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There are thousands of software-development teams in the world that work similar hours, use similar tools, and adhere to similar planning-practices. However, startups can sometimes out-perform larger organizations with vastly more resources. In the short-term, this is often the result of clever planning & heroic individual efforts. However, over months & years, I think it's the seemingly small cultural differences that compound and eventually separate the best startups from the rest of the industry.

The core difference is this: startups can attract, retain, and motivate top-talent because they're exciting:

  • If the company succeeds, you will make a life-changing amount of money
  • Your efforts can significantly change the company's chance of succeeding
  • You can grow quickly by assuming broad responsibilities
  • You can move faster without upsetting a bureaucracy or risking an established brand
  • Often, the whole company is focused on a single altruistic mission, with no fallback-plan.

In response, many large companies have tried to pick & choose specific aspects of startup culture & instill them into their corporate culture. Recruiters from every company love to drop the following line to engineering applicants:

The team you're applying for actually operates like a startup within this big company.

To me, this feels inauthentic, and perhaps a bit cargo-cultish. Most of the supposed "startup-like" traits advertised by big-co recruiters are now just industry-standards that have little to do with the unique appeal of startups:

  • Small, autonomous teams
  • Multiple micro-services instead of large monolithic projects
  • Agile product-development schedules
  • Some elements of a "flat" hierarchy, at least during ideation

The upside of a steady promotion track just can't compete with the potential to exit the labor-economy, freeing up the rest of one's life from needing to trade time for money. I think this, combined with the smaller perceived sphere-of-impact, is why large companies can't authentically nurture an entrepreneurial spirit.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery

However, most startups fail, so you probably won't get rich or have much of an impact at all. Many large companies pay engineers extremely well, and in-fact my friends at the top firms (Google and Facebook) have out-earned me so far by 2x or 3x, with significantly less stress & uncertainty in their lives.

The stress & uncertainty haven't bothered me to date, as it's still a very comfortable living, and I've learned more without the training-wheels of a large corporate umbrella. I also have significant equity stakes in 3 companies that might be wildly successful one day (in addition to ~5 that will certainly not).

Anyways, there are many different aspects to human-motivation, some of which are more rational than others. Any organization can cultivate morale by hiring empathetic people, painting a clear career-vision for new employees, and seeking professional coaching for new managers. At the end of the day, growth solves a lot of problems, as it creates advancement opportunity for everyone. Without it, every tactic seems like a half-measure, and with it, nobody cares whether you describe yourself as a startup or not.

Advice to Young Engineers

My advice for ambitious people is to go work for a medium-sized startup that is growing.\

  • Buy into the culture 100%
  • Work hard
  • Make friends
  • Stay long enough to get promoted

That's how you'll learn the most.

Other Opinions

  • Balaji S. Srinivasan agrees and adds lack-of-founder-figure as another reason.