Choosing a Job: Startups vs Corporations


What is a better place to start a career – a startup or a corporation? What opportunities does each of the options open up to a junior specialist and will greater risks bring greater rewards? Four NES graduates, Dzhangir Dzhangirov (Senior Vice President, Sberbank), Nadia Kotova (Economist, LinkedIn), Dmitry Matskevich (entrepreneur, CEO and Co-Founder, DBrain) and Irina Nazarova (CEO, Evil Martians), compared the two career tracks during NES Popular Science Days. The main points of the discussion follow below. 


A corporation or a startup – what to choose? 

Irina Nazarova: I would give two pieces of advice. First, look for a company where you can grow and develop. It can be very unclear for outsiders, but still, even the first interviews can show how people in the company feel about work. Second, choose a job that is difficult to get, be it in a startup or a corporation. Many people start their career with a job that they get through acquaintances – I would not recommend that. You should start with a challenge, and it will help gain self-confidence.

Choosing between a startup and a corporation to start a career, I would recommend the latter. Junior specialists are usually taught many things in large companies, including the work ethic. You may get this also in a startup, but most likely, it will not have enough resources for the proper training.

Dzhangir Dzhangirov: I think that there are three key differences between working in a corporation and a startup. First, it is the resources. Corporations have plenty of them, and can spend them on employee development. In a startup, you have to look for resources yourself and get them often at high cost. Second is the infrastructure. Corporations usually have it well-established: there are financial, back office and marketing functions, which allow you to save on your efforts during project implementation. But there are also constraints. For example, you can't hire people without higher education for certain positions; you need to use the same technologies as the corporation does; there are very strict cybersecurity and compliance standards, etc. A corporation cannot turn a blind eye to risks, including reputational ones. And the third one is that those who launch a startup can, if successful, exit with a fundamentally different gain compared to when leaving a corporation. Of course, corporations too have bonuses linked to the success of a particular product, so you can quit as a millionaire, but leaving a corporation as a billionaire is difficult, there are only a few examples. Therefore, people with very big ambitions need to start their own business at some point.

Dmitry Matskevich: I would take the opposite stance and say: if there is a large growing market, let's say the US, and I am 16-17 years old, then, of course, I would take the risks and go to a startup that does not have needless policies, infrastructure, procedures. At this age, you can try a lot and make a product with your own hands, learn in close contact with reality. The older you are, the more difficult it is to dive into this environment: you have obligations, a family, you are already used to the golden cage of a corporation, where much is determined by processes and that pays a stable salary. 

On the other hand, I would not advise a startup to hire juniors. Only people with much experience are worth it. Although, perhaps, some may need a young employee. After all, right after graduating from a university, people work very hard, have a lot of energy, are ready to deal with issues and learn – this is also a unique skill that disappears over time. 

Nadia Kotova: I decided that in addition to a stable salary and other bonuses, working in a corporation would give me the opportunity to grow and develop in rather sheltered conditions and smooth the transition to industry from academia (after studying at the PhD program at Stanford – editor). At LinkedIn, I have the opportunity to work on completely different products. In a startup, it is more difficult to spend time working on one project today and on another one tomorrow. After all, startups have limited resources, and you need to set priorities very clearly.

There is also another, psychological reason why I chose the corporation. During my PhD studies, my research success directly depended on me, which is why I began to take any professional failures very personally. The success of a large company at this stage of my career depends very little on my actions, and it is much easier for me to perceive failures and criticism, to abstract from difficulties at work and focus more on personal growth and skill development.


How to build a team? 

Dzhangir Dzhangirov: I have four principles of working with a team. The first one is that you should not treat people on your team as subordinates, but as partners; you need to stop treating employees like people you're giving instructions to. Second, your partners should be much stronger than you in their field. Third, the organizational structure should be created to deal with tasks, and not suit some people – first you need to create the right workplaces, and then hire the right people. Finally, a team needs a certain atmosphere to achieve long-term goals. It is very difficult to establish, it requires understanding of people’s motivation and having a vision for many years ahead. But if you have achieved this, you will get a big bonus – people will sacrifice their interests for the sake of the team.

Dmitry Matskevich: I will add a few thoughts to what has been said. First, for a startup, we try to hire people who have had the experience of working with a small budget and who have a strong sense of responsibility for the result. For example, a product manager from LinkedIn or Yandex would not be a good match for us, because they worked there, most probably, with endless resources. Therefore, I believe that a career in large companies often does not help working in a startup (although sometimes such people can be found in corporations too). 

Secondly, for each stage, you need to look for people with a certain psychotype. For example, with sales of nothing to $1 million, you need one person, from $1 million to $10 million – another, from $10 million to $100 million – a third one. And since startups do not have the capacity to train an employee for a very long time, it is better to start with someone who has passed the stage from nothing to $1 million. A startup is a survival machine, and you should be looking for people to help you get to the next stage. 

Irina Nazarova: The desire to create a product that will help people should come first. The goal of just development (self-development) is not enough. You need the desire to change something in the world. And this may not coincide with the goal of self-development.


Is it possible to find money for a startup now? 

Irina Nazarova: Back in early 2022, many large funds warned their portfolio startups that the investments they got were for the period of at least two years. And, everyone began to save money, postponing the transition to later rounds. But there are enough opportunities for new business. Many companies created during the crisis often become super successful in the future. And although a recession is expected in many countries, and a downturn in the venture capital market, investments in startups at the earliest stage (pre-seed), at launch, are still there.

Dmitry Matskevich: Indeed, the situation depends on the stage of the project. Usually, the time that is bad for large and mature companies is good for those who are just starting. Even during the covid, when all projects were frozen, early-stage investments continued, because everyone understood that the return on investment would come later (when the economic situation improves – editor). It is a bad time for those who are going to IPO or to sell a business. And it is great for those who start something new. In a crisis, it is clear what one can do: clients have many problems that can be solved. 

Dzhangir Dzhangirov: I think that a good idea developed by a strong team will always find an investment. Although the financial markets are shrinking now, there is still a lot of money. $1 million (which is a small amount), and $10 million, and even $100 million can be raised.