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From startups to tech giants: we weigh up the pros and cons for grads

Team Prosple

Unicorn or incubator? Apple, ANSTO or Boeing? There are tech careers for grads in every industry – check out this article to find out where you fit in.

Have you ever found yourself daydreaming about working on the next Netflix-type concept, or finding a way to cure cancer with an app, or hobnobbing with the likes of Tesla’s Elon Musk and Microsoft’s Bill Gates? You’ll be relieved to hear that these dreams are pretty much universal because – let’s face it – tech companies are the rock stars of the professional world.

That being said, it’s not all glamorous – behind the perks and fame lies a foundation of hard work and high stakes in what is an ever-changing and highly competitive space. If you’re thinking about applying for jobs in the tech sector, we recommend first exploring the types of companies that you could find yourself working for. Working for companies in different stages of growth will give you a very different perspective of life in the fast lane of tech, so it’s handy to know your startups from your tech giants.

Early-stage startups

The term ‘startup’ is evolving beyond its strict definition to describe a certain kind of workplace culture. When you hear the word, your mind can’t help but pair it with others like ‘creative’, ‘fun’, ‘young’ and ‘cutting-edge’. With good reason too – most of today’s tech and social media giants began as startups. We’re talking names like Google, Uber and Facebook who have quite literally changed the way we interact with the world around us.

But what is a startup in its truest sense?

All startups have at their core a brilliant idea for a product that would make some aspect of our lives easier. This idea is championed by a small collective of passionate, driven individuals who work tirelessly to create a minimum viable product or MVP to present to customers and/or investors. Investors usually come into play when a startup is ready to refine their product and rapidly scale their business to get that product out into the market and to as many people as possible.

Startup incubators

Imagine you’re someone with some technical skill and an incredible concept for a new app or technological service that could potentially change the world. Imagine also that you don’t know the first thing about starting a company and finding the resources to actually build that product. Where do you go for help? Enter the startup incubator.

A medical incubator is defined as “an enclosed apparatus in which premature or unusually small babies are placed and which provides a controlled and protective environment for their care” (thanks, Google!). Replace the word ‘babies’ with ‘startup’ and you have the definition of a startup incubator. Incubators can be universities or government organisations or other entrepreneurs and they help baby startups by providing them with a variety of crucial services like a workspace, training and that all-important initial financing. They will work with startup founders and CEOs for up to five years before allowing them to ‘graduate’ into the real world.

Working for a startup

The upside:

  • We hope you like hats because you’ll have to wear plenty when working for a startup! Expect your role to be multi-faceted, giving you exposure to different parts of the business and expanding your skillset – fast.
  • In a small company, your work will be highly visible and directly impact the product you are helping to create. Your screw-ups will be just as visible as your triumphs but hey, that’s how you learn!
  • Impatient to make your mark? At a startup, you are likely to be given opportunities that would otherwise take years to come to you at a larger company.
  • In the world of startups, it’s eat or be eaten. Relevance and speed are key, so each day will be imbued with a sense of creative energy and urgency that would be hard to match anywhere else.
  • Startup founders are visionaries – brilliant, highly intelligent and motivated. At a startup they will be your teachers and among the first members of your professional networks. Not too shabby!
  • It’s not all rainbows, we’re afraid: startups are unlikely to match the starting salary packages of the Googles of the world but what they lack here they will endeavour to make up in workplace culture and atmosphere. Bring on the foosball tournaments!
  • Startups are purpose-driven, working to bring technological solutions to problems we face. You will sleep better knowing you are an integral part of creating something that will be of real value to real people.
  • Startups generally offer employees equity in the company, which, if all goes well, could fatten up your bank balance nicely in future. Ka-ching!

The downside:

  • If you enjoy structure and consistency around the tasks that you do each day, it will be difficult to adjust to life at a startup with its constantly moving goalposts.
  • Creating something incredible from scratch is really, really hard work – there’s no getting around it. If you want something cushier and/or a higher salary, a startup may not be the best choice for you.
  • Risk is a scary word but unfortunately a relevant one when it comes to startups. If an investor or a key client pulls out, the company could be in real danger of folding which could put you out of work.
  • Startup founders are brilliant, sure, but that does not always mean they are good leaders. Without a strong leader with the correct skills to set the company up for success, the chances of failure are greater.
  • Remember the dollar signs that sprang to mind at the mention of equity? If the company doesn’t succeed, your equity may amount to nothing.

Mid-stage startup

Once young startups have attracted some key investors they can pause for a breath. They have made it through startup limbo and lived to tell the tale, they are a little more established in the market and they’ve quashed their competition (for now). It’s now time to take it up a notch and ramp up production, clients and revenues. More work requires more talent, so they will also need to grow the company. This is a hugely exciting time for a startup but rapid growth comes with pitfalls of its own.

Startup accelerators

One option for companies in this stage of development is to apply to a startup accelerator. If incubators are nurseries for startups, accelerators are high schools offering crash courses in how to succeed. Accelerators aim to squeeze roughly two years of growth into a three-month program of intensive training. During this time startups are invited to join a community of entrepreneurs and investors who provide guidance on how to grow their businesses and avoid problems that may otherwise have spelled disaster for the unwary.

As with incubators, accelerators work mostly on training, mentoring and financially supporting the leaders of a startup – most often the founders and/or the CEO. As a graduate, you are unlikely to work in either space but could definitely end up working for a startup that has either been through the incubator process or whose leaders are currently working with an accelerator to assist with growing the business.

Working for a mid-stage startup

The upside:

  • Experience is everything in this business. Getting to this stage already means this startup knows how to survive, which could mean less risk for you when it comes to job security further down the line.
  • This is the stage at which startups start to see more money coming in. This means several positive things here: higher salaries, more resources and more of that magic ingredient – innovation.
  • Already itching to try something new? A growing company will see new roles and teams created to handle a diversified workload. This is a prime opportunity for you to switch lanes and try a different role.
  • Despite its recent or impending growth, this company will still retain some of the best aspects of a startup, one of which is the ability to work closely with and learn from true innovators at the helm of the business.
  • We’ve all heard that corporate hotshot complaining about being an insignificant cog in a well-oiled money-making machine. Even in a growing startup, you will still experience the rush of making real contributions and seeing the impact of your work every day.

The downside:

  • Risk remains part and parcel of the startup world even at this growth stage. A larger company may want to acquire yours (as Facebook acquired Instagram), or your company may be the one acquiring smaller businesses. Either way, there are likely to be a duplication of job roles that may need to be culled – and yours could be one of them. The risk will be different to what it was at a brand-new startup, but it is still a gamble you’ll have to be willing to take.
  • Imagine working for a 20-person company one day and having that number increase 10-fold over the course of a year or less. You suddenly have 180 new colleagues to get to know and the business has 180 more salaries to pay. What could go wrong?! These are classic growing pains which, if not handled well by senior management, could spell the end of a great startup.
  • Larger companies need more structure to operate efficiently but this may have a direct impact on the way you are used to working. From having a certain degree of autonomy in your work, you may suddenly feel you’re being micromanaged. For some, this could be a relief while for others, it could feel stifling and frustrating.

Multinationals and tech giants

We know what you’re thinking: ‘Startups sound great, but if Apple comes knocking on my door, I’m there with bells on!’ It can be hard not to be dazzled by these companies which have reached an almost mythic status in our minds. All we can say is, be wary of limiting your options. Remember, there are hundreds of great companies out there that may not be household names but are still in a similar league to the Googles and Microsofts of the industry. Do your research, keep an open mind and explore a wide range of options with an objective lens.

Working for a multinational/tech giant

The upside:

  • We won’t lie: having a tech giant on your CV as where you started your career will stand you in good stead throughout your working life and will also enable you to create an impressive professional network from very early on.
  • Companies in this stage of development cannot afford to rest on their laurels. They need to continue to innovate, which is why they are hungry for young talent and new blood. What better way to entice a brilliant young grad than to offer a mind-boggling starting salary package?
  • Most of these companies will have excellent graduate programs to provide high-quality training and mentorship to young people at the start of their careers.
  • If the risk associated with working at a startup was making you break out in hives, you’ll love the security that comes with working for a large, successful and established company.
  • Company perks are the stuff of legends when it comes to big tech: free food and booze, free gym memberships, great healthcare benefits, private concerts… the list goes on!
  • Work-life balance will be more of a reality in this type of company than in a fledgling startup but don’t get complacent – your work will be monitored against key performance metrics that may count towards your salary increases and affect career progression.
  • As an employee, you will likely be given company stock options which may already be valued highly and reap financial benefits from early on.
  • Have you ever wanted to work out of a villa in Tuscany’s scenic countryside or spend your weekends exploring America’s famed national parks? Multinationals can offer not only flexible working options but also facilitate a transfer to one of their overseas offices if you fancy a change of scene.

The downside:

  • Interviewing for any job is never fun but for larger companies which receive unfathomable numbers of applicants, the recruitment process is reputed to be lengthy, exhausting and ruthless.
  • If you want to progress quickly and you’re wondering why your peers working in startups seem to have more responsibility than you, this is due to the more rigid, hierarchical structure of larger companies. Also, the larger the team, the more competition you’ll face when vying for a promotion.
  • You may pat yourself on the back for landing the job, but then quickly realise that your entire department is made up of similar high-achieving individuals like yourself. This will mean working that much harder to prove yourself and get noticed.

Our parting promise…

Still want in on this crazy, dynamic world? Then get thinking about which of the above three types of companies best suits your temperament, skills, lifestyle goals and value system. One thing’s for certain: working in technology will be equal parts challenging, nerve-wracking and inspiring but it will never be boring.

Up next, find out what skills you’ll need to land a graduate job in tech.