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Stick with a big company or join a start-up?

After a recent post discussing the top 10 reasons why large companies fail to keep their top talent, several people commented that this was a helpful list that top talent could use as a litmus test to decide whether or not to pull the ripcord in favor of going to join a start up (or another company).The bottom line is that you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about.However, the grass isn’
/ Source: Forbes

After a recent post discussing the top 10 reasons why large companies fail to keep their top talent, several people commented that this was a helpful list that top talent could use as a litmus test to decide whether or not to pull the ripcord in favor of going to join a start up (or another company).

The bottom line is that you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about.

However, the grass isn’t always greener. So, in the interest of being fair, it’s also valuable to point out the advantages of sticking it out at a big company.

The fact is that most highly talented people can get more done as part of a larger organization (with all its imperfections) than at a start-up. This is not a universal statement. Obviously, there are loads of examples where the “best-of-the-best” couldn’t take being tethered down in a large bureaucracy, broke away, and — indeed — changed the world. Bless the entrepreneurs of the world (and I include myself in that group).

But to be fair, before you tender your resignation, please review the following list of reasons why you might be better off where you are:

1. Picking the next Facebook or Twitter to join is tough.

If it wasn’t, life would be pretty good for the venture capitalists. They would be raking in the returns. Now, despite a previous post of mine in which I expressed a concern that not all people working at VC firms (especially at the junior levels) add tremendous value to their portfolio companies, the fact is that there are some pretty smart GPs out there at VC firms.

And yet even these veterans of many a start-up occasionally make bad calls. The start-up thing is tough. Are you sure that you’re going to be any smarter? Entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic (and, I’ll say it again: thank God for that), which makes them not always the best judge. Here’s a cautionary tale: George Sheehan left Andersen Consulting (Accenture) at the peak of his career to steer Webvan to a horrible and notorious death. Despite a brief sojourn with Siebel, his career has never recovered and likely never will.

2. More money may bring more problems, but it’s still more money.

Large companies, by definition, have more money to throw at new technologies or solving problems. Of course, they don’t always do it wisely and there are many an example of them failing to recognize a trend that a smaller competitor capitalizes on. However, you are “top talent.” If you figure out what you think your company should be doing, you should be able to persuade the key decision-makers to give you the money and to go out there and get it right. Although Microsoft hasn’t always succeeded where it’s thrown money at problems, look at what they’ve done with Xbox.

3. First-mover is not as important as fast-follower.

Incumbents — with their money and talent — can usually take a body-blow and come back much stronger. If you’re a talented person working at Google a year ago, most people thought you had no shot against Facebook. Bradley Horowitz got a great chance to prove the skeptics wrong and he’s exceeding all expectations. He’s making the most of it. Will it be a challenge to catch Facebook? Sure. But, there’s nothing top talent likes more than challenge.

4. If your boss sucks, you can usually move to a different area.

A terrible boss is a killer for most highly talented people, no question. More people quit for this reason more than any other, in my experience. When you talk to them off-the-record afterwards, they describe the past few months as “soul-crushing” and other equally dire terms. However, the good thing about large companies is that you can usually arrange to move to a different area far away from the boss who is driving you nuts. I realize that, if the organization tolerates having this terrible boss, it says a lot about the organization — and you might not want to be in a different part. But, these days, with a tight supply of talent and a big tent of people filling slots, you might want to not give up on a good thing with the company just because of one person.

5. A lot of the most admired in business have put down roots.

I have a good friend of mine who has worked for 10 different companies in the last 12 years. Each time, I think he’s moved up slightly on the pay-scale and with a little more responsibility and probably a better title. Many people have told me they think he’s brilliant. These days, they say to me, you can’t be loyal to your company and you need to look out for yourself. I just don’t agree. Look at any list of the most admired business people and what do they all have in common: they’ve all put down roots and transformed that organization. Sometimes it’s been a company they started (e.g., Bill Gates) and sometimes not (e.g., Jack Welch). I’ve yet to see a “career flipper” make the list.

6. Start-ups are tough.

I worked at a start-up, VoiceGenie, for four years. I had the honor of being employee No. 20 and raising two rounds of VC money and building partnerships as VP of Strategy & BusDev. I remember we used to relish the start-up/outsider/raise the pirate flag over our crumby office mentality. And it was great, I learned a lot, and we were ultimately successful — but it was tough.

I get together with my former co-workers every now and then and one of us usually says, “I don’t know if I could do it again, if you told me I had to go back and do that over.” We competed against some great companies like Tellme and BeVocal. I think it’s fair to say that everyone working in our industry thought we’d be acquired by late 2001. I still know many fabulous people in the speech industry still grinding it out (and now they seem to be getting their due with the advent of Siri from Apple). However, to everyone else thinking of leaving a big company, I say: you’ve got to be prepared to go in and grind it out for potentially many years. If you want that, great. However, changing the world in a big company might start looking a little more attractive.

7. It’s easier to find other top talent in large companies.

This is another function of bigger numbers: you’re bound to have other smart people who are fun to work with in bigger companies than small. Remember: top talent loves being with other top talent.

8. Frustrating bureaucracy can (sometimes) be fixed.

It’s not fate that every large company has to have maddening bureaucracy. Hopefully, yours doesn’t. If it does, the good news is that it can be fixed. Perhaps you’re the person to do. Top talent never shies away from stepping up to clean a big mess.

9. Make your destiny.

Top talent doesn’t — or shouldn’t — sit back and wait for HR or their boss to come to them to discuss their future career path within the organization. They should always be working off their own game plan. It surprises me that only about 15 percent of high-potential leaders I’ve met with have a more sketched out version of their careers 5 years from now. It’s essential to do this if you haven’t. You need to make your own destiny.

10. You can change the world more.

The fact is that top talent will change the world wherever they are, but, if all is right with your large organization, you can change the world faster and easier there. Good luck.

If you still have the start-up bug after reading this list, go to it. If this list has made you think twice, consider sticking with where you are — and making it the place you want it to be.

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