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Startup versus corporate: Which environment is right for you?

Debra Auerbach, CareerBuilder Writer

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Whether you're just out of college or you've been in the labor force a few years and are ready for something new, there's a lot to consider when deciding what jobs to pursue. While some of the factors to contemplate are obvious -- whether you're qualified for the role or the position interests you, for instance -- you should also think about what type of work environment suits you best. Would you thrive at a startup or shine in a corporate setting?

"For those changing career paths or those just jumping in, it might be hard to figure out where you fit best," says Josh Tolan, CEO of Spark Hire, a website that couples online videos and video interviewing with online job boards. "Both traditional corporate environments and startup companies have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Job seekers less knowledgeable about the career path they're starting out on might not have a clear idea which environment is right for them."

Are you unsure of which office setting is right for you? While every company is different -- no matter if it's a startup or a more traditional company -- here are six questions to ask yourself to help match your work style with the right work environment:

1. Are you a risk taker or risk-averse?

Are you someone who is excited by the idea of building a company from the ground up and having a real stake in its performance, whether it succeeds or fails? Or are you more comfortable working somewhere that's already established, even if it means you don't have as much influence in shaping its future?

"First off, are you a high-risk, high-reward person?" says Michael Maguire, director of marketing at Private Flight Advisors. "A small business can offer you a great title, great salary and a lot of responsibility to boost your résumé, but at any point you could be laid off due to financial issues. At a large corporation, financial stability is very common, but you are almost guaranteed to start in an entry-level position, which often does not pay well or have the highest title [or] level of responsibilities."

2. Do you like structure or prefer fewer rules?

If your life revolves around what's on your Outlook calendar and you get upset when a last-minute meeting is scheduled or an outside-of-your-duties request is made, you may be better off in a more structured, corporate environment.

"If you like hard structure, knowing what every day will entail and planning out your work/life balance for the next nine months, I think the corporate world is more suited for you," says Aron Susman, co-founder of, a commercial real-estate listings website. "However, if you like high energy, wearing many hats and never knowing what the next week will look like, I believe the startup world can feed that passion. There are pros and cons to both, but it just depends on your personality and if you prefer high risk [and] high reward or stable, steady growth."

3. What kind of benefits are you looking for?

Many of the more established companies have a set benefits package that they offer to new employees. The benefits may differ somewhat based on a person's role or level within the company, but most will offer fairly standard vacation days, health insurance and other common workplace perks. You might also have opportunities to attend networking events on the company dime, take all-expenses-paid business trips or participate in continuing education training and conferences.

At a startup, the cash may not be flowing as steadily or heavily, so you may not be offered some of the perks of more traditional environments. To make up for it, startups may be a little more creative with their benefits, offering employees flexible hours, the ability to work from home, free snacks or meals or extended time off to travel. You may also be able to get shares of or a stake in the company.

Think about how much benefits matter to you, and which ones are the highest up on your priority list. That'll help you decide on what company door to knock.

4. How much visibility do you want within the company?

Dan Cassidy, CEO and founder of lifestyle website, says that job seekers interested in the startup world should be prepared to dive in head-first, with little to no training, management or hand-holding. "Job seekers need to understand that startups mean high visibility for all employees, so you'll need to perform well and be highly motivated to thrive," Cassidy says. "At a large organization, it may take five or 10 years before you're able to lead an important initiative. In a startup environment, that may happen your second month on the job."

Tolan agrees. "A startup environment will often give more responsibility, since these companies tend to have a smaller staff. This means more on-the-job learning, which is great for a career changer or recent grad. However, it also means more responsibility and more stress." Tolan says startup candidates will be expected to juggle a wide variety of responsibilities, since there are fewer employees to do the work. "In a corporate environment, [it] will be more regimented. Your job will be more defined and you won't be expected to be a jack of all trades."

5. Do you want to be home by 5 p.m., or are you up for the occasional all-nighter?

Yes, startups may be more flexible when it comes to office hours. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Some people like starting and ending at about the same time each day. Others get excited about the prospect of working until all hours of the night, adrenaline pumping, to finish a project or develop a new business idea. "Are you a 9-to-5 person at heart? If you are, than the hectic startup schedule might play havoc with your work/life balance," Tolan says. "If this happens, you might start resenting your work environment, making you an unhappy employee."

6. Do you want to specialize or generalize?

"In recruiting for startups, we look for very entrepreneurial, determined people who do not need a lot of direction and love to create -- people who are not afraid to wear a lot of hats and pitch in across the organization, and thrive in environments full of risk and ambiguity," says Megan Pittsley, a recruiter and career adviser. "If you've started and led college clubs, created your own business or developed new programs or initiatives at a company, you might have the natural startup bug."

Megan adds that when hiring for corporate environments, recruiters often look for specialized skills and strong related industry experience. "[We look for] someone with a stable work history and educational accomplishments who is looking to grow with an organization long term."

After you've answered all of these questions, try to picture yourself in both work environments, and think about which one feels more true to you. "More than qualifications and experience, job seekers should take a look at their personality attributes to find the right setting," Tolan says. "When it comes down to corporate versus startup, it's more an issue of what environment works best for a candidate's personal work style."

Debra Auerbach is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 30/07/2012 - 5:52 PM

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