Everybody has a template of questions they tend to run through when they meet somebody new (‘Where are you from?’ ‘How do you know [mutual friend]?’) and once you start skidding in to your early/mid twenties ‘What do you do?’ tends to make an appearance in the line-up. I’ve always kind of felt like this line of questioning, more so than any other, is like the adult human version of sniffing each other’s butts. Because it tells you so much about a person right off the bat – their lifestyle, their interests perhaps, how much they probably earn, and gives you a neat little package of talking points. I live in London, and asking what someone else does for a living is like a sport here. Which company, why that company in particular, do you know this or that person, how long have you been there, do you like it, and – one that for for a long time I struggled to answer – what size is the company you work for. (Quick sidebar to add that size/measurements are kind of a blind spot for me. I don’t know why, but I have had so many conversations that go like this: Person- ‘How far is it?’ Me- ‘I think like four kilometres?’ Person- ‘Four kilometres?’ Me- ‘Or 500 metres, I don’t know.’) So my answer to that kind of question was usually that it was biggish, with somewhere between five and 1,000 people working there, never really knowing why they would be interested in that information. But over the last few years I’ve realised that there is a pretty big distinction between working at a large company or a smaller company, like a start-up.
There is a lot to be said for working at a large company. Your income and your employment is usually more secure, they have things like contracts and a legal/HR department. If you’re having problems with a co-worker, you know who to talk to. If you want a pay rise, or a promotion, or some different responsibilities, there are channels to go through and everything is documented. I know all that sounds like a snore, but – as I’ve said in previous columns – once you’ve worked at a place that doesn’t have those kinds of structures you quickly realise their value. If you’re lucky, workplace disputes, harassments, getting fired, happen very very rarely. But when something like that does happen and isn’t dealt with properly, seriously shitty things can happen. Like you lose your job for no good reason and have no legal recourse. I can only speak from personal experience, but start-ups can often play fast and loose with things like contracts and HR so be wary of that type of thing if you’re looking in to working at a small company.
However, the flip side of that looser company structure at a start-up is that you can have the freedom to try new things and gain new experience. Say you’re at a little company which is building an app, as a designer you could try out all kinds of skill sets – interaction, icon design, UX, responsive or adaptive design. You can even have first experience of things like budgets, hiring, and pitching for new business. Larger companies will have a bigger design team, and each designer will probably have their own specialised field to work in. There’s usually less room to get involved in different projects, because your role has already been defined before you started there. And that can be another con for big companies – you might start to feel alienated from what you’re creating. They have their production line workflow set up, you work on your little corner, pass it on to somebody else, and then another person in another department takes the credit. No workplace is perfect, but if you’re a person who really needs to feel connected to what they’re working on, a start-up may be for you.
One trend that’s started to bleed over from start-ups to larger companies is the concept of a ‘flat management structure’, and lately I’ve started feeling that, like communism or polygamy, it’s really great in theory and usually a disaster IRL. A good example is a company like GitHub, which started very small, grew quickly and last year found itself tied up in a pretty serious harassment investigation. GitHub, like a lot of start ups, prided itself on having a flat hierarchy, meaning no middle managers or job titles. This apparently worked for them for a long time, and they often boasted that no employee had ever quit, until an engineer was accused of sexual harassment and one of the founders was suspended. Threats and allegations were thrown around on Twitter, and the whole thing seemed to be a total mess – something that, a lot of commentators have pointed out, could have been avoided if the company had more clear channels for filing grievances. Jo Freeman, author of the 1972 essay, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ describes her experience in ‘leaderless’ feminist groups in the 1960s and points out that, “…any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.” She goes on to note that in non-hierarchical groups, power structures are invisible and therefore unaccountable. I would also say (again, just from personal experience), management likes to toss out terms like ‘flat hierarchy’ when it’s most beneficial to them, i.e. ‘I’ll get paid more than you, but if a co-worker’s harassing you, you’re on your own.’ Of course, there’s every chance that your work mates are capable of being totally cool with each other, but approach with caution nonetheless.
All of the above should be considered if you’re trying to make up your mind about what kind of company you want to work for, but really the best thing is to just try different things and see what’s best for you. I know people who will only work at start-ups and recoil at the thought of working for a big organisation. I’ve also met people who worked at a start-up once five years ago and still have nightmares about it. Like most things, it just comes down to what kind of person you are and what kind of experience you want to have. Every place you work at will be different and have its own set of pros and cons – just make sure you know your rights, and do your research.