Should you join a big company or a start-up?

Big fish in a small pond Flickr user klynslis / Lisa Yarost

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you're going, you may not get there." In other words, if you haven't figured out what you're looking for, you can pretty much forget about finding it.

That's why, at any point in your career -- even early on -- you need to have goals.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is leaving to chance what type of company to work for. In just about any industry you've got big enterprises and small start-ups, public and private companies, market leaders and up-and-comers - all sorts of options.

While it may seem like common sense to think this through before you start submitting resumes for every opportunity you set your eyes on, most people don't. After all, you've got bills to pay. And once you've got an offer staring you in the face, it's pretty hard to suddenly become a discerning job shopper.

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Well, here's the thing: The harsh realities of today's job market and your personal debt notwithstanding, figuring out what's the best fit for you at this or any point in your career will benefit you in some very important ways that most people just don't think about.

It'll help you prioritize your search efforts and improve your chances of a better outcome. You'll come across more driven and focused in interviews, which employers generally love. And it'll maximize your chances of getting a job that will help you achieve long-term success and fulfillment, instead of just collecting a paycheck and living for the weekend.

Just keep one very important thing in mind. Until you've been around the block a few times and been exposed to all sorts of companies -- as I have in my career -- it's a big mistake to listen to what people say, conventional wisdom, or even your own predisposition to join a start-up or whatever you're predisposed to do.

As you'll learn in a minute, many popular notions about this sort of thing are more fiction than fact. They're just myths. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid, consider these four criteria.

Timing is everything

These days, everybody romanticizes start-ups. Gen Y is supposed to be the entrepreneurial generation. Here's the problem with that: When you're building something, you need to build it on a strong, solid, broad foundation. Your career is no different.

If you start out working at start-ups, you're narrowing your perspective too soon. You'll only be exposed to limited management, organizational and leadership processes and practices. And you know what? They're not very likely to be "best practices," that's for sure. And you won't get a lot of basic training or develop important skill-sets that will pay off later on, when it matters most.

You're better off learning the ropes at a big, established company. Get your feet wet, learn the basics, and gain some exposure to the wide world of business, organizations and management. Then, with some knowledge, experience, confidence and credibility under your belt, go out and take on more responsibility and some heftier risk at some start-ups or even midsized public companies. That's what I did and it paid off, big-time.

The "big fish in a small pond" myth

You know the age-old question: Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Well, forget that. Forget all about fishes and ponds. Look, everybody with anything on the ball wants more responsibility. The problem with being a big fish in a small pond is there's not much to eat.

A far more useful question is do you feel more comfortable being a David or a Goliath? If you work for a Goliath -- a big market leader -- you'll have a lot of options and opportunities at your disposal. A lot of people, however, get a real kick out of being the underdog and trying to take down an 800-pound gorilla with a slingshot.

The former type is perhaps motivated by the idea of managing a bigger group with lots of resources or being able to go bigger with product launches and so forth. The latter type is scrappier, likes doing more with less, and enjoys the challenge of accomplishing what's never been done before.

The trick is to figure out where you're going to be most driven, motivated, and happy. Whatever environment gets you out of bed in the morning excited about the day ahead, that's where you want to be. That's where you'll excel.

Are you a turtle or a rabbit?

You know the old story of the tortoise and the hare? Well, for whatever reason that I'm sure a good shrink can explain, some people tend to feel more comfortable with a stable, slow and steady climb up the corporate ladder while others prefer the fits, starts and stresses of entrepreneurial life.

Even if you think you're the latter type, for example, I still think it's a good idea to consider joining a bigger company first. I mean, how do you know for sure unless you check it out?

In any case, once you figure out which path you're more comfortable with, commit to it and go forward with no regrets. Contrary to what you might hear or read, neither track is better, faster, or more lucrative than the other. You can get to the top either way. I know lots of CEOs who worked their way up the chain at just one or two big companies. Not me. I'm a little more, okay, a lot more "ADD" than that.

Public or private?

People are always asking me if it's better to work for a public or private company. Well, if you're looking for a big payout and you're able to get significant equity, the best place to be is either a late-stage start-up or a beleaguered public company with big upside potential. Either one offers the potential of a big equity windfall.

Obviously, early stage start-ups are very high risk because most fail -- in which case your equity is worthless -- and it takes years to find out if you're going to make it or not. On the other hand, big market-leading public companies offer better salary and benefits but little in the way of equity upside unless you're a senior executive.

As for corporate culture, bureaucracy, and all that, don't buy into the conventional wisdom. It really depends on the individual company. Some big public companies still have that entrepreneurial feel. They're fast-paced, adaptable and light on their feet. Some start-ups are like working in a dysfunctional hell with petty fiefdoms and control-freak executives. You just can't generalize about that sort of thing, in my experience. 

One last thing: I know everyone loves black and white answers these days. Well, the sooner you realize that the real world isn't black and white, the better. Career choices are no exception. There are lots of factors, including where you are in your career and what type of person you are. And that changes over time. If all else fails, make a decision, go with it and learn from it. Works for me.

Many thanks to reader Debra Feldman for the idea.

Image courtesy Flickr user klynslis / Lisa Yarost

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