does working for a small company harm your job search?

A reader writes:

Here’s the deal: I work for a small nonprofit. There are currently 10 of us. I like the work I do but am on the lookout for new positions, as the organization is looking to merge with another organization at some point and I might be out of a job then anyway.

I had an interview a few weeks ago and I mentioned offhand that the company is small (I can’t remember the context, but it seemed relevant at the time). The woman I was interviewing with wrote down that there were 10 people in the company, and underlined it many times. I noticed, so I quickly followed up with “even though it’s a small organization, we are a consulting firm so I work with dozens of clients at any given time,” and made a mental note to never mention company size again.

Fast forward to last week, where I was asked by a recruiter what the bonus structure is at my current company, and I said that we don’t have one. He was taken aback by that, so I said “it’s a small nonprofit, so no bonuses,” and he asked how many people there are. I hesitated for a moment before being honest, since it would take about 30 seconds of research to see the staff listings on our website.

So, does size really matter? Am I hurting my chances at getting another job because the company is so small? I’ve worked for very large companies in the past, and can’t really see how a small company would be damaging. I work with the same number of people (probably even more in my current company, since there are fewer people to do the work) and am busier than I have ever been. I’ve been here for 3 years, and would like to move on at some point, but part of me thinks I should push to leave faster, since staying here long term might work against me. Any thoughts?

Size can matter or not, depending on the type of work that you do.

If you’re, say, a therapist working one-on-one with clients, then it probably doesn’t really matter whether you work for a small 10-person practice or a large state agency. The meat of your work is basically the same, regardless (with some exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute).

On the other hand, if you’re, say, an HR director, then size does matter. Your job is going to be very different if you’re dealing with HR issues for a 15-person company versus a 3,000-person company. You’re going to have more people reporting to you, a larger budget you’re responsible for, a broader and deeper range of issues to handle, and you’re going to be working with more stakeholders, many of whom are very senior themselves. Similarly, managing I.T. for 40 users is very different than managing it for 4,000. Doing media relations for a small trade association is different than doing it for a large and high-profile union. And so forth.

That’s not to say that bigger equals better. It’s just different. If you’ve been at smaller companies, you might know how to thrive in a more agile culture and be comfortable with more flexibility in your role. That can be attractive to an employer. On the other hand, you might chafe at the structure of larger companies, and that can be a concern as well. The reverse is also true: Smaller employers often worry that someone coming from a large, very bureaucratic environment will have trouble adjusting to a fast-paced culture where decisions are made in minutes instead of months and where they’re expected to wear multiple hats. (And actually, this is a reason that company size might be noted even in the therapist example above; even when company size doesn’t affect the actual work you do, an employer might wonder how you’ll adjust to their differently-sized culture and environment — but again, that’s more about cultural adjustment than the actual work you were doing.)

And yes, some interviewers do see “large company” as shorthand for “this person was able to excel in an environment with more competition” and “small company” as shorthand for “this person hasn’t yet been tested in a large, complex environment.” And sometimes that’s accurate, but often it’s not.

Good interviewers will look at what you achieved wherever you were … but — as the examples above show — sometimes the size of where you’re working really does impact the work that you do, and it’s helpful to be realistic about whether that’s the case for you or not.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. AnotherAlison

    “And yes, some interviewers do see “large company” as shorthand for “this person was able to excel in an environment with more competition” . . .

    Some people at large companies also don’t understand the appeal of working at a small company and may assume if you weren’t good enough to get hired at a large, industry-leading type of company before. . .so why are you good enough now? The thinking is no one would choose a 10-person consulting firm over McKinsey, if they had an opportunity for both.

    1. Laura L

      I encountered this when I went to college. “Why did you choose a small liberal arts college? Couldn’t you hack it at an Ivy or other major research university?”

      That attitude was frustrating at the time, but I wouldn’t trade my college experience for the world.

      1. Chinook

        I heard the same comments about graduating from a small high school (grad class of 9 people). My response has always been that a small group allows you to try new things and new roles because there is no one else to do stuff.

        1. Laura L

          I agree re: trying new things. Definitely a benefit to being a big fish in a small pond. Or a regular sized fish in a small pond.

        2. Kelly O

          My school was larger – there were 75 in my graduating class – but there were lots of things I got to do purely because there weren’t as many of us, and anyone with a little initiative could pretty much do whatever she wanted.

          1. Laura L

            Yeah I dated a guy in college who went to a very small high school (probably around the size of yours, Kelly O) and I was jealous of all the leadership positions he held and activities he’d joined! I was always competing against 500 other students (in my class) for those types of things.

  2. Lynn

    I’ve had the opposite problem. After working at the Impossibly Big Megacorp, I had a hard time convincing small companies that I could handle their fast-paced, nimble ways of doing things and wouldn’t insist on having everything filled out in quadruplicate.

  3. Anonymous

    As a former employee of a small business, I think it gave me a leg-up in my next job search because I had worn SO MANY HATS during my time there. At times I made copies, at other times I was doing things that other companies had directors doing. (The downside of this was that sometimes I think I came across as a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ type of candidate to employers). Overall, working for a small business really helped boost my resume and skill set. Focus on those things and demonstrate your adaptability.

    1. Anonymous

      I wonder about this too. Will I come across as having a little bit of experience in many things but no expertise in anything specific? I wear many, many hats, but in bigger companies, there are entire departments dedicated to some of the things that only I do here. I can only assume that they’re more skilled than I am.

      1. Karthik

        >but no expertise in anything specific

        No, I think you’d be fine. It’s not like just because it’s a small company you can half-ass your work. You wear many hats, but you have to put just much effort into each of those hats as you would if you wore just one hat at a large company.

      2. KC

        My “jack of all trades, master of none” experience is what got me into software project management. I’d done SEO, HTML email campaigns, was fluent in HTML/CSS, had some experience with JavaScript and SQL, had trained my replacements as I moved around to various roles, and handled a lot of mentoring/odds and ends. All of that translated in being really good at working as an intermediary between development and the business. I studied English Lit at college, but I daresay that I’m a good project manager (at least in a small-mid size business setting–being a a megacorp would drive me nuts).

    2. Anonymous

      (I will add that coming from a small business WILL influence some interviewers, no matter how spectacular you are. I interviewed for 13 jobs in my last search and I had one interviewer make several disparaging remarks about my “transition to a corporate environment”. It didn’t matter what I said, he wasn’t going to change his mind. Let’s just say I was not heartbroken when I never heard from them again.)

    3. Runon

      I was really worried about this in my job search. I framed it as I had a lot of opportunities to do a wide range of things, and now I’m ready to really get in depth in one area and focus on that.

      I mainly looked at moving to still small (40-200) but larger than I had been (2) organizations, but I ended up with a very large gvt org. Talking about the ability to respond to change and work very quickly and under high pressure (you don’t get this grant you don’t have a job) helped quite a bit I think. It has certainly been a significant culture change and I do think I’d be happier at a smaller org.

      1. maisie

        I really like this: “I framed it as I had a lot of opportunities to do a wide range of things, and now I’m ready to really get in depth in one area and focus on that.”

        I’m in the same boat, where I’ve been working at small companies and have done a LOT of varied work. Now I’m looking to move into a more high-paying position, but I enjoyed so much of my previous work that it’s hard to figure out what direction to go in. I have a lot of great achievements from my work, but lots of different areas. For example, I redesigned a payroll system at one job I worked for, and implemented a successful advertising program at another. But when I do find a job that I want to apply for, I worry that there will be so many candidates with specialised experience that I’m disadvantaged. It’s hard starting out your career!

        1. Anonymous

          “But when I do find a job that I want to apply for, I worry that there will be so many candidates with specialised experience that I’m disadvantaged. It’s hard starting out your career!”

          I wish I had advice but I’m in the same boat.

        2. Runon

          That was very much what I worried about, but it ended up not being a huge issue for me. I think because in most of the positions I applied for they were looking for someone who was flexible and willing to learn new things. (And part of it is most of the jobs I applied to required software skills that were burdgeoning, hey brand new program. We need someone to learn it. Ohohoh! Me!)

          Even big companies need people to do 10 things at once.

          1. twentymilehike

            EXCELLENT discussion! I am SO with you guys on this one … small company, many hats, specialized competition. I find myself really working on my resume wording with every job I apply for. It’s really a cross between a juggling act and a puzzle to figure out what things from your current role apply the best to the role you are trying to get.

            I think you really do get the advantage of Flexible and Adaptable when you come from a really small company.

      2. Hunny

        This is great. I went from a three person nonprofit with many hats (all of which were micromanaged to my extreme frustration) to a 35 person nonprofit in a 2 person department. It was great because during the interview I kept mentioning more and more projects I oversaw at the small place and impressed my interviewers because it showed how good I could be at managing my time, taking on additional responsibilities, and learning new things. It also helped that I really wanted to focus on the particular skill set needed for the new job and could show quantifiable success in that skill set.

    4. Elizabeth West

      I’m having the opposite thing going from small companies to a big one. At the small places, I was stuck in one role, with nowhere to go from there except departments that don’t fit my abilities or interests. In order to learn and grow, I had to move on.

      Now I’m at a huge place where requisition and tech are micromanaged to the extreme, but there are so many things to learn that I never had the chance to do before. Even simple things like book a meeting room! I did not know how to do that, but I do now. And there are places to go, and scads of free training. So many resources make me a better, smarter worker. :)

  4. A nony cat

    Yes, size can matter, but it also isn’t always a major sticking point. Ymmv depending on your role and the individual organization, but I’m guessing that you probably have some distinct advantages and disadvantages from your experience. (Since you didn’t mention your specific role, I’m basing this off of my person experiences.)

    Your advantages:
    There is a good chance you were able to take on more responsibility than you would have elsewhere. You also might have been the XYZ program officer/coordinator instead of one of many. So emphasize your independent working abilities, fast learning, and your level of responsibility. At a small org, there is also a chance that your role was very broad, so you have experience with client services and budgeting, and communications.

    Disadvantages:
    Especially in a non-profit environment, you might not have experience with the administrative requirements of large private and government grants (which are very important at larger organizations). This can be a really big problem if the roles you are applying for require experience with particular funders’ procedures. IME, this is the hardest barrier to overcome.

    Every project you worked on might be much smaller in scope than the larger organizations–yes, you may have completely managed a bunch of $25,000 projects with a team of 3, but that’s very different from managing $5 million projects with a team of 30. Even for more minor things, this can come up (I was once asked how many project expense reports I processed a week. I had processed about 6 per year .)

    Sometimes question about teamwork come up, but I think these are easy to get around–as you did, mention working with lots of different clients and there shouldn’t be too big a problem.

    You also might need to look at jobs that are a step down in terms of title (but not a step down in terms of responsibility)–for example, you might go from being the “director” of a whole program at the small org to the “manager” of a single project within a department at a large org, or CEO of an entire small organization to Director of a program.

  5. ThursdaysGeek

    The OP said “I’ve worked for very large companies in the past” so you just need to emphasize that you’ve worked for BOTH large and small companies. Does it matter that much that the most recent was small, as long as you can point out how well you work in both environments?

  6. Joey

    It really depends on the interviewer. There’s positives and negatives. But I think in general if you’ve only worked for small companies you have to be able to demonstrate that you can adapt to the changes. That’s going to be the big question if you have the skills. Frequently i wonder if folks will get frustrated by specializing, bureacracy, large and spreadout teams, politics, lack of access to decision makers, and out of the loop on the biggest issues. Show the interviewer that you can adapt and will bring valuable skills that others are unlikely to have and you’re golden.

  7. Just a Reader

    I transitioned from a 5-person company to a 100-person company, then from a 100-person company to a Fortune 500.

    The first leap was harder because of the autonomy typically granted in a small business. Going somewhere with processes was a brand-new ball game. Also, I found I got lowballed on the initial offer because small companies in my field are notorious for not paying well.

    The second leap went a lot more smoothly–the level of responsibility, experience running lean & mean on a small company budget and desire to drill down in one area helped make the move to the Fortune 500.

    There are lots of things to learn in small companies that benefit big corporations–you just need to highlight them.

  8. FormerManager

    Would it be possible to move from a small company to a more mid-size company then a larger company? That’s sort of what I’ve been doing. Each company I’ve been with has been a little larger than the previous.

  9. COT

    My husband’s two long-term, FT jobs since college were both for very small companies under 10 people. He recently transitioned to a Fortune 50 company, where he’s one of 355,000 employees. He’s very happy and doing very well. None of his job titles/duties bear much relation to each other on the surface (nor to his college degree), but his skills were very transferable. His current boss loves that he takes on all sorts of new improvements and projects in his spare time, things no one else has the expertise to do. And his broad experience give him good options in other departments when he’s eligible for promotions.

    It can be tough. I work for a small nonprofit where my job has grown incredibly diverse over time. Sometimes that is definitely an asset, because if asked if I have experience in X, Y, or Z, I can almost always say yes. I can add all sorts of different accomplishments/duties to my resume when I apply for a wide range of jobs. But if asked how much experience I have in a particular area… sometimes that experience doesn’t run very deep. Sometimes an asset, sometimes a detriment.

    Like others have said, you have to play up your strengths, broad range of experience, and adaptability. Some bosses won’t like that (and perhaps that means it’s not a good fit if they’re rigid about duties and you’re used to something flexible). But plenty will, if you can show that you bring the core experience they need along with a “bonus package” of other experience.

  10. jesicka309

    I have the opposite problem. I’ve been in a big corporations for 3 plus years, albeit doing relatively entry level, specialised work.

    Now I’m keen to utilise my studies and get into a company closer to home without the long commute, but all those companies are smaller and want people with experience doing X,Y,Z,A, B, C for three years plus. I have extensive experience doing B, and I learnt the basics of all the other stuff at uni. Sure, I know they want someone who can wear multiple hats, I get that. But for the experience they want, and the job functions they want, and they pay below entry level? :-/ And they expect you to work autonomously, which to me screams ‘no career development, we expect you to know everything when you walk in the door and do it without any supervision and without any future training for things you don’t know already’ which is a bit much for an entry levelish job.

    It seems like the smaller companies aren’t willing to take a risk on someone without experience in EVERY facet of the role, instead of taking someone with some experience is some areas. A large corporation seems more likely to have proper training and development schemes in place, so are more willing to take chances on people who tick 8 out of 10 boxes.

    :(

    1. Jamie

      And they expect you to work autonomously, which to me screams ‘no career development, we expect you to know everything when you walk in the door and do it without any supervision and without any future training for things you don’t know already’

      I’ve never heard autonomously interpreted that way before. It’s not synonymous with no support or training but is often used to describe jobs where you have a degree of independence and self-direction with how you accomplish your work. But no one expects anyone to walk in day one and be completely self sufficient.

  11. jesicka309

    It’s more companies that want to hire someone to do all of their marketing, social media and online presence, but are trying to hire just one coordinator to do a role that takes on so many facets – all for a entry level wage. And they report to some vague higher up like the sales manager (ie. not well versed in marketing and with unrealistic expectations of what it does) who can’t exactly provide any training because they were told to ‘hire a marketing person to do all that online stuff’.

    All jobs have a degree of autonomy, but a lot of small companies expect to hire a marketing person for entry level wage to do the job of two or more people with minimal training, as they don’t really have an idea of what a marketing person does. And as an entry level marketer wanting to really learn more about marketing as I go, the larger companies have better structures in place to support that. But the smaller companies are close to home, and it drives me (and my partner) mad that they have such unrealistic expectations.

      1. Hunny

        Jesicka, it’s really not so unrealistic. You just want to do marketing at a different level than what the small company is positioned for. Take a 50 person company for example, just being able to put “marketing, social media, and online presence” on one person’s plate, without additional responsibilities piled on top, could be quite a luxury. And each of those roles is probably conducted on a different level than what you might be used to at a huge company with an actual department running those activities.

        Regarding autonomy and training, what they really mean is “You are the expert, so you have to tell us what’s a reasonable workload, what we should prioritize, and then do it. We can provide direction, but not a daily task list. And you need to tell us what training you want/need to grow, because we don’t know what you need.”

  12. AG

    No matter what your experience is, somebody is going to be biased against it. You just have to trust that there are companies out there (and there are!) that are going to take a chance on someone who has a more diverse background. I worked at a small-ish non profit (250 total employees but maybe 40 in the admin building, 10 in my dept) and although our marketing efforts were not super sophisticated, I did my best to drag them into the 21st century. It took me a while, but I just scored a marketing manager job at a tech startup. They know that I worked in a very different type of company before and that there area few more things I need to learn, but they recognized my accomplishments and my potential. And that’s the type of company that I want to work for!

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