A friend of mine recently asked me for career advice and what to do for his first job after college. He said, “Everyone keeps telling me *not* to go work for a large company. What do you think of that?” I wrote him a personal response, and thought it might be nice to share a revised version of the note here. Note that this advice is directed towards a career in the consumer tech space, but I think the same could be said for other industries.
My letter to him:
One of the best things I think you can do early in your career — if you get the privilege to do so — is join a company you think is winning. I mean absolutely crushing it. At the peak of its game. Delivering products to users and customers that they love, and that you love, and that you can’t wait to see what they do next.
There is no greater lesson to learn early in your career than learning what it feels like to be part of a company that is pushing hard to deliver new great experiences for users and customers, and pushing a broader agenda. You also learn and understand just how much hard hard work it takes across the company to be able to maintain that level of winning. It can provide you invaluable lessons that will drive you the rest of your career to replicate that feeling and experience.
Even better, the kinds of people who help create those companies and are attracted to join them are often the best and most talented people that you want to know and be around for the rest of your career. Not everyone gets this chance, and sometimes you’ll have to make bets on a company you think can become a huge winner. But if you get to be a part of that ride, and do everything you can to have an impact on it (if even just for a few years), you’ll appreciate it in ways you can’t imagine now for the rest of your career.
I say this irrespective of company size. Though some people say that big public companies are “too big”, I feel like we are in a unique time where they are continuing to innovate incredibly well. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google are absolutely winning in so many areas right now. There are also great, winning private start up companies like Uber, Snapchat, Stripe, Airbnb, and so many others in Greylock’s portfolio.
A lot of people want to join a small startup right away and believe it can change the world. Or they want to jump right into founding one. For many reasons this feels attractive and intoxicating. It’s exciting when there is much potential ahead, the sky is the limit, and you feel like you won’t have any bosses. But on the other hand, every early stage company goes through many tough moments, few result in unlimited success, and you might only learn some lessons of what didn’t work, vs learning lessons about why something has worked or is working. You may not realize the lessons you don’t learn.
For someone just graduating, the lessons you could learn about shipping products to huge userbases, thinking about new paradigms that the entire industry is following and building on top of, and understanding the enormity of revenue you can generate at scale will be hard to replace. If you are convinced that you want to create or join a startup, then by all means you will be at least as qualified in 1 — 2 years of working. Worth noting that Kevin Systrom (Instagram) and Ben Silbermann (Pinterest) both worked at Google for a few years before starting their companies for example. (Though plenty of great founders had very different backgrounds, so if founding a great company is your goal, there are many other paths.)
Winning companies tend to be successful because of their intentional actions so seeing how winning companies work and think is a great foundation. You often do get provided some great opportunities to add value and create something within your area where a lot of the basic elements are already handled so you can just focus on what is new, innovative, and important. They tend to attract the most talented people which provides a great network for all of the future things you will do in your career. And lastly, the peak companies tend to have a pretty high filter so if you are lucky enough to work there for a year or few, that on your résumé adds a lot of reputational value.
That said, the most important thing is that you are learning. Make sure the people you would be working with and for, and the things you would be working on provide you that. If you don’t feel it — even at a company you think is winning — then avoid it. Because once the people at a company stop feeling like they are learning, then they tend to stop winning.
Call me anytime if you want to chat further!