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Startup vs Corporate: Which Job is Better For Your Career?

Startup vs Corporate - Which is Better?“I hate my (corporate) job. And/Or I want to work for a startup”.

If you’ve ever had this existential crisis, this article might help you. It wouldn’t hurt to read, otherwise too. Either way, it can’t be more useless than stalking your friends’ too-happy-to-be-true pics on Facebook. 

Until recently, big corporates were the undisputed leaders of the job market with the best-in-class salaries, stability, and a predictably growing career graph. However, with the advent of the modern-day internet and its associated software-tech industry, the dynamics have changed rather significantly. Startups are giving these established corporates a run for their money when it comes to attracting top talent.

Everyday social media is brimming with stories of rising startups doing path-breaking work or existing ones making it big. The current buzz around them makes the regular corporate world appear so Jurassic. Clearly, most people around us either want to start one or work at one.

In present times, it is easy to get sucked into the charm of the startup world. On the outside, a startup job may sound like everything that a corporate job doesn’t offer–innovative work environment, flexible hours, fancy perks etc.

Does that mean we should all quit our current jobs and join a startup? And a slightly more important question: if we do quit, are we going to be a good fit for the fast-paced startup work environment?

Here is a list of 10 broad questions, I think, you should ask yourself to know where your priorities lie before quitting your ‘boring’ corporate job (why? because it must be?) and chasing the proverbial wild goose in the big, bad – and often mad – world of startups.

1. Activation Energy Needed

Outside the chemistry lab, understand AE as the amount of push (mentoring) required for you do your job.

If you are the kind of employee who expects his/her manager to double up as their office wife and help them survive as a functional adult in the professional world, then let me stop the buck right here: you would most probably struggle in a more hands-on startup work environment.

Startups are for the self-initiated, doers and not talkers. And definitely not for habitual cubical dreamers. If you are not a doer, then sticking to your corporate chair and pretending that you are swamped with work might not be a bad idea.

2. Hierarchy – Vertically Impossible or Horizontally Messed Up

A corporate hierarchy resembles our colon pipe. You start at the shithole and gradually work your way up. It is a slow tiring process taking years, where you have to deal with a lot of shit coming your way to reaching the top. Obviously, not many make it.

On the other hand, hierarchies in startups are pretty much non-existent. For the most part, you call the shots around what you do. Besides, there is more freedom to use one’s own volition compared to a top-down tunneled outlook synonymous with the corporate style of working.

However, at times, the chain of command at a startup can be more outrageous in its own messed up way. Your CEO may easily be a 20-year-old Nutella licking junkie, or a 26-year-old self-claimed desi Iron Man, and you the blue-eyed IIT-IIM graduate with a resume that makes the HR lady scream – “holy crap on a cracker!”

3. Learning vs Networking

9 out of 10 times, you’ll learn more at a startup per unit of time. As different job roles are not set in stone, you master the art of learn-do-and-deliver as and when the situation demands, irrespective of what your official title is.

Whereas, in a corporate job you are given set targets, guidelines and its deadlines beforehand. You are expected to stick to them. You gradually ease into your specific role and work tends to become repetitive thereon.

Hence, the learning curve in a startup is steeper and more continuous vis-à-vis corporate, where it may flatten after a few years.

So if you thrive on being a phantom, i.e. learning by trial and error as compared to a pre-existing knowledge pool, a startup is the place for you to get your hands dirty.

Having said that, a stellar corporate job will provide you with resources a small startup cannot – such as, top-notch training (which you may never use, but still), international exposure, and, more importantly, get your foot in the right kind of doors (read networks).

In other words, the authority of your corporate brand name will help you reach out to the desired people. More people would be willing to talk to a fellow working at McKinsey than someone who runs I hope you get the point.

4. Culture vs Salary

The free-spiritedness and flexibility a startup culture provides are the biggest attraction for young employees who may find themselves lost in the corporate maze. They feel insignificant being the proverbial cog in the wheel, especially at the entry level.

Unlike corporates, startups thrive on being highly collaborative and tightly knit. Due to smaller teams, the impact of what one does is much more visible. The feedback is direct, and recognition for good work is that much perceptible.

The most evident downside of making a switch from corporate to a startup is usually a pay cut. Although if the startup becomes successful, the ESOPs can make for a much bigger payout. Just remember: 3 out of 4 startups shut shop. Most people tend to ignore the odds.

5. Working Hours – Long or Crazy

If you think your corporate work hours are taxing, wait till you set your foot in the startup you have been eyeing all this while. The routine at an early-stage startup can get batshit crazy.

Don’t get fooled by the sugar-coated stories of startup ninjas working from the comforts of their bed with hands near the holy crotch, and cigarillos between their lips. There’s always a flipside that no one talks about.

In the quest to scale up and grow exponentially, every startup employee is expected to chip in anytime, round the clock – be it the unexpected server crash last night or a barrage of consumer complaints after your beta launch.

When your startup takes out the next trillion $ sale, it’ll be your responsibility to keep it together (for your startup) all night that too in real-time, once the clock strikes 12 in the night and the servers begin to creak.

In essence, it may sound fun to work, swim and sleep as a team; still, no one likes to wake up at 3 AM to figure out an unexpected problem you have no clue about. But, if you relish this very aspect of your job, then working at a startup can be extremely enjoyable for you.

Perks – Lollipop or The Candy Shop

Startups are notorious for the obnoxious amount of perks they provide their employees with–free food, sports bar, in-house gym, sleeping pods, craft beer, yada yada yada.

No doubt these perks are cool, however, big corporates give you the real deal. Fully covered health insurance, paid vacation for the family, business class travel, luxury spa memberships. After all, there’s only so much free food and beer you can have.

If your monthly alcohol bill is greater than your health insurance premium, assuming that you have one, then you obviously know what’s more important to you. Humor aside, a job switch for just the perks is lame on multiple levels. Think higher.

7. Jack of All Trades or Master of None (One)

Corporate offices are like assembly lines. Individual roles are specific, well-defined and follow a certain order of precedence. For instance, an entry-level analyst is given a single point agenda, i.e. to munch data and prepare reports for the ‘associate’ who does his/her part and reports to the consultant. He does this day in, day out till the time he himself becomes an associate and there’s a new kid in his place.

At a startup, you roll very differently. You don multiple hats at the same time. Depending on the situation you can be the analyst, associate, coffee boy, plumber, delivery guy or any other requirement at that point in time. The same holds true for even the CEO. Just so you know, in their initial days, the Bansals of Flipkart self-delivered books on their scooter.

Contrary to what many people would like to think, multitasking isn’t for everyone. If the corporate job is boring, one at a startup can be too overwhelming for some. See what works for you.

8. Status or Satisfaction

Corporates are all about status. People recognize you by the firm you work for. Your job title carries a certain weight. You get company engraved metallic credit cards, club memberships. Your profile at works like Tinder of your dreams.

Startups, in contrast, are plain vanilla. They are filled with struggle, risk, and failure on a daily basis. But, to some, the satisfaction and joy derived from these very struggles, such as to see a product they co-built go from scratch to launch, is worth a million bucks and a good enough reason to work in a startup.

Note – it shouldn’t be construed that corporate jobs have no struggle or hardships. The landing is a little softer, that’s all.

9. The Two Rs – Risk and Reward

Startups operate on the high-risk, high-reward formula. Thus, to work in a startup, your appetite for risk-taking should be high.

For starters, job security isn’t the strongest claim going around in the startup world. Every now and then, startups downsize or just fold up. In fact, 90% of all startups eventually fail. Therefore, the risk of losing your job will always remain, unless you work at a startup that is too big to fail.

The same risk would be much less in an established corporate. You are more likely to lose your job due non-performance, there.

On the brighter side, working at a successful startup can be highly rewarding. And not just in monetary terms. It also includes the invaluable street smartness, firefighting attitude and the overall multi-dimensional skill set you develop while working there, which should hold you in good stead throughout your career.

All things considered, the experience of working at a ‘good’ startup will far outweigh the pay cut in the long run.

10. Ultimate Goal – Zuckerberg or Suckerberg

It is a loaded question as not many of us know what we really want to do with our lives even till late in our careers.

On one hand, the process of moving up a corporate ladder is fairly straightforward: you work hard and suck up to the right people (and some of the wrong people too), sooner or later you’ll reach the corner office. Meanwhile, you can also ensure a stable 25-30 years of your professional life, barring the occasional bump life throws at you.

But if you aspire to change the world – for better or worse – rigidity of the corporate world wouldn’t allow you to do so. Imagine Steve Jobs working as a ‘manager’ at Microsoft all his life. Even though his pay would have been handsome and he would have lived a life of comfort, the chances of there being an Apple would have been slim.

Introspect to find out what you want out of your life. And, mind you, taking the safer path is never a bad option no matter how many people on the internet tell you otherwise.  You don’t want to be a rebel without any cause.
All in all, it is difficult to compare startups and corporates in black and white as both have certain inherent advantages going for them. Neither is outrightly superior to the other.

These questions are meant to serve as taillights to come up with a more compelling reason whenever you do decide to make a switch or if you are fresh graduate then choosing between a corporate job vs a startup.

Lastly, my humble two cents, for what they are worth:

The grass is not always greener on the other side. Use binoculars to check before you jump the fence.

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Nishant Rao
About Nishant Rao
Nishant hold an MS from University of Michigan. When not designing structures, he is either reading, writing or learning some new skill on the Internet. A right-liberal with an opinion on everything.

3 thoughts on “Startup vs Corporate: Which Job is Better For Your Career?”

  1. Very true. Considering I myself jumped the fence from corporate to startup. Its a struggle, its a mad scary crazy world. But damn, I love it! Great article man. 🙂 loved reading it.


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