Household names. We all know them. Walmart, Target, Bank of America, Nike, Coca-Cola. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the job market.
Why work at a small marketing agency when you could be at Digitas on Park Avenue? Who wants to work at a local news station when you could be at NBC headquarters? Working for your mom’s best friend’s uncle is so unsexy when you could be consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers!
Looking back on my own career, I am not 100 percent sure why I was so focused on the Fortune 500 when it came to my job search. Was it brand name? Probably. Elitism? Yes. Did I want to show off at a cocktail party? Of course! Fancy role at a fancy name company equals instant success, right?
Wrong! (At least for me.) I found that when it came to looking for a job, especially when I was new to the job market or changing careers, going with a brand name was actually a less than thrilling experience.
I didn’t get the chance to explore.
We live in a culture that is all about status. Amass enough degrees, accolades, certificates, fancy titles and you’re good to go! But what’s next? When you’ve exhausted all the accolade-getting, what will you be left doing all day, every day? Will you like it?
Good, strong, successful careers take years to build — years that are hard, spent nose to the grindstone building yourself a foundation.
When I entered a new industry, my number one goal was not necessarily to just succeed — not yet anyway. My number one goal was to explore.
I needed to get a lay of the land, test out a few different roles, try out different departments and explore different angles before I dug in for the long haul. I had to discover what I liked by learning what I didn’t like.
The problem with big companies is that though they have lots of departments, those departments are usually very siloed — sometimes even in different buildings or different cities!
In the best case scenario of working in a large company, I learned A LOT about the specific task of my department. At worst, I found myself stuck in a quagmire of inefficiency, learning only that I didn’t like meetings.
I once got a job at a fancy media company. It’s a name you would know. My office was in Times Square! I had my own cubicle! I hob-nobbed with VPs!
And then, business got slow in January and February, and for six weeks straight my manager cancelled our daily meeting. That was the only thing on my schedule. For six weeks I sat in my cubicle wondering what to do that day with the rest of my team seven floors away — and no one to give me anything to do.
On the other hand, when I was a photo editor at a much smaller company, running out of work was exciting! That was my chance to saunter over to one of the other teams and learn what they were working on.
Smaller companies tend to be much more nimble and fluid, and, importantly, chronically understaffed. Hey! You’re interested in engineering or marketing? Awesome! They would love to have you sit in on meetings! Want to try out event planning? Volunteer for it! More hands are always welcome.
Granted, I wasn’t learning how big companies operated, but at that moment in my career that was OK. I didn’t need to know how to manage 30,000 employees in four countries (yet). I just needed to make sure that what I was doing was something that I was interested enough in to do it every day for the next 20 (or so) years.
At a big company, I would have had to climb every rung of the ladder–one at a time.
Yes, my corporate job paid well and, more importantly, reliably!
But in exchange for that stability, I faced extreme rigidity. When I got a full-time offer from huge mc-big-corp, they offered me 10 percent less than I had been making at my previous gig because I didn’t have enough years of work experience to qualify for a higher salary bracket. No matter that I was the only producer on their digital team with any technical expertise, their HR department was bound to the “rules” and that was that.
So, yes, I could have relied on an annual raise but I was guaranteed to be compensated not for my talent but for my…age?
No thanks. I would rather be CEO of a smaller company and bear the risk, with at least the chance of an upside.
Similarly, in her 2012 commencement speech at Harvard Business School, Sheryl Sandberg shared a conversation she had with Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, about her concerns about the job title Eric wanted to give her at Google. She felt like the title was a bit junior for her taste.
In response, Eric Schmidt said to her: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
When you start with a company in its early or growth stages, you have the opportunity to grow with the company, and grow much faster than you generally could in a set-in-stone corporation.
Remember, today’s new startup is tomorrow’s brand name.