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The Job Search - Large vs. Small Companies

by jrowley, posted on January 25, 2008


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When looking for a job, a good fit is very important. You want to be able to get as much out of a job as possible, as well as feel like you are making an impact on the direction of the company. What your own wants and needs are will be dictated by your personality. However, what you can can expect from a company is mostly (not always) dictated by whether it is a large, well funded company, or a small company where profits aren’t expected for years. This post will generally outline the biggest differences in these two very different work environments, and will be followed by individual posts outlining what it is like to work in each type of environment.

Resources: One of the biggest differences between these two environments is the amount of resources available. And not just money, but availability of up-to-date equipment and expert consultants. Large companies have very deep pockets, and money is committed to provide scientists with the best and most up to date technologies to perform their work. There are also a wide variety of experts in various fields that you have access to if you need niche expertise. In contrast, small companies don’t have the capital to buy much large equipment, and even nice fluorescent microscopes can be hard to justify let alone a new confocal. There will be many tasks that you will need to learn how to do yourself, as there aren’t as many hands available to perform the work. In small companies you need to be very resourceful, and make contacts at the local university to gain access to up to date equipment or expertise. Advantage: big company

Impact: at a large multi-national corporation, it is really hard to feel like you are having a big impact on the business. It is hard to feel like anything you are doing is having an impact on the stock price. At a small company, the work that you do is immediately incorporated into the next regulatory filing or investor presentation, and you feel that how well you do your job directly contributes to the success of the business. Advantage: small company

Pace: Sometimes projects can take a long time to move forward at big companies. Large corporations take the extra time to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s, and make sure that all patents are filed and business due diligence is performed before moving forward with a technology platform. Time is also required to communicate, educate and get buy-in from senior management of various business units within the company- important for the future success of the program. Small companies are typically fast to act, and can quickly make decisions and take the next step. This is mostly due to the senior management being down the hall from the laboratory, and understanding the advantages of being small and nimble. Overall, forward progress can happen much more quickly at small companies. Advantage: small company

Best Practices: Big companies have a deep corporate history, and have put into place best practices on getting things done; from approving projects to filing patents to performance management. These best practices take more time (see above), but there is someone there making sure that the decisions that are made are sound. At small companies you don’t always have access to the corporate history, or big company processes - therefore things get done much faster (see above), but not always to the same quality. While it is more important to do things fast than perfect in a small company (time is money), it isn’t the best place to learn best practices. However, if you have spent some time learning big company skills, you can get a lot of high quality work accomplished quickly in a start-up environment. Advantage: big company

Development Opportunities: Big companies have development opportunities galore. They have a variety of projects that you have the opportunity to contribute to (stretching your technical skills), as well as classes available for learning important non-technical skills such as hiring, people and project management, career development, and leadership skills. Small companies don’t have the money to commit to developing their employees that large companies do, but you get to stretch in other areas. As there are fewer people in small companies, you get to take more ownership of projects. You also get experience leading teams that you wouldn’t get in larger companies where there more people are in front of you waiting for those leadership opportunities. The responsibility gained at small companies can help you grow faster than you would in a large company, but it can come at an expense. Advantage: even, but highly dependent on your ability to accept responsibility, and your boss.

Obviously there are pros and cons in both environments, and it is really a trade off depending on what you are looking for. The more independent you are, the better fit a small company is for you. If you require more guidance and like more structure and definition in your position, then a big company is likely the place to start. I, personally, have had some success starting in a big company and then going to a small company. I also know others that have been in small companies their entire career, and they are actually in higher positions than I currently hold. So, take some of the above characteristics and think about how they match with your personality when considering the type of company you are looking to join. If you are one of the lucky ones, you might actually have to choose between the two.