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Career reflections #2: Work for big company or startup?

March 22nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

When I graduated from college in 1997, I had three job offers:

  • Job offer #1 was from Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), a large professional service firm.
  • Job offer #2 was from a medium sized, publicly traded enterprise software company. This company had about 600 employees, and just went public a few years earlier. It was a pioneer in the Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) space.
  • Job offer #3 was from a hot startup called Silicon Valley Internet Partner. It later changed its name to Viant and went public during the dot com bubble.

I was really confused. I wasn’t sure which job I would take.

Andersen Consulting dangled a lot of carrots in front of its recruits. It offered the most money, and launched a full-court press. Right before my final exams, they sent me a "final pack" of snacks, stationeries, and other goodies. It was certainly a nice gesture and made me feel that I was wanted.

The enterprise software company was in a very high-growth market segment. The pay was average, but there were a lot of growth potential.

Silicon Valley Internet Partner was "hot"  and "yuppie" — a lot of young professionals left large consulting firms to join the company. They paid the least amount of salary, but they offered attractive stock options. I remembered that I was invited to a happy hour event. One of the managers was telling me that he left his job at Sun Microsystems because he felt that he could potentially make millions of dollars instead of hundred of thousands of dollars from stock options.

I was a naive, ambitious, and inexperienced college graduate. I really didn’t know which opportunity I should pick.

Should I go with the brand name, higher salary, training and development program of a large company like Andersen Consulting?

Should I follow the foot steps of many peers to dive into the dot com world?

At that time, I didn’t give too many thoughts to the medium sized company. I felt that it’d be either a large company or a startup. The medium sized company was less attractive.

I ended up joining Andersen Consulting because I wanted to have a big company brand on my resume. They paid me the most, which would help me pay off my college loans faster. I wanted to get more big-company experience before I jumped into the startup world.

I spent a little bit over a year at Andersen Consulting. Great experience. But, I realized that consulting wasn’t for me. But, I needed to figure out what to do next. I knew that I didn’t want to be a developer — I didn’t like to sit in a cubicle from 9 to 5. I wanted more human interactions. I wanted a role that was at the intersection of business and technology. After talking to a few people, I felt that product management might be a good career choice for me.

However, I didn’t have any experience in product management. I called up the medium sized software company. I told them that although I didn’t take their job when I graduated a year ago, I was still very impressed by them. I wanted to work for them, but in a different role. Instead of being a software developer, I was very interested in becoming a product manager.

They offered me a job as Associates Product Manager, working on a very technical product. I didn’t mind the highly technical nature of the job — it gave me the opportunity to get into the door of product management.

After this company was acquired by a large software company a year later, I jumped ship to a start-up.

So, my career path after college was big company to medium sized company to start-up.

Did I purposely "manage" my career to work that way? Not at all.

Would I recommend recent college graduates to follow my path? Not necessarily.

Let me share with you a few observations.

I still think there are a lot of values to work in large, established companies for a few years. I never regretted my decision to work for Andersen Consulting because it gave me great training and exposure to many things. By joining a big company, I might have missed the opportunity to become very rich — for example, one of my classmates joined Geo Cities, and made a truck load of money. But, I think luck played a big role in my friend’s path to rich. If you take a long-term view on career, having a few years of solid experience at a well-run large company is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy.

With that said, I do think that there is a group of people who simply cannot function in large companies. They will get really frustrated because they cannot put up with the big-company processes and bureaucracy. If you belong to this group, then by all means go to work for a small company. However, I think you should have minimum requirements for the small company you’re going to join:

  • The people at the startup should be smart. You must feel that you respect them and you can learn from them. 
  • The company has some paying customers for their products.
  • You have seen their product or service, and you feel it’s useful and have a market.

All other considerations are secondary comparing to those 3 criteria. I think as long as you work for a startup that has smart people, has a product that people actually pay for it, and a product that you think has a market, you’ll be able to learn something that’s valuable.

Don’t be overly concerned about stock options and which venture capital firms are behind the startup. As someone who is fresh out of college, you will get very few number of shares of stock options. And even the most prestigious venture capital firm has probably one home run out of every ten investments.

One type of companies that is overlooked by a lot of people is medium sized companies. I define "medium" as companies that have a few hundred to a couple of thousands employees. They might be public companies, or they might be late stage private companies. They have grown to a size that they have put in some processes and structures. At the same time, they’re still fairly entrepreneurial.

Medium sized companies don’t have the prestige and brand recognition of large companies, and they lack the "cool factors" of start-ups. However, I think medium sized companies are sometime the best employers. It’s an overlooked group of employers.

One big advantage of medium sized companies is that they’re growing rapidly, and therefore there is a lot of opportunities for smart, hard working, and successful employees. At the same time, because of established product, processes and sales force, your risk is limited.

If I can re-start my career, I probably will choose to join a medium sized, high growth company.

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Tags: Learning and Growing · Recruiting & Job Hunting

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 geekcoach // Apr 4, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I just found your site. I really enjoyed this post. I'm a few years ahead of you, but went through a similar career path. I started at Andersen Consulting – I lasted 2 years. Then went to graduate school. I joined a start up and got to ride that cycle from small to booming to bust. It was an amazing experience, but I did not come out rich.

    I'm now working in corporate America, and I enjoy it for the most part. I also write a blog called Geeks Gone Pro that provides career and professional development advice to technical folks. My Internet start-up days taught me a lot about that!

    Check out my site!

    Geekcoach

    http://geeksgonepro.com

  • 2 Jobs In Dubai // Apr 9, 2010 at 1:34 am

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