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Start-up, Scale-up or Big Corp: How to Choose the Right Work Environment for You

On average, people spend about 50% of their waking hours working. It’s no wonder our work environment significantly impacts our happiness and satisfaction, and if we have a choice, we all want the time we spend working to be time well spent. 

Typically, the company type or stage and the size set the tone for the culture and environment. You’ll find that experienced professionals have preferences and passions for particular businesses, such as start-ups, scale-ups, or large corporations. Each has its pros and cons. 

Let’s look at the types of work environments and companies so that you can learn how to choose the right work environment for you.


A start-up is a company in the initial stages of business. It’s usually still developing its business model to grow exponentially. This phase is the riskiest stage of a company’s life cycle (around 75% of start-ups fail). Just this brief description gives a glimpse into what you can expect working here: you’ll experience change, focus on growth and experimentation, and must be hard-working, agile, and committed to the company’s purpose. 

10 Things to know about the start-up environment

  1. Employees tend to be young, collaborative risk-takers attracted to the creative culture and opportunity to build something from the ground up. 
  1. The job you’re hired for could evolve as the business’s strategy changes.
  1. Small teams mean you’ll often work out of your wheelhouse to get the job done. If the workload isn’t effectively managed, it could mean long hours. 
  1. Start-ups are rarely hierarchical, so ample opportunities exist to diversify your skillset. But, with only a few roles, promotions may be less common.
  2. You’ll have access to smart digital tools that make work asynchronous, efficient, and remote.
  1. Unfortunately, poor management is common among start-ups and contributes significantly to their failure, even in start-ups with high potential. Regardless, the environment offers an opportunity to learn directly from leaders and entrepreneurial founders.
  1. The niche focus, smaller size, and lack of bureaucracy allow start-ups to innovate and introduce new products and services faster than corporates.
  2. Communication between employees and leaders is transparent and open, and you’re likely to be involved in decision-making.
  1. It’s a fast-paced environment, so you must be flexible enough to adapt to constant change and be comfortable with uncertainty. 
  1. Start-ups typically don’t offer the benefits you get at larger companies. Still, the payoff is personally being able to impact the culture and business trajectory.


When a company has a mature and profitable product or service and has established a product-market fit, it generally moves into scale-up territory. The scale-up phase is typically fast-paced, focusing on growth, recruitment, and market expansion. 

10 Things to know about scale-ups

  1. Employees’ experience levels range from junior to senior, teams are larger, and organisation structures are more formalised. 
  1. Joining a scale-up is less ‘risky’ – meaning the company has proven itself in the market but is still growing and evolving.
  1. Like start-ups, fast company growth means your role and competencies could change. It’s an exciting opportunity but can be challenging for some.
  1. With more roles and teams, you have the ability to promote and move laterally across departments.
  2. Scale-ups hire more specialised people with more defined roles instead of all-rounders.
  1. Scale-ups offer great opportunities to the emerging workforce, with eight in 10 employing graduates and six in 10 offering apprenticeships and/or work experience.
  1. Scaling up can create isolating silos as departments are formed, which could impact the ease of cross-functional collaboration.
  2. As a company scales up, it may become less transparent in its decision-making processes.
  1. Scale-ups are perfect for innovators who like to take the initiative and want to make a positive impact while meeting their career growth ambitions.
  1. Rapid organisational change means the ‘move fast and break things’ culture could replace a high-pressured, goal-focused market culture.

Big corporations

Large companies have established themselves as leaders in their respective industries. Although intensive growth could have slowed down by this stage, they have enough resources to weather economic downturns and invest in long-term projects and their people. Generally, they’ll seek to expand their product or service and global footprint.

10 Things to know about big corporations

  1. You’ll be working in large teams with diverse professionals who are potentially located around the world. 
  1. Big corporations typically have well-known brands, and working for them adds value and recognition to your CV.
  1. There is a clear organisational hierarchy and established job descriptions; you’ll operate in the role you were hired for. 
  1. Big companies have well-defined processes, which offer pros and cons. Decisions may be slower and processes less agile, but the steps are already established. 
  1. There’s often less transparency when sharing information with the employees. 
  1. You’ll typically be offered work perks and benefits, from subsidised food and free coffee to health insurance and retirement savings. 
  1. You have access to large pools of working resources and exposure to a diverse, multicultural working environment.
  1. While they’re highly efficient, large companies are less open to change. Your creativity, ingenuity, and ability to think outside the box may not be prioritised.
  2. There are many opportunities for professional development through learning and development programmes, mentorship, and networking.
  3. You’ll learn valuable skills to launch your own business and start-up. 

Align your strengths and interests with a company

Understanding a business’s structure and life cycle gives you a glimpse into the culture, pace, and career potential. 

Each company above shows the signs of a positive work environment – but there may be one more suited to your personality, strengths, and goals. Here are three steps for how to choose the right work environment for you:

  1. Understand yourself. Do a personality test like Enneagram or Gallop Clifton Strengths to help you figure out your character traits, preferences, and behavioural patterns. Consider how risk-averse you are, how important established procedures are, and whether you’d like to be a part of something new and evolving or join a more established and stable environment.
  1. Research the company culture. There are always exceptions to the norm – even the most established company can still be agile and open to change. You’ll learn much about the culture and environment by exploring a business’s careers and mission page, LinkedIn, and social media. Also, browse employer review sites. If it’s a large company, you can also research what press it receives (and even its stock fluctuation). 
  1. Start networking. If you’re interested in a company, reach out to an employee (LinkedIn makes networking very easy and accessible in this way). You may hear about opportunities before they’re advertised, establish a relationship before an interview, and get a first-hand account of the culture.


Use interviews to your benefit

Choosing the right work environment can lead to a job that increases your happiness and satisfaction, and influences your career trajectory.

One of the best opportunities to assess a working environment fit is during an interview.  You can unearth a lot when you phrase a question diplomatically and ask it with genuine interest. Here are ten questions to ask during a culture-fit interview:

  1. What would a typical day for me in this role look like?
  2. What is the preferred way of communicating here?
  3. Do you expect my responsibilities to change in the next six to 12 months?
  4. How will my role support the company to reach its goals?
  5. What type of people are successful here, and how are they rewarded?
  6. What’s your favourite part of working here, and what excites you about the company’s future?
  7. How do employees contribute to the company’s values?
  8. How has the company changed over the last few months/years?
  9. What challenges are the company facing?
  10. What’s your favourite office tradition?


What’s next? Once you’ve decided on a company and applied for a role, this is how you can prepare for (and nail) a job interview.

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