PM at Small vs Big Company: 6 key differences
Working at a small vs big company can make a big difference to your day-to-day activities.
This post will focus mainly on how it impacts a product management role, but largely apply to any role. As we know, product management is already a broad role that can look very different across different organizations. There are 6 key differences in small vs big companies.
Disclaimer: Please note that this is a generalization that will not always hold true for each company (i.e, Google X operates like a bunch of early stage startups despite being one of the largest companies in the USA)
Starting one of the most obvious, small startup Product Managers will own an entire product or line of business. It is common to own the entire life cycle (from ideation -> development -> launch) for an entire product where you often interface with all the other heads of the company. Usually there is not as much collaboration with other PMs as they are also owning an entire product themself.
As a medium company, you will more likely own a sizable portion of a more mature product with other Product Managers. While at a big company you own a smaller part of a product such as a specific feature where you will need to collaborate with other PMs to successfully launch.
For example, at a <10 person startup I owned the entire product roadmap vs. at a larger organization I owned the instant payments and user onboarding features while others on the team owned different parts of the roadmap
Your responsibilities can change drastically based on what roles are in your company (in particular at smaller companies). Typically if you’re a PM at a company with 2-15 people, you are doing a little bit of everything (“wearing multiple hats”). When a company grows from 15 to 50 people, roles and functions become more specialized and Product Management receives more support.
When organizations grow from 50 to 100s or 1000s, roles and functions keep specializing … until product management’s true responsibility isolates down to aligning stakeholders and prioritization.
Naturally, there will be less creative thinking at bigger company and more working with the right stakeholders to achieve results.
When I worked for a 5-15 person startup, I would spend part of my time each week creating designs in Figma (link), customer success with new customers, help sell to larger customers, pitch to investors, problem solve system architectures with engineering, and conduct product analytics. These weren’t part of my job description but typically Product Managers have one of the most diverse skill-sets and most context on business priorities that they are often the first to get pulled into different areas.
Big companies have completed enough product cycles to have implemented a well-defined process that the entire team follows and understands. The benefit is that there is less uncertainty for what someone needs to do, but the downside is that it is harder to get things done. This might look like going through multiple rounds of formal reviews from different stakeholders until final approval for development.
Medium companies have processes for more strategic decisions or bigger projects (more risks and factors due to larger user base and product); often formal processes are not followed for smaller projects to keep its speed.
Early stage companies are known to be chaotic because of the lack of process. This allows for fast decision making and pivots (essential for when trying to find Product Market Fit).
Defined processes are great for new Product Managers to learn best practices and from folks who have done this many times. Lack of process is great for Product Managers who knows what “good” looks like and are learning by doing and seeing what works and what doesn't.
Your impact is influenced by your ownership and responsibilities already mentioned. We could summarize your impact in a simple formula.
Impact = (number of people using your product) x (contribution towards the product)
At smaller companies, you will typically have a smaller number of users before your product takes off; however, your contribution to the product will be very high.
At larger companies, likely there is a large existing number of users using your product; however, your contribution is smaller as many contributions have already been made to make the product reach its success and a larger team is currently working on the product.
B2B vs.B2C product is an important factor too. Typically B2C products touch more users while B2B usually touches less users but could be used more by each user.
I previously worked at a fast growing series-A (10 employees when I started; 70 employees when I left). We served contractors with a mobile app (B2C) and employers with a desktop and mobile app (B2B).
- For contractor users, I helped grow the mobile app by owning various features to grow from ~10k to 300k+ users. More users impacted but I owned only some of the features.
- For employer users, I had more contributions to the product but only launched it to 20 employers (from 0). Less users impacted (B2B) but I owned more of the product.
In most smaller companies, there is a greater feeling of community and the chance to develop deep and stronger relationships. You will likely know everyone from the receptionist up to the boss. This means it is more important to like who you work with.
In bigger companies, you will naturally get to work with more people while also building a stronger brand on your resume (bigger companies typically are more well known and established).
As you look for roles later in your career, connections developed at a smaller company are more likely to help during your entire career while you will have more connections from a larger company.
Note: Job security is another factor where it could be harder to let someone go who is considered part of the family at a smaller company. At the same time, a smaller company has less stability so the business has a greater chance to go under. At a larger companies, there might be a mandate from a senior director to make cuts and don’t know the people personally.
When I worked at a smaller company, I knew why a coworker might be tired or off (e.g., baby teething, significant other unwell, apartment searching, physical therapy, etc.). Knowing these personal details makes it easier to develop a deeper connection and be a better teammate by being flexible to their schedule.
Bigger companies have more resources to offer employees more such as higher salaries, bonuses, and perks (i.e., training, stipends, food, 401k) . There are more opportunities to grow and change roles with a clear career ladder process. However, if a smaller company is able to grow quickly, you will be able to grow with the company and your career ladder would be rewarded.
Your risk appetite is a strong factor. Assuming equity is offered, your equity at a larger company is more stable but less likely to get multiplied many times. At smaller companies, your equity has a greater chance of being worth nothing, but also a greater chance to receive high multipliers if the small company is able to grow fast.
When I worked at an early-stage startup, I took a significant salary cut and had to pay my own insurance for a while. However, I had a higher upside from a meaningful equity stake in the company that would outway the salary and perk cut. Higher risk, higher reward.
Why join a smaller company?
You have some prior work experience and found a smaller company whose mission and team you believe in and are excited to work with. The ambiguous work, fast-paced work, and the risk of the company failing doesn’t scare you, but excites you about the potential of “what it can be”.
You don’t have any upcoming life events or current needs to have a stable income. You might already have a brand name on your resume and have knowledge about the product life cycle basics. Getting many reps of “filling in white space” (creating things from the ground up) and the large amount of ownership is exciting.
Key to your success: Skilled in structuring ambiguous problems and taking initiative
Common challenge: Setting roadmap priorities without as much customer feedback or market feedback
Why join a bigger company?
You might be new to product management or want to work with/lead a larger team. You found a product or team within the big company that is exciting and aligned to where in your product management toolkit you want to grow in. Your manager is supportive of your growth and has a reputation as being great to work with.
You might require more income stability. A brand name and building your knowledge about product management best practices is valuable towards your career progression. Following a well-defined process at a slower pace is welcomed over a chaotic process that requires structuring ambiguous, tricky problems.
Key to your success: good team player who can work with the right stakeholders to achieve results
Common challenge: Getting consensus on product direction
These key 6 differences between small and big companies are generalizations. Regardless of the company size you join, (1) who you work with closely, (2) how the company’s mission align with your interest, and (3) what areas you want to grow are important to ask about during your interview to help decide what company to join!