One of the most important pieces of advice I received when I was striking off on my own was to get a broad base of experience before I made any hard and fast decisions about my career. I was not one who knew from birth what I would do and in many ways I am continuing to discover the nature of what I am on earth to provide and I think that one piece of advice may just have well saved me a life of misery.
I’ve worked in both large companies (e.g. Smith Barney, Eastern Mountain Sports, etc.) and small entrepreneurial settings and both helped to inform my worldview and refine my ability to serve others. My own preference is for work in smaller companies, as the risks and rewards are more dramatic and the scope of responsibility generally starts and remains much broader than what you might experience in a large, structured corporation. That said, each has to discover what is right for him (or her).
What I have learned working in small businesses for most of my life is that schooling provides a foundation for developing skills in the workplace, but it does little in fact to actually prepare you for the incredible array of details you encounter when working in a young, small and growing business. One of the most interesting aspects of working in a small company is that each and every person has the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful and visible way to the corporate culture. You actually get to participate in building and delivering more than just a product or service, you get to create a living, breathing subculture in the community you live in. It’s a LOT of fun!
Big companies, conversely, tend to (there are I imagine exceptions – I just never found one) slot you in and you ratchet slowly (if all goes well) up the ladder. You may eventually be in a position which affords you the ability to shape the company, but such positions may only come in the final years of your career. Moreover, larger companies typically have more stakeholders and the larger the company, the savvier (read: more demanding) the stakeholders, so the pace of change tends to slow down in direct proportion to the size of the company.
The decision of large or small tends for most people to hang on two elements: financial concerns and risk tolerance. Regarding the financial concerns, big companies have access to more resources and consequently can often pay more and offer more benefits than their smaller counterparts. That said, growth opportunities don’t typically come as quickly and they don’t tend to be as significant in the larger companies as they do in the smaller, more nimble companies. I started and ran my first company at 15, then another at 17 and a third at 20. They were all small and I didn’t earn a ton, but man did I learn a lot. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything!
As for the level of risk tolerance, big companies tend to attract the more risk averse people, on the balance. Many people choose big companies because it is easier to hide in them and because of the notion that there is safety in numbers. Neither were pluses for me, but they may be for you. The risk/reward equation is significantly different in a small business setting and you have to be secure in yourself and confident yet humble in your vision to thrive in such an environment.
A final thought on this topic: be careful of competing internal motivations. People tend to cram themselves full of competing and even mutually incompatible notions of what they want in life. They want freedom without responsibility. They seek reward without risk. They claim one concern publicly but harbor another in their heart. If there is one thing you can do when starting out or when refining your present course, it is to be honest with yourself first and foremost about what you are hoping to give – not get! – from your career. Get that clear and you will be well on your way to a happy, fulfilling, rewarding and prosperous life!