Start-ups versus Big Companies

How they compare in what’s awesome and sucky

Julie Zhuo
Sep 23, 2014 · 12 min read

Don’t let anyone tell you that one is strictly better or worse than the other. Both have their charms and their cracks.

Start-ups…

  • have one goal and one goal only: make something valuable enough that people will actually use it. This is really the only thing that matters. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Company Needs, achieving “product-market” fit is as fundamental as air in order to survive. Everything else that people might gush about start-ups—the culture, the collaborative working style, the cafe decor, the coconut water—might be pleasant points under “reasons to work at a startup” but ultimately won’t matter jack squat if the company doesn’t figure out how it can make something of value with the time and money it has left. Which means in order to maximize their chances for success, start-ups…

need people who…

  • operate with good intuition. There’s simply not enough time, money, or people at a start-up to invest in a bunch of research or data-gathering. Good product and people intuitions are what lead to successful outcomes in the arena of high-risk plays.

will make you feel awesome when…

  • you move like a synchronized swim team where everyone turns together, jumps together, flows and functions together as one unstoppable unit much greater than the sum of its parts. When you go through a big launch, when you celebrate a milestone, when you crack jokes about the future at the end of a long night—there is a buzz and an energy that everyone feels, borne of shared belief and sweat and camaraderie. It’s the meaning of teamness, and it’s a pretty incredible feeling.

will make you feel sucky when…

  • no one uses what you build. Our industry glamorizes successful start-ups like Hollywood glamorizes its actors, but the fact of the matter is that if you work at a start-up, you will probably not change the world. In fact, you will probably fail. The Valley is littered with stories of those who did the start-up thing because they were dissatisfied by their ability to have impact at big companies, only to discover that failing to have any impact at all because you couldn’t build something valuable is a far harder pill to swallow.

Big companies…

  • have “made it” to some extent. Big companies didn’t get to where they are without creating some kind of value in the world for people. As a result they’ll…

…want people who…

  • are team players, as in, they tend to prioritize the success of the team or company as a whole versus only prioritizing what they individually would want. While start-ups might take risks on brilliant, divisive individuals who contribute a lot output-wise, once the company starts getting larger, it becomes less and less sustainable to have people on the team whom few people want to work with. This is because the contributions of a whole team begin to surpass what any one individual can contribute, so it’s in the best interest of the company to stop optimizing for any one person and start looking for people who are mature, selfless, and are a positive force to be around.

will make you feel awesome when…

  • you realize you’re having impact on millions of people, and when your friends and parents and that random person sitting across from you on the subway or that person who wrote a heartfelt message to you halfway around the world gets real value out of the things you work on.

will kind of suck because…

  • there are too many people involved in decision-making, and it feels really difficult to get anything done. This is the crux of why everyone bemoans the bureaucracy of big companies. It always takes longer and is objectively harder to get 20 people to agree or support something than it is for 2–3 people, even of all 20 people are smart and rational and completely invested in making the best decision for the product. This means a lot more time is spent on communication—writing e-mails, getting together in meeting to discuss and debate decisions, putting together presentations, creating outlets for everyone who is working on something to express their opinion.

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The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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