Small vs big business: where should you start your career?
October 28 2019 - Starting your career can be one of the most exciting times of your life. Many graduates have their hearts set on making their name in a global company, with Google, Facebook and Apple all ranking in the top companies that young professionals want to work for.
But without previous experience, it can be tricky to know what kind of business best suits your ambitions, leaving you unsure about which opportunities you should pursue. Landing a role in a small business might be just as good - or even better - for your career prospects.
Below, we've examined how large and small businesses perform across six different topics to help people understand which size of company best fulfils what they want from a job.
The differences between large and small businesses
Time to hire
Large businesses can afford to take their time when hiring entry-level positions because the absence of one person from the workforce is proportionally lower than it is in a small business. They tend to have more interviews and stricter entry requirements.
Competition from other candidates
Large businesses tend to have a big talent pool to choose from. Because they're well-known, people are likely to come to them with the interest of having a reputed company on their CV.
Large businesses have more positions available than you might find at a smaller company.
Because these roles are highly specialised, you're more likely to find the job that's right for you rather than a generic role.
However, you're unlikely to be able to apply for more than one role for the same reason.
Time to hire
Small businesses are more likely to take a chance on someone with less experience because they can't afford to leave a vacancy open for too long -- it more directly impacts the workloads of individual members of staff.
As a result, the hiring process is often a little quicker and less arduous for candidates.
Competition from other candidates
Small businesses get fewer CVs, so yours is more likely to get picked out.
They tend to hire from within their network, though, so if you're an outsider without connections, you may be at a disadvantage.
There are fewer positions at small businesses but job descriptions are more flexible. SMEs are more likely to overlook weaker areas of your CV if you come with a 'ready to learn' attitude.
However, small businesses tend to want more experience because there are fewer internal training programmes in place due to the more improvisational nature of the work.
Typically, big businesses pay more in the long run but not necessarily for entry-level employees (although by focusing on a limited number of tasks, people working at big firms become more efficient and earn more as a result).
Large businesses can offer impressive pensions contributions because they have deeper pockets from which those funds can be sourced.
Large businesses succeed at scale precisely because they stick rigidly with their rules and structures. All procedures have to be followed diligently, so negotiating hours or work-from-home days might be difficult.
Though your long-term salary prospects at a small company are limited, you'll have more salary negotiation power from the outset because you make up a much larger portion of their workforce.
Small businesses are struggling with pension contributions, not simply because of the financial ask but also because of their lack of time for complex administrative work. You may find that some small businesses take longer to get you set up on a pension as a result.
Small businesses often make up for their lack of financial benefits in their ability to be flexible. It's often much easier to change your hours or negotiate additional holidays because it can be done with a quick conversation rather than a belaboured process filled with red tape.
Large businesses offer plenty of opportunities to be promoted within your chosen discipline. The limitation here is that you may have to wait a while until a new position comes up that's within your specialism.
However, there are often a lot more 'rungs' on the large business career ladder, meaning you can move vertically for quite a long time before you hit a ceiling.
Acquiring new skills
While large businesses will help you refine the skills you already have, there are far fewer opportunities to cross-skill. That's because limiting roles to employee expertise keeps things efficient.
As a result, you might be more likely to feel 'trapped' in your role at a larger business.
Small businesses can sometimes offer quick upwards progression thanks to their preference for internal hires, meaning you could go from an entry-level role to a senior position in the space of a few years.
However, there may only be one or two promotions you can achieve before you hit your limit.
Acquiring new skills
Small businesses excel at giving you the opportunity to sample other roles and responsibilities. If in a year you decide that you don't want to pursue the specialism you came in to do, there are probably plenty of opportunities to retrain on the job.
If you're not careful, though, you can become a 'jack of all trades', which limits your potential to get more specialised roles further down the line.
At large businesses, you won't have much influence over company decisions at an entry-level role. You won't brush shoulders with senior management very often, and transparency is limited because of your distance from 'the top'.
Large businesses have clear guidelines on how to do things, which is reassuring for people who like to use refined processes. There's also a much larger chain of seniority, meaning that when you're promoted, there will usually be someone more experienced in your field from whom you can learn.
Support from a team
Bigger teams at large businesses mean that you can get a lot of support on projects.
However, you'll also be vulnerable to the diffusion of responsibility that can happen in large groups.
At a small business, even juniors can have conversations with the MD and senior members of staff. You'll have more opportunities to express your ideas in a less formal, more democratic environment than you would at a large business.
You may have an enthusiastic mentor at a small business, but you'll often find that after the first few months, you'll be mostly left to your own devices. There are fewer people within the company who you can learn from and typically smaller budgets or time available for training events.
A lot of your learning experiences will be hands-on 'trial and error' stories rather than advice received from a mentor -- great for entrepreneurial types but stressful for those who are less self-assured.
Support from a team
At small businesses, you're often a one-man army. You can drive things much more quickly than you could in a large business, but losing that collaboration can impact the quality of the final product, and if something fails, it's all on you.
In a forgiving environment, though, this can lead to incredibly valuable learning experiences.
In an entry-level role, you won't be responsible for anything significant at a large business. However, this means you have very little control, too.
Pace of work
Large businesses typically work quite slowly, but in return they expect perfection. There's a lot of compliance and regulation big businesses need to go through, especially in areas like finance. Because employees of large businesses are used to things taking a while, there's less pressure on you to deliver work quickly.
Large businesses are more efficiently structured, so your workload will more often than not be moderate and manageable.
Because it's highly specialised, though, you might find that you work on a lot of similar projects, which can become monotonous.
Small businesses will often throw you in the deep-end by making you responsible for areas that are significant revenue drivers.
If you perform well, though, you'll get noticed much more quickly than you would in a large business. That attention puts you at the top of the list for a new position with more responsibility -- and better compensation, too.
Pace of work
Small businesses are much faster-paced and require a lot of multi-tasking, but are much more forgiving of mistakes in return. Many entrepreneurs are 'big picture' people who won't be phased if a couple of details are overlooked.
Because small business roles aren't quite as fixed, you may gradually take on more and more things outside of your remit.
You'll also take on more work if someone is on annual leave than you would at a large business because there are fewer people to share the additional work between.
Future career prospects
Large businesses have ready-made networks for you to get involved in due to the size of the workforce. You can make dozens, even hundreds of useful contacts in a variety of departments that will give you a winning edge when it comes to finding future roles.
However, taking time to see clients or customers can be seen as an inefficiency which large businesses combat by having dedicated account managers or sales teams to do on the company's behalf. If you're in a non-client facing role, you'll rarely get out of the office.
Large businesses have dedicated training programmes in place to ensure a clear progression path, most of which involve some sort of formal qualification. They're also more likely to have a fund set aside to help you through those qualifications and can afford to give you more time away from work to achieve them.
However, it might be difficult to persuade a large business to invest in any qualifications that are outside of your specialism.
Small businesses don't have the same ready-made networks as larger counterparts.
On the other hand, you'll have more opportunities to interact with partners or clients since your job description will be less limited. That allows you to create a strong external network that will prove useful when it's time to move on.
You'll also get more face time with senior staff, who might have more influence in their industry than the department heads you'll get to know at a large business.
Small businesses won't have as much of a budget for external training programmes.
However, it's easier to persuade if you believe a particular qualification can bring practical benefits to the business -- e.g. it means you can fill in for someone while they're on annual leave. That means it's easier to broaden your skillset with qualifications to back you up.
Making the right decision
Although large and small business both have their own unique selling points, it's not always straightforward to make a decision.
"Choosing the right kind of company depends on several different factors," says Brian Johnson, Director at Forward Role. "The key is knowing which aspects are, for you, non-negotiable. For example, having clear guidelines might be a must-have; in which case, a large business might be a better fit. Others who prefer working at a fast pace will probably prefer a small business environment."