A designer’s guide to choosing between a startup or large tech company
With tech unicorns like Uber, Airbnb, and Pinterest gearing up to go public in 2019, The Bay Area job market shows no signs of cooling off. In addition to these tech giants, AngeList lists over 5,800 companies that fall into the category of “startup”. With all of these choices, how does a product designer decide where to work?
According to Robert Walter's data, the top employer value propositions for product designers in the San Francisco Bay Area include “good work-life balance” (71%), “excellent compensation and benefits” (59%) and “colleagues and culture that inspire employees to do their best” (56%). The job market for designer roles in the Bay Area is buoyant. If you’re having a hard time deciding what companies to pursue (or interview with), we don’t blame you. Should you go with the nimble startup or the big-name brand?
With the expert advice of our own San Francisco design recruitment team, we explore the pros and cons of working for a large tech company vs. a Bay Area startup as a designer.
1. Maximum influence
Designers working at startups will often be part of a very small team and be exposed to a broad range of design work including product design, brand, marketing & communications design. If you’re interested in exploring other areas of design, then a startup would be an ideal environment to get your feet wet. You will also likely be making design decisions that impact the company drastically.
“At a startup, you will have a lot of ownership over design,” says Alfonso Tiscareno, Director at Robert Walters. “You will work with peers on cross functional teams like product management and engineering and have an impact on the development of the product itself."
"At a large tech company", Alfonso continues, "you will still work with cross functional teams, but the narrow focus of the team will not allow you to have much of an impact on the direction of the product as a whole."
2. Opportunities to broaden your design skills
“Because of the transparency we have at our company, even designers can be engaged in business strategy decisions and take initiative and manage our own projects,” says Sophia Liu, Product Designer at ThredUp. “Since the pace is so fast, I like that I have the freedom to experiment with different parts of our product’s design and A/B test new features that directly contribute to the growth of the business.”
3. A piece of the pie
Founders and early employees never get rich with salary, it’s equity. Large tech companies may offer higher base salaries and cash bonuses in the immediate term but start-ups offer equity. If the start-up has a successful exit this could be much more lucrative in the long term.
1. Disorganization is very common
It’s typical for startups to lack processes and rules that keep the day-to-day flowing smoothly. However, “if designers go to a startup they will have the opportunity to create something from scratch,” says Alfonso. “Sometimes they will even be the first designer to work on a certain type of technology.” The startup life may be best suited for an individual with an entrepreneurial spirit and a love for unstructured environments.
2. Be prepared to “wear many hats”
It’s the phrase on the tip of every founder's tongue; the phrase found in every startup job description. Designers at a startup will be asked to do many things beyond a typical “designer” job description. “You might work on pitch decks, journey maps, survey work, and do the usability testing yourself too,” says Alexis Collado, Product Designer at Kalibrr. This could translate to a much heavier workload than at a larger company, and poor work-life balance if you aren’t careful how you prioritize your design tasks.
3. Lower salaries
Every designer needs to make a living. For a startup with a modest budget, salaries for designers may be much lower than at a larger company. Startups are focused on “pumping funds into operating costs, product development, and growing a customer base,” says Laurence Bradford, creator of the blog and podcast Learn to Code With Me. If you don’t intend to stay for a long period of time, benefits like equity may not be enough to alleviate the stress of an upcoming rent due date.
Large Tech Company "Pros"
1. Stability and security
When we say “large tech company” we are referring to the big guns: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, Uber, Airbnb, etc. Unlike startups, these bigger companies have plenty of resources to draw upon. They aren’t going away anytime soon, so you won’t have to worry about the company running out of funding (a common startup woe). “Larger companies have a very structured promotion path and timelines when this takes place,” says Alfonso, so you’ll never have to wonder when your next review is coming.
These large companies also offer the benefit of RSUs (restrcited stock units), which is compensation issued to an employee through company stock, typically after a vesting period of around 12 months.
Furthermore, should you choose to explore other opportunities, you’ll find that brand-equity transfer has the potential to boost your resume and quell any doubts about your abilities from future hiring managers.
2. Organizational levels give shelter for focus
Generally speaking, the larger the company, the more focused your design role will be. You’ll likely work on a team focused on a very small part of the product. “Companies like Facebook have excellent design processes, so it’s a great place to learn the ‘textbook’ way to do things,” says Alfonso. A large company might be right for you if you prefer a more heads-down approach to your design-work.
3. Mentorship & resources
The great thing about a large tech company is that you are likely to be surrounded with the best in the business. At a prestigious big-name like Google, there are numerous opportunities to learn from mentors and become a mentor to more junior members. Besides having excellent examples to follow, a big company can also afford the resources (expensive design software and tools) to enable you to create innovative designs that would not be possible on a scrappier budget.
Large Tech Company "Cons"
1. Lack of mission or calling
If you view your career as a way to fulfill your own unique “calling”, then it may be more difficult to feel aligned with a larger company. According to a recent Harvard Business Review report, 9 out of 10 American professionals are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for a greater meaning at work. Be sure to choose a large company that doesn’t just post their values and mission statement on their company page, but also puts them into action.
2. Inflexible career path
Having a pre-determined career path is a guaranteed way to achieve success, but be sure that your idea of success looks the same for you as it does to the company. “One of the most concrete takeaways I’ve had from working within leadership positions at big companies is that the more senior the role, the more likely it is your responsibilities skew toward management and staffing and away from creative direction or vision,” says Willem Van Lancker, Co-founder at Oyster. If you have no interest in becoming a manager, then a startup may be more aligned with your overall career goals.
3. Less of a company impact
The organizational layers of a large company make for a clear career trajectory. However, because of this hierarchy, your work may produce less of a company impact. “You can end up working legacy projects with incremental designing or ideation,” says Tiffany Eaton, Interaction Designer at Google. These same organizational layers may insulate you from the gears that turn business (hence becoming just another “cog in the machine”). Depending on what intrinsically motivates you at work, this could have a positive or negative effect on your work happiness.
While all size companies have their unique advantages and disadvantages, it is important to consider which size will help you to fulfill your unique potential (which is at the core of what we do here at Robert Walters). As a designer, it’s best to choose a design-first company. While researching potential roles, confirm that there are designers in leadership and that they are considered critical stakeholders in company projects. Figure out your main motivators (compensation, impact, work-life-balance), and lean on the experts at Robert Walters to place you in a design role that perfectly suits you.
Care to share your experiences working in a startup or big tech company? Have advice for designers looking to carve their careerpath? We'd love to hear them! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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