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Should you ditch the Big Co for a Startup?- The David Vs Goliath Talent war

Now more than ever across the world and here in Africa, startups are steadily becoming a go-to choice for millennial & Gen Z talent to kick start & grow their careers. The war for talent has been intensified as top talent increasingly opts to choose David over Goliath and millennial candidates screen employers differently than their former counterparts. From a need for constant challenge to flexibility at work, workers are now assessing career opportunities in a new way that’s forcing the old big guys to shape up or lose talent. Today, we look at the talent war & how you can position your company to win no matter your size & stage and answer the question- Is big always better?

But first things first.

“A man on top of the mountain didn’t just fall there.” — Vince Lombardi.

NB: Every large company was once a small startup

Almost a decade ago, a fresh Jan Koum set out to get the best talent he could find to start the billion dollar global messaging platform that is Whatsapp today. Despite having years of experience as a software engineer, along with Brian Acton his co founder, they both struggled to get tech jobs in the big valley. In fact both Acton & Jan were turned down when they applied for jobs at Facebook and Twitter. Ironically years later Facebook entered the acquisition deal with WhatsApp for a price totaling to 19 billion dollars!

With few job prospects and a couple thousand users only, they needed quality talent to help grow their idea that had proved promising. But with no funding & just a vision, the two faced difficulty convincing top tech talent at the then major tech firms in Silicon Valley such as Yahoo or Twitter. Jan would spend over 6 months trying to woe his new potentials. But as promising as his idea was, Whatsapp was still a startup team of 2 and he couldn't offer the kind of staff perks that Yahoo & the other tech firms in big Valley were offering such as stock options, benefits & huge salaries. Eventually, he did manage to convince some of them to take the jump. But some begging & many dinners were involved!

Another great story is Microsoft’s. Started with a team of 11(as seen below) and grew to now one of the world’s largest and most successful technology companies. Microsoft’s global revenue has increased relatively consistently since its conception, with the figure reaching a record high of over 143 billion U.S. dollars in their 2020 financial year. The team has also obviously grown beyond 11 to 166,475 as at 2020(2x as many employees as Apple!).

The first 11 employees at Microsoft

This story isn’t unique to Silicon Valley alone. Even closer home many top talents have left huge multinationals & global companies to start afresh at rising startups. One of the most recent being Peter Njonjo who left a top job as President of Coca-Cola’s West and Central Africa to join Twiga Foods, a growing startup in the foods industry, as CEO.

So why do many experienced & talented people opt for startups over large companies? And why do others opt for the bigger more established employers over startups? Let’s look at some of the reasons using the SKEEN Framework we mentioned before and how you can apply this to your job search as a recruiter or job seeker.


From our earlier article on how to think through your job quitting, it’s clear that many professionals seek job opportunities & employers who will help them grow their skills by providing a new challenge mentally & professionally. It’s thus no wonder that Learning & Development is now one of the fastest growing functions in HR globally as well as one of the top priorities of HR Managers in this century as they navigate through the VUCA business environment and figure how to win in the talent market place. With this in mind, skills devt provides companies a fair playing ground because the companies who will win in this front will be those that provide learning that’s accessible, enjoyable, affordable & personalized. Gone are the days where staff would have to book trainings & seminars at some holiday destination at absurd costs for 3 days away from work. More on that here. With the new changes brought about by changing demographic needs, business need for agility & fast response to changing envt(such as Corona Virus), and technology impacting learning techniques & abilities, a startup can capitalize on the freely available & affordable training through different forms including webinars, social media, Youtube, online learning platforms like Coursera & Linkedin, knowledge sites like Stack overflow, professional networking sites & communities, ebooks, videos & even job shadowing. The changing landscape of L&D as shown here, provides both the new & old a fair playing ground to position their companies attractively using L&D.


Wikipedia describes knowledge as awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation. Again, with the world of work opening up, professionals are on the lookout for companies that help them advance their knowledge on specific & general topics. From job knowledge to business skills & leadership skills, many techniques can be employed to equip your people with what they need to grow within & beyond their careers. Through L& D options above and others like coaching, reverse mentorship, even CSR & out of site events & online platforms, arm yourself with a myriad of techiques for your people to get new knowledge.

Photo by Mohammad Rezaie on Unsplash


We highlighted one framework for evaluating a new job. And with this same framework for candidates, employers can use it to design jobs & careers to meet the expectations of job seekers while growing the business to meet current & future business needs. Your experience, depth & breadth, is as much up to you as it is the company’s role through job design. A small company may provide you depth because of the small nature of teams and limited funds to hire hundreds of people. On the other hand, there are big employers who opt for lean structures, opting for a smaller workforce intentionally, that may provide you the same. Big Cos however sometimes opt to outsource or have specialist roles that may be good or not to your experience portfolio depending on how you look at it. If you want to grow within a certain field eg Technical Recruiter, it makes sense that you go for a big tech firm like Microsoft that will equip you with specialized skills & training since this is their core hiring need. A smaller company doing only 4 hires a year may give you only so much in your goals to being a star recruiter.


The case for exposure in big companies vs startups has also been dismantled as startups have gone for innovative ways to provide exposure to their staff beyond their walls. Some may argue startups also provide better exposure to the entire company’s processes, team & strategy than their big counterparts simply because of their structure. Depending on what the employee is looking to be exposed to, the startup has a better advantage here by having a flat & small organisation that allows staff to freely & easily get access to knowledge, fellow staff, leadership, strategy & processes and even access to other functions if someone is considering cross skilling or switching departments. With large companies(especially multinationals) it’s sadly contrary to what most job seekers imagine it to be regarding exposure. A simple case was when I couldn't reach out to a female global leader for a Women’s event at an FMCG because of bureaucracy & processes. Most startups also promote a culture of openness even through an open and small office structure. This not only exposes you to what everyone else is doing and how you can help or learn but it also reinforces a strong culture of togetherness through purpose and intimacy that most young job seekers seek and big cos don’t provide.

However,, big cos e.g Google that is large in both geographical coverage & number of departmental units and thus opportunities to grow laterally or horizontally may provide more opportunities than a startup can provide. Nonetheless, all this is still dependent on the company’s HR strategy, organisational design and culture.


The importance of your network in your career success story cannot be understated. With several ways to connect & network with anyone in the world now offline & online, this is also another area where the best play will win. I’ve seen large cos where people hardly connect or meet beyond their jobs and startups where connections are easier (and genuinely) made because of the lack of barriers and spirit of shared purpose.

So how should you look at this as a job seekers?

  • Research. Research. Research- Check out our various articles giving you advice on what and how you should evaluate a potential employer before you even apply for that job. Remember , recruiters are sales people as well who are trained to sell you the dream. By going through past employees, networks, social & professional networking & community sites, social reviews and others, you can find out what you need to evaluate if the career move is the right one. Remember, you’re evaluating both the job, team & company as a positive move.
  • Know thyself-Different people define happiness differently. There are also various frameworks like Ikigai and personality tests & tools that have been developed to help you get closer to happiness by helping you assess your life through different lens. While one may be after a big title or company brand on their CV, another may be looking for a large cheque or benefits to either support their lifestyle or maybe family needs that may not apply in your case. Define what you’re looking for at this particular stage in your career and then where you can get it and how.
  • Seek advice- The internet is awash with career advice for different stages of life especially Twitter & Linkedin. You can also reach out to other professionals and leaders or mentors to share their view on this dilemma. Just remember that every piece of advice is biased depending on the person’s experiences & mindset. So listen wisely.
  • Position for the future now- Whatever choice you pick, make sure to choose an employer that’s poised for success in the future. Great employers are intentional about winning now and in the future. A good example of this is Chevron who design long term employment plans based on their business plans. Now a company that thinks of your future from the get go sounds like a good bet to me.
  • The unknown- Whether new or old, all businesses exist in a VUCA world and as we’ve seen last year with the Covid pandemic negatively affecting businesses, there will always be room for uncertainty about the future. Startups and big cos have died while others chose to completely go remote or restructure their companies in light of recent events. And unfortunately most of these reactions affected staff negatively such as the massive layoffs we’ve seen across the world. It’s hard therefore to 100% determine a company’s future success by looking at it now. So always leave room for uncertainty in your decision.

In conclusion, size doesn’t matter. Whether large or small, a company can design itself in a way that enables its staff to grow exponentially within & outside their role & company. Culture, technology, people, leadership and strategy are all but drivers of this. And anyone can leverage on this to be an employer of choice through their people strategy. And more on that on our next post so stay tuned.

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Stella Ngugi

Stella Ngugi


HR Generalist| Founder @JobonicsHR | Where HR, Tech& Entrepreneurship meet| Eat. Pray. Code. Blog. Hire | 🇰🇪 IVisit for more info.