant on my resume, rather than a successful startup? I'm reasonably confident that this startup is going to survive medium term - they have a very high valuation, good revenue, and a global reach.

Any and all advice appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Evaluate both offers and take the one with the best compensation package.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:33 PM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Established firm is going to have a more stable work culture, I would think, especially for someone coming from government. They should have formalized work processes and HR protocols, and benefits more geared towards a sane work-life balance (transit subsidies instead of free lunches, etc.). (Which is not to say that all giant tech firms are great places to work, but a more established place would have been forced to build up a standard corporate infrastructure.)

New tech startup is going to expect a LOT of hours, may be under-resourced on the HR side of the house, and may exhibit the, um, toxic side of brogrammer culture. If you've checked out the culture of the place, or if you're okay with that, go forth and startup.

Long-term, I think it depends on whether you want to stay in tech. People outside tech would recognize the name of the giant firm, but not necessarily the startup.

In any event, the jump from the public sector to the private can be startling and unpleasant: do your research before accepting any offers.
posted by suelac at 4:44 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have been around the military and government employees a lot and I worked for a Fortune 500 company at one time. A big, established company is likely to be somewhat culturally/logistically familiar in terms of being a bureaucratic environment. If you like that environment, BigCo is more likely to be in your comfort zone. If that is the thing you are desperately trying to escape, then the startup is more likely to give you what you are hoping for.
posted by Michele in California at 4:55 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

In broad strokes, Company A will have more bureaucracy, both good and bad. If you're coming from the public sector, it may even have less bureaucracy than you're used to. It may be a good fit if you deal well with bureaucracy and process. It will also probably offer a better work/life balance, but that's company-specific. In a big company you're much more likely to have to delegate tasks, avoid stepping on other people's toes and spend more time on communication.

Company B- how big are we talking when you say startup? Whatsapp may be 20 billion dollar company now, but it still probably has fewer than 100 employees, while Uber probably has something like 300-400. In the former phase, it's more of a 'everyone is expected to do every and anything we ask'. In the latter phase, it's more of the 'we're trying to figure out how to scale up and create processes.' Earlier startups will be more forgiving of mistakes but will probably ask more of you in return.

I guess if I were to sum it up in one sentence, a large company wants you to do your job, while a startup wants you to be part of the team.

However, in both instances, you're going into a non-tech role, so I'm doubting you'll be asked to stay late for engineering deadlines. But, you'll probably be seen as the go-to person for anything remotely related to policy and relations. That will probably shield you a lot from a lot of the tech-specific nonsense, but it will almost always make you feel like you're not part of the core team in both places.

I guess this was just a long-winded way of saying that it's probable that you should take the better offer since the companies won't be THAT different (especially if you're coming from the private sector). And of course every company is its own special snowflake.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 5:07 PM on June 18, 2014

I think a big consideration would be how much respect your position would have within the corporate culture. There is nothing more soul-crushing than a person who believes that laws should be followed for a reason, to have the responsibility to tell other folks,"Hey, we should be following the laws" and to be totally disregarded.

You also want to look at the company business model and make sure you are totally OK with ardently championing their version of reality. For example, with Uber or Lyfte - do you 100% believe that free market taxi services are a good thing or do you wonder if maybe consumer protection and regulation have an appropriate role. I'm probably oversimplifying but the real question is can you stand up and defend the company's interests without compromising your values. It's worth a lot not to have compromise your own integrity.
posted by metahawk at 5:37 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do literally exactly that job for one of the big companies you would think of in category A. MeMail me if you want to chat.
posted by Inkoate at 5:59 PM on June 18, 2014

Any of the larger companies (and some you list are part of still-larger) companies will offer competitive health care, transit, and other benefits to the big companies.

Neither will offer you, at this point, salary or equity that's going to change your life - unless you're selling a company to them, anyway.

I would opt for the smallest company you can find with the best people you enjoy, unless your goal is a job that supports a family-oriented lifestyle, in which case I'd pick the largest one. Same goes for any other outside interests that you place above your career, family being just an example.
posted by kcm at 6:08 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

New tech startup is going to expect a LOT of hours, may be under-resourced on the HR side of the house, and may exhibit the, um, toxic side of brogrammer culture.

Counterpoint: most of that is cliche nonsense.. I've worked at startups for the past 6 years, and never worked with this mythical 'brogrammer'. When I worked at MegaCorp in defense, however.... that place was full of toolboxes. In fact, you are a 100x more likely to be surrounded by total dicks if you work at a place 100x as large. Small startups don't have the resources to harbor shitty or obnoxious employees. Also, I've never pulled more than a 40-50 hour week (except for when I was personally a founder, pre-seed-round).

The biggest difference is, at a smaller, growing startup YOU get to make your way -- even if you have a boss, it'll still be your weight to pull, and pull however you see fit. At a big established tech company, you'll just be another drone, have a boss, or two, and do what they say. Oh it's tech so you can probably still dress down, otherwise it's basically MegaCo. That said if, for the other company, 'rapidly growing' means VC funded at a B-round or beyond, you've probably missed the 'make your own way' bus, and there's probably not a marked difference between the two jobs, except A likely pays better, but at B you might stand a chance at knowing everyone's name.

I would opt for the smallest company you can find with the best people you enjoy, unless your goal is a job that supports a family-oriented lifestyle, in which case I'd pick the largest one. Same goes for any other outside interests that you place above your career, family being just an example.

Yes, this is something I personally agree with entirely. Except I think you can totally maintain a really healthy work-life balance at (the right) small company. If your priorities include squeezing every penny from 401k matching from day one, for example -- then go as big as you can :)
posted by wrok at 10:07 PM on June 18, 2014

wrok, I've also founded (and sold) companies, and I agree. I've never asked or had an employee, pre- and post-seed, work consistently slavish hours. In fact, I don't want people that would or that want to. Have a life and bring your experiences to the job. If your startup is asking for more, find another, since it's not necessary and a sign of poor leadership and peer skill.
posted by kcm at 10:40 PM on June 18, 2014

I think possible benefits of the hot new start up might be shares in the company that could be lucrative later on and also the opportunity to do a wider range of tasks, and help shape what those tasks are. So a choice might somewhat depend on your temperament and personality, for example are you a risk-taker and someone who doesn't mind having less established routines, less support, and less order, or are you someone who is more conservative and/or cautious and needs order and structure.
posted by Dansaman at 12:55 AM on June 19, 2014

Knee-jerk advice for an anonymous poster: go to the startup. If you believe in the company's product, business plan, and founding team. Particularly if you're younger, or older but eager for the challenge of the startup. That kind of job only gets harder to find and enjoy the older you get. So if you have it in you now to be at the startup, do that. There will always be big safe company jobs, the startup part is more exciting. Also assuming the equity package is decent, there's the gamble for a bigger payoff. That's a bet that's more appropriate (in general) the younger you are.

Don't take the startup if you are skeptical of the product. Or the team. Or the business plan.
posted by Nelson at 8:52 AM on June 19, 2014

Ruth Chang's TED Talk on How to make Hard Choices is worth a listen :)

posted by doctordrey at 11:34 PM on June 19, 2014

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