Corporate culture vs startup culture: which office culture is the right fit for you?

There’s a lot of idealization about what it means to work at a startup. When you picture working at a startup you might envision a trendy open concept space (with exposed brick walls, of course) crowded with young, tech-savvy individuals dressed in plaid who tap away at the keyboards of shiny laptops, everyone brimming with big dreams and innovative ideas.

This is just one vision of startup culture, albeit one often seen in pop culture. The truth is working at a startup is like working anywhere else. There are pros and cons, and no two startups are exactly alike. Startups have lots a lot of great things going for them – flexible office culture, close connection to your work, room to be innovative – but there’s plenty of negatives, too – low pay, risk of failure, lots of responsibility placed squarely on your shoulders.

Whether you prefer to work in a startup culture or a corporate culture is a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong. It’s about choosing which office culture aligns best with your personality and work habits.

What you can expect working at a startup

High risk, lots of potential

It should go without saying that working at a startup is a risk. Hopefully, you’re working for the company because you believe in it, but even so, there are no guarantees. Startups are volatile. You’re working on something new and untested, hoping there’s a need. If the company does well, congratulations! You’re in on the ground floor and the potential for financial rewards and career advancement are huge. If the company doesn’t do so well, you may find yourself out of a job and wondering what went wrong. 

More opportunities to be a leader

Startups are full of opportunities to lead. You could be working on a team of only a handful of people. Chances are you’re the only one in your role. There’s nowhere to hide. You have no choice but to make important decisions on a daily basis. Sure, you may confer with colleagues, but you’re the resident specialist in what you do.

An opportunity to be a jack-of-all-trades

At a startup, everyone’s required to wear multiple hats. When you’re working on a team with only a few others, you have to be flexible and take on some tasks that might otherwise be out of your purview. Your job title might be ‘web developer,’ but you may also handle graphic design, social media updates and marketing. There’s simply not enough manpower to assign a different person to each of these tasks. This can be great if you get bored easily and thrive in a fast paced working environment.

Lower pay

Startups tend to be pressed for cash. Instead of offering highly competitive salaries, employees are sold on the idea of potential; take a lower than market-rate salary now, and in a few years you’ll be sitting pretty when your hard work pays off. You may be offered equity or other incentives to sweeten the deal.

Your work is mostly proactive

At a startup, it’s up to you and your coworkers to build a company from nothing. You aren’t yet established in your industry, so you don’t have a large base of clients who constantly need things from you. Instead, the majority of your day is spent figuring out how to grow the company and gain new business.

Chance to shape the office culture

At a startup, the company culture hasn’t yet solidified. The company’s founders may provide a baseline, but there’s plenty of room for you to put your fingerprint on it. You’re in a prime position to call shots, start traditions, voice your opinions and influence hiring. Maybe your coworkers won’t always listen, but you’ll have a seat at the table. You’ll also feel a sense of ownership you might not at a larger corporation.

More responsibility, more accountability

At a startup, you are your job. Need to take a sick day? Then your work will wait until you return, because you’re it. Most startups simply don’t have the resources to have backups. You’ll also probably be expected to take on more than one responsibility for efficiency’s sake. The upside is that successes can be directly attributed to your hard work. Inversely, if one of your ideas fail, everyone will know that too.

Work-life balance leans more to work

With a small team, every contribution is essential to keep things running smoothly. At a startup, you may be required to put in a lot more effort – and hours – to keep the ship on course. This can mean your personal life takes a backseat to work commitments at times. Be prepared for overtime hours and long nights.

What you can expect working at a corporation

Low risk, predictable rewards

At a corporation, there are lots of measures in place to ensure the company’s success. Even if profits decline for a quarter or two, there’s ample time for recovery. One wrong turn won’t crush the company. You’ll always be paid no matter how the company performs. You’ll also receive benefits and regular raises to keep up with the cost of living, or maybe a little more if you’re lucky, however a big salary spike is unlikely unless you climb up the ladder.

A political climate

Gather more than 20 professionals together in a business and politics become necessary. At a large organization, the corporate ladder is much more clearly outlined than at a startup, where everyone is (mostly) on the same level. Roles are split into junior, intermediate and senior status. To move up the ladder, you must understand and follow the political rules at your company and appeal to decision makers.

Opportunity to be a specialist

At a corporation you’re assigned a role that you own. You know what your responsibilities are and you have specialized skills that allow you to do that role well. You may have to hit certain targets or manage a particular subset of the business, but your duties are well defined and predictable. This allows you to become an expert in your niche.

Enter a defined office culture

Joining an organization that’s already established means buying into the brand and an office culture that was formed long before you ever set foot in the building. You may be working for one of the world’s most recognizable brands. You know what you’re getting into and you expect it. Though the corporate culture may be pre-set, there can be perks that startups can’t afford, like education reimbursement, travel, and rewards programs.

Higher pay

Most companies have a set salary structure, depending on your job title and years of experience. You can expect a salary that’s in line with the market rate, and annual increases.

Your work is mostly reactive

Your employer already has a massive client base, so the majority of your time is dedicated to keeping them happy, rather than drumming up new business. When your company’s customers encounter problems or make requests and it’s up to you to handle them. Most of your workday is spent solving issues as they occur, rather than getting in front of them.

Less responsibility, less impact

Corporations tend to have defined, specialist roles. You’re given a particular assignment or project, and it’s your responsibility. You know what’s expected of you each day. It’s stable and consistent, but you’re a small part in large machine. While your work may be important, it’s difficult to draw a direct line between your successes and the success of the organization as a whole.

Work-life balance leans more to life

It’s easier to have work-life balance at a larger company. Your role has been designed to fit within a set number of core hours. At most large organizations full-time employees work between 35 and 45 hours, and are rarely called upon to put out fires outside core business hours (8 am to 6 pm). With a predictable work schedule and few after-hours intrusions, it’s easier to make plans outside of work. You’ll also be entitled to several weeks of vacation, and taking it will have minimal consequences on business performance.

Whether you decide startup or corporate culture is the right fit for you, Randstad has lots of exciting job opportunities you’ll love. Need help finding the right fit? Reach out to a Randstad branch near you to book an appointment with a recruiter.

about the author

Kristen Smalley - Content Manager

As someone who firmly believes that variety is the spice of life, content marketing has been a natural career path for me. Every day brings a chance to think creatively and learn about exciting new topics. Whether it's tackling content on employment trends, how to handle tough interview questions, or keeping safe in the workplace, there's always interesting topics waiting to be explored in the world of work!


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