How to Transition from Startup to Corporate—and Vice Versa

Starting any new job is a challenge, but moving from the startup world to a corporate environment (or vice versa) can be particularly tough. If you're considering such a leap, be prepared to flip your perspective on your role in the workplace and adjust your expectations for company culture. Startups and the corporate world each have pros and cons to consider.

startup to corporate

Benefits of working at a startup

You might immediately think of the clichéd benefits of working at a Silicon Valley startup on the cusp of making it big: ping-pong tables, fridges stocked with beer, everyone in casual attire. And, while these are great perks, they're not enough to sustain an employee day in and day out. Bosses can still be jerks, even wearing blue jeans. You need to consider whether the following attributes of startups appeal to your personality:

  • Flexibility in how you do your job. When you work at a startup, you're often making it up as you go along. Some people find this thrilling; others, terrifying.
  • Opportunities to try on different roles. The team at a startup is small, and you'll find everyone dabbling in unexpected areas simply to get the work done. Do you want to be a jack-of-all-trades, or would you rather specialize?
  • Potential for growth—personally and professionally. If you get in on the ground floor of a startup, particularly a tech startup, the potential payoff for long hours and hard work can be great. Even if you don't benefit financially, you're likely to be placed in a leadership position far sooner than you would be at a corporation.

Downsides of startup life

Of course, the flip side of a startup's potential is a fair bit of risk. For every Facebook, there are hundreds of long-forgotten startup flops. Before you accept a position at a startup, it's important for you to consider:

  • Long hours and heavy workloads. Unlike a corporate environment, startups typically have small teams, and employees are expected to work nights and weekends to launch the company. How do you feel about a possible lack of work-life balance?
  • The reality of tight budgets. A startup isn't a resource-rich environment. Much of the time, you'll be focused on making it work with what you've got. If you're used to a corporate budget, this may give you shell shock.
  • Fewer benefits. Giant corporations can offer enhanced benefits to employees such as wellness programs, opportunities to enroll in ancillary insurance products, and retirement programs. Developing these programs doesn't tend to be a priority for startup founders; they're too busy getting their company off the ground.

Pros to corporate life

It's easy to think Dilbert/cubicle farm when you hear the word corporate. But don't automatically assume a startup offers a better work environment. Many employees thrive within the structure of an established corporation that offers:

  • Job stability. Of course, high-profile corporate layoffs make headlines, but being laid off from a corporation is different than losing a job because a startup closed its doors. For one thing, a corporation is likely to offer some sort of severance package, while a startup probably wouldn't have the cash to do that.
  • More structure. While it's true there are days when we'd like to be our own boss, many employees feel more comfortable working under a supervisor's direction. If you're the type of person who wants to follow a playbook at work, a corporate environment is more likely to provide the structure you crave.
  • Additional resources. At a startup, the same person may order office supplies, function as accounts payable, and play the role of human resources. That's great for gaining on-the-job experience, but sometimes it's easier knowing that someone else is taking care of such things.

Cons of the corporate world

Even with expansive benefits packages and ample resources, the corporate world isn't for everyone. Before you leave your startup job for a corporate role, think about the following downsides:

  •  A lack of say. At a startup, you might be on the leadership team. At a corporation, you're one of many—and you'll be tasked with executing decisions made by those higher up the ladder. Will you find this frustrating?
  • Bureaucracy and red tape. The larger a corporation is, the more approvals are needed to take action (and the more lawyers you'll encounter). At a startup, the timeline from idea to execution can be short.
  • More formal office culture. Regional differences exist in terms of what's appropriate for workplace attire, but in general, larger established corporations are more likely to feel buttoned up than a startup.

Startups aren't better than corporations and vice versa—and each might be the right fit for you at different stages in your career. Just be prepared to adapt to a new work lifestyle if you make the switch.

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