Big or Small Company – Which Will Suit Me Better?

Once you start to look at the world of work and job applications, you may want to think about what sort of company you’d like to work for and what would suit you, for example, a large corporate graduate scheme, a smaller firm or start-up. We talked to various business professionals who have experienced both big and small companies during their careers, to find out about some key contrasts and what each has to offer.

 Photo: Unsplash – Israel Andrade


Big Companies

Monica, a business adviser, started her career on a Unilever graduate scheme. She enjoyed such a varied experience that she spent 11 years with the company, which she says gave her a solid grounding for eventually setting up her own consultancy. Monica explains that a big corporate like Unilever can offer excellent training opportunities, including formal courses and exposure to different experts and experiences. She says:
“When you’re in your 20’s, I believe a large organisation is a good place to learn the ropes, find out what you enjoy doing, what type of work you’re good at, what style of management suits you. 
“When you are in a large company, particularly a benevolent and paternalistic type of organisation, you are in a huge kind of cocoon comfort blanket. Everything is there for you – if you have a grievance, there is a process; if you want to change your employment, there is a process. You can envisage a clear career path. You are well supported. It is parental, protective, and nurturing.” 
Jill, a sales and marketing director, agrees that big companies can be ‘a really useful training ground’, particularly early on in your career:
“You are likely to be exposed to a greater variety of experts and different departments, simply because the company is bigger. And therefore, you will often learn more, more quickly. “
Rebecca started out on a Tesco graduate training programme:
“Some of these broad grad schemes introduce you to areas you might never even have thought about. In my case, I spent some time learning about food product development, which I absolutely loved, and I have now made that my career!” 

Small Companies

After five years as a fashion buyer for big brands, Hannah joined a small firm and decided the start-up scene was right for her:
I was doing product development and being part of a small team meant I had a great deal of autonomy over my work. I also loved the cross-functionally, for example if I had an idea for a social campaign that I wanted to pitch to the social media manager, I could simply walk over to her desk and have a chat about it”.
HR professional Marc suggests that smaller organisations can offer attractive prospects for new graduates:
“The top jobs at popular large corporates can be highly competitive, attracting huge numbers of applicants. But don’t ignore sectors that are perhaps less glamorous, or smaller, less well-known companies – they can also offer exciting opportunities. And perhaps in this less competitive market, you can actually progress faster in your career. “

Are different people suited to different sizes of company?

Mark is a career coach with many years’ experience.  He says that not everyone will be suited to large corporates.
“You might be attracted by the salary, formal training, and a clearly defined career path. But bear in mind there will be an established culture, regulations and set ways of doing things. Often you will need to fit in to stand out. It’s either for you or it’s not, and don’t be afraid to recognise if it’s not. “
Eric, non-executive chairman of a major restaurant chain, also acknowledges that different people can be suited to different types of company. As someone motivated by uncertainty and risk, he finds that working for a small company or start-up suits his needs. However, he recognises that people who want more security from their job may prefer to work for a bigger company that might offer more stability.
Ross, entrepreneur and strategic adviser, points out that your views and needs may change during your working life:
“It can be different people, but it can also be the same person at different points in their career. There is a traditional paradigm that you leave university and go and join a big company. But that is not always the right thing for everyone. 
“It has never been easier to start a business – that’s something that I fundamentally believe. Anyone can get out there and create something. There are all the tools you need online. You can do things for a short period of time and flex. You can have a portfolio career. 
“Having said that, there are plenty of benefits from joining a large company, particularly one that actually invests in you as an individual. I have worked for three such companies and I learned a huge amount. That helped me to establish my own business. Small companies can of course have a progressive culture and investment, but sometimes the funds they have available to invest in people is much more limited. If you are looking for something that has very traditional, big investment, maybe a large company is a good place to start. 
Don’t be afraid to move companies and take on new challenges, because that’s how you’ll learn about yourself, how you like to work and what you enjoy. Just think about what works for you right now.”

Culture is key

In companies of all sizes, there are some that place huge emphasis on a healthy workplace culture, and some that don’t. And our interviewees all agreed that cultural fit is crucial to a happy working life:
Jill recommends:
 “I would counsel anybody to think closely of cultural fit as one of the main criteria for joining a company. Is it a formal culture, is it an empowered culture, hierarchical or multi-cultural? What is the right environment will depend on an individual’s personality and motivations.  I can imagine that some people would shy away from a big organisation because it is too monolithic, potentially too slow-moving or may feel a bit fearsome. Working in a small company may feel more alive and more personal. 
“If you’re unsure, I think it’s useful to do some personal profile tests. You can just do them yourself at home, to give more insight into you and what sort of environment you might prefer, for example whether you are very data orientated, whether you like structure or rule following”.   
Mark advises:
“Do your research. Take in the message a company shares on social media channels and their website. Look at how they engage with their own staff and how they communicate with customers. Do you share the same values as them? You can tell a lot about their culture and whether it would suit you. It’s probably easier to get a true reflection of a small organisation than a huge corporate.”


How can you find out about opportunities with smaller companies?


Large company jobs and graduate schemes are widely advertised, and you can easily check out the employers on websites such as The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers. But you may have to dig a little deeper to find out about smaller companies who are hiring.


Mark recommends that you make speculative approaches to smaller companies:


“When you contact small independent businesses, you are often very close to the top, because there isn’t such a big hierarchical structure. Often, if you are sending an email, it might be read by the business owner – how fantastic is that? Whether it’s a big or small company, reach out, ask if you can talk to them about what they do. Use LinkedIn or drop them an email, don’t be afraid.”
Find out more about openings with SMEs (Small & Medium Sized Enterprises) here.
As our interviewees have shown, both big and small companies can offer brilliant opportunities for graduates. Bear in mind that different sizes and styles of business may suit you at different stages of your career and for different life situations. Ultimately, cultural fit matters more to your happiness at work than the size of a company. So do your research, talk to people, and try to build a picture of what it is really like to work there.

Find out more:


Graduate Training Schemes
What they can offer, the selection process, where to find the programmes plus tips for applications 

Why Graduates Should Consider SMEs
What SMEs (Small & Medium Sized Enterprises) can offer, the pros and cons of small companies vs large corporates & how to get into SMEs

Alternatives to Grad Schemes
Wondering what’s next after uni? Not keen on grad schemes? Looking for something different but unsure of your options?

Grad Bites: Big or Small Company: Which is Right for You?
Listen to more about how to choose the right company for you