Corporate PM job or Startup PM job?

One of the questions I get most often is “I have a PM offer from a larger company, and I have one from a startup. Which should I take?”

Either way, you’ll face the same fundamental challenges — defining what needs to be built, working with engineering to build it, and help marketing get it out the door.

That said, there are definitely things to learn on both sides of the fence. Here’s three ways corporate PM and startup PM jobs differ, that might help you decide what the right fit for you is.

1. Getting Every Detail Perfect vs. Getting It Out The Door

As a Product Manager, paying attention to perfecting every detail is key to a successful product — and everything you do in a product has major repercussions. Take Facebook’s misstep with video measurement. The numerator and denominator of what counted as a “view” were mismatched. The total time spent watching included everyone, but the number of people watching only included those who watched for more than 3s. This resulted in the company over-reporting of 60%-80% to advertisers on the platform. Even for a pretty large discrepancy like that, no one would have blinked if a startup made the same mistake (especially if they caught it in the first couple months), and it certainly wouldn’t have made headline news. Given the consequences of a mistake, a Product Manager at a bigger company spends tons of time perfecting every detail.

At an early stage startup, however, it’s more important to get your product out the door. You need to build fast, to learn as much as possible, and to get ahead of potential competition. If you optimize a conversion by an extra 3%, but it turns out no one uses that path, it’s all wasted time. Ship it first, and once you know it works, then you can optimize it.

2. Pushing the Envelope vs. Reigning Things In

When I started at Microsoft, Microsoft Office was primarily a desktop product and there was a major push for the move from desktop to web, and from web to mobile platforms. As a Product Manager for a large company, you need to be scanning the horizon for the most pressing opportunities and must be constantly aware of what could disrupt your product to figure out where to invest. While you might not be the one who makes the call, you need to be willing to surface threats when you see them.

At a startup, you’re most likely engaged with a team that tends to be full of innovative people with great ideas. Instead of being the one questioning the status quo, you’re more likely to be the one pulling things back in and focusing on pressing issues. More common questions are, “Is that core to what we need to build right now? Is that the most important thing we can work on? It’s hard to be a naysayer, but it’s important for keeping the company focused so you can build momentum.”

3. Leveraging a Team of Experts vs. Pulling Things Together

One of the best things about being a Product Manager at a large company is having a ton of resources available. You’ll likely have a dedicated team who can recruit users, write scripts, and run usability for you (so you can watch!) You’ll also have a team compiling all the analytics you could ever need. As a Product Manager, your job is to make sure the entire team feels engaged. A big part of your job is figuring out who to go to for what, and how to bring the team members together.

At a smaller company, that’s a different story. Rather than having dedicated experts to go to, you’re more likely to be building those resources from scratch. You’ll be looking to bring out skills from team members that are outside their area of expertise. Have a support team member who is great with with customers? Leverage their expertise to help them start to write a user interview script. Your job isn’t about finding and respecting experts — it’s about seeing untapped talent and getting it to work for the organization.