16 May 2018

Startups vs. Corporations vs. Agencies: What's Best for You?

Whether you’re already working in tech or you’re looking to in the near future at some point you’ll have to decide where you want to work. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of different companies and environments to see the pros and cons of each. So here’s list of my pros and cons between startups, corporations, and agencies.

Startups (Pros)

Learning

When you’re working at a startup resources are limited. When a problem needs to be addressed, the number of available people is simply lower than it is at larger companies. This is how I became a full-stack developer. I knew JavaScript and I could do front-end development. Resources were limited but our back-end was also written in JavaScript. When a lot of work needed to be done, I was pulled on to back-end work. The lines between roles are blurred so you’ll likely end up wearing multiple hats on the job. You may discover you like design more than code. Who knows?

Tools

At a startup, you’ll likely be working on something relatively new instead of an 8-year-old legacy application. The technical stack will likely reflect that meaning there will be far less context switching between the tools you prefer to use and those you use at your job. So if you’re using Git in your spare time as you learn React you won’t have to worry about switching over to Subversion and JavaScriptMVC during your day job.

Lack of bureaucracy

With smaller teams decisions don’t require the same level of consensus in a larger company. If you or members on your team want to start using a new tool or framework, only the team needs to be convinced rather than three levels of management.

Startups (Cons)

Hours

The unwritten rule of startups is that you’re going to put in hours. The advantage of a startup is that you’re small so you can move fast. Expect them to leverage that. The downside is that you’ll be pulled in to “in-office team dinners” where keeping you in the office to work is the true goal.

Compensation

This is probably the biggest downside to a startup. You take a hit on salary for all of the benefits of working at a startup. They’ll try to sell you on equity but don’t let this one factor account for your entire drop in salary. When I joined a startup I viewed the drop in salary as a form of compensation for all of the new skills I’d learn on the job. It’s all about how you frame the pay cut and whether it makes sense for you and your long-term goals.

Inexperience

Just because your CEO is a CEO doesn’t mean they know how to be one. In fact, it’s more than likely that your CEO is a first time CEO. Take that into account and ask leadership why they believe they’re cut out for the job.


Corporations (Pros)

Pay

Corporations have more wiggle room when it comes to straight up cash. So if money is your concern, this isn’t a bad option. If you know how to sell and you know how to sell yourself you can milk them for every dollar.

Name recognition

Along with a higher salary comes the name recognition that comes with the company. If the company is really well-known having them on your resume can convince some to skip the technical interview altogether. At the very least, you’ll have a good image tied to your name through the brand even if your actual work wasn’t that challenging.

Be mindful of the fact that some companies may only have a name for themselves within a certain geographical region. You may have worked at the best tech company in Denver but hiring managers out in California may not be as impressed.

Non-monetary benefits

Dry cleaning, food courts, bonuses, and coffee shops. You may not like being a part of a company with thousands of people but with it comes a lot of on campus amenities you may not get elsewhere.

Corporations (Cons)

Bureaucracy

Your first week will be spent verifying you have access to all team-related tools and software. You won’t do any actual work. Any time you need new software installed, be prepared to wait for your manager to approve it, their manager to approve it, and their manager’s manager to approve it. All of this so you can download and install Skype. You may not be in college anymore but syllabus week is real.

Learning

In general, the larger the company the slower you’ll learn. Within bigger companies people become more specialized and the scope of work you’ll be allowed or expected to do starts to shrink. This is one reason why I chose a startup even when I thought the team was inexperienced. If you want accelerated learning while getting paid a big company more than likely isn’t going to provide you that.

Ownership

As a side effect of a larger company with more specialization expect very little ownership over features you’re going to create. Rather than collaborating with a designer over a new user flow expect someone to hand you a mockup or wireframe that has already been finalized.


Agencies (Pros)

Variety

When you’re working at an agency you tend to work with a variety of clients. Along with the variety of companies comes a variety of projects like building a touchscreen kiosk for a client’s brick-and-mortar stores or building an HTML5 game. These projects add some variety to the typical web developer or designer’s day of pushing code to a web app that runs in a browser. Projects at an agency typically don’t last very long either. They’re usually projects that span a few weeks or months at most so if a project sucks it probably won’t last too long.

Name recognition

When you work at a company, you add that company to your resume. When you work at a creative agency, you can technically add multiple companies to your resume. At the very least, you have these companies and teams to reference in your future interviews. The number of companies you work with along with the potential for these names to be recognized really starts to add up.

Creativity

When companies are coming to your agency for creative work you get to see creativity in action that you wouldn’t see at a traditional tech company. If your agency is going to be working on the promotion for the movie Frozen 2 you may find yourself pulled in to a meeting to brainstorm ideas to promote the movie using the latest tech. Not only will you get to see the creative process in action but now is your time to push a virtual reality experience the team may not have contributed without you.

Agencies (Cons)

Hours

Agencies aren’t always known for being the most technical shops and this can really start to impact the hours you can expect to put in as a technical employee. If you don’t manage your project managers and account managers they may make promises to their client without realizing the level of effort required to deliver it.

If your agency is doing work for Procter & Gamble for a new product release, the odds are your agency and your work for P&G is just one project of many projects in the works for this release. That means there are hard deadlines that simply cannot be missed. I’ve personally spent the least amount of time working at agencies but my hours per day (60-70 per week) have never been higher to this very day.

Learning

When an agency does one thing realy well they tend to continue doing that one thing. If the agency regularly runs online contests using social media that process has slowly been creeping towards automation. You may want to use Angular but if it’s been delivered ten times in the past with AngularJS or jQuery get ready to re-skin an existing solution.

Repetition

While there is a variety of work at an agency things can get a little repetitive. As I just mentioned there are occasionally “core competency” projects an agency will have. Once you do your first P&G social media campaign you may find yourself doing a few more for other brands or companies. If the differences between project aren’t that big you can find yourself getting bored pretty quick.


Summary

I hope my breakdown has given you have a better idea of some of the differences you can expect between these options as you look for your next role. These pros and cons are by no means a complete list or even exlusive to startups, corporations, or agencies.

There will always be the possibility of overlap. You may join a startup where the CEO isn’t comfortable allowing people to wear multiple hats. The CEO will declare themselves Product Designer and insist on confirmation fields for every single field in your user signup form even though the entire development team is fighting it. Shit happens.


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