Startup or big corporate: which is right for you?
Samantha Furley, November 8th 2023

One of the questions we’re asked is “what is it like to work in a startup environment?”

Startups intrigue candidates. They like the idea of working for a purpose-driven business, of being involved in something from the ground up.

But they also recognise that, perhaps, startup life might not be the right fit for them.

Anyone who has worked in both a corporate and startup environment can attest to the vast differences between the two environments – culturally, they’re chalk and cheese. But if you’ve only worked on one side, how do you make important decisions about the next step in your career? The key is finding a career fit, and by that we mean an environment within which you can thrive – and that’s a very personal decision.

Tech startups in the UK are typically described as innovative, collaborative and growth-focused; as environments that value creativity and communication, spearheaded by a visionary founder who is passionate about their mission. But trust us when we say it’s not all flat whites and Friday beers.

There is a real opportunity in the startup world. The UK tech scene has experienced a 68% increase in jobs at the top 100 startups and high-growth companies since the pandemic, reinforcing the idea that startups are not just about innovation, but are also significant job creators.

In a corporate business, the culture is defined by the business’ core values, their mission statement, their product or service, their policies and procedures. But in contrast to startups, established corporates are perceived as outdated, uninspiring and slow to innovate.

So how do you decide between the two?

A tech startup might be right for you if:

You thrive in a fast-paced, innovative environment

In our opinion, there’s no better place than a UK tech startup to experience entrepreneurial spirit first-hand. Joining a startup at an early stage means that you’ll be instrumental in building something new, something from scratch.

Decisions are made quickly in a startup environment. It’s fast, intense and undeniably purpose driven. Innovation is deep-rooted in startup culture – from the founder who fervently and passionately believes in the mission, to the team of experts and collaborators who are inspired to succeed.

Your work will have real value, real momentum. It’s raw, it’s exciting. And it’s these values, driven by out-of-the-box thinking, that give startups a leg-up on innovation and creativity.

You value passion over compensation

Fair pay is important; but in our experience, financial rewards often rank lower on the list of importance than many people think. Which is handy, because cold hard cash can be in short supply during the early stages in tech startups.

Joining a fledgling tech startup usually means forgoing a corporate pay cheque, with many cash-strapped startups unable to compete with deep-pocketed big tech businesses on monetary value alone.

But the counterbalance to this is the intangible energy that is felt so keenly in a thriving startup environment. It’s the passion, drive and internal belief in the mission or purpose – and the collective focus of a team of people that aren’t there solely to collect a salary, but who choose to take a risk and to work outside of the traditional corporate environment for something they believe in.

Impact tech investment in the UK has surged by 160% since 2018, a stark contrast to the US's 15% growth during the same period​; providing plenty of opportunities to work in a startup that is making a difference.

You’re willing to take a risk

Very few founders will admit that joining their tech startup is a risk and that the future of their business (and the stability of your employment) is dependent on capital raises and short-term success. But the harsh reality is that more startups fail than succeed.

Joining a UK tech startup or scaleup means being comfortable taking a degree of risk. We’d be lying if we told you otherwise. And whilst that level of risk will vary, it’s clear that startup life doesn’t come with the metaphoric comfort blanket of an established big tech business.  

But with risk, comes reward – or at least the prospect of it. Joining a fledging startup in the early stages will present opportunities for you to grow and develop with business, and if your compensation package also includes equity options, there is a clear financial benefit to you too.

A corporate business might be right for you if:

Work-life balance is important

Now, this is a tricky one. Startups are known for offering agile working and the option to flex your working week to suit your personal circumstances – something that is (undeniably) good for achieving a healthy work-life balance. But startup life is also known for having a long hours’ mentality and hustle culture.

That’s not to say achieving a healthy work-life balance in a startup is a pipe dream, but you’ll need to set yourself strong boundaries to ensure that a strong work ethic, grit and resilience don’t morph into unhealthy habits, burnout and stress. How doable this is will depend (on some extent) to the founder(s), some of whom will be switched on 24/7, with the associated pressure and demands invariably trickling down to employees.

But the reality is that startup life isn’t always conducive with a rigid 9-5. Whilst on the contrary, corporate and big tech businesses, with their well-defined policies and focus on wellbeing, make it easier for employees to consciously resist working long hours.

What’s more, flexible working – once the preserve of small businesses – it now commonplace in big tech businesses, as they spend resource and time recreating the agile working environment that attracted top talent to startups in the first place.

So, if finishing in time for the school run is non-negotiable or regularly working into the evening/weekend is a hard no, then you need to choose a working environment that meets your needs.

You value a structured environment

Think big tech and corporate environments and you’ll probably visualise rigid structures, multilevel hierarchies and a shedload of concrete procedures, protocols and guidelines that govern daily operations.

Expectations are clear – and for some people, having formal clarity around their role, their responsibilities, their reporting lines and their power to enact or influence change is ideal. Join a big tech business and you’ll know what you’re walking into – something which isn’t always the case in a tech startup.

In large corporates, there’s a sense of order. A sense of professionalism. There’s established corporate etiquette – what to wear, how to address colleagues, what time to arrive/take lunch etc. Not that tech startups aren’t professional, but it’s a faster-moving environment. It can feel chaotic, free-flowing. With a more relaxed structure, everyone is more accessible (including the founder or CEO).

Put simply, it’s a different ballgame when it comes to corporate versus startup structure, and you need to choose the environment within which you are most likely to thrive.

You’re looking for a steady rise through the corporate ranks

If you’re looking for steady, chartered progression, there’s simply no competition. Corporate businesses have clear roles, well-defined tasks, a commitment to learning and development, and very clear progression paths (all linked to structured pay increases).

That’s not to say that you won’t progress within a startup – clearly there are opportunities, and particularly so if you join at the early stages. But this progression is unlikely to be as clear cut and linear as it is within a corporate organisation.

Get in touch

The likelihood is that choosing your next career move is much less black and white. To speak to someone with experience of hiring for both startups and big tech corporates, get in touch with our Co-founder & CEO, Alan Furley, on or connect with him on LinkedIn.    

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