Big Company vs Startup Company

What do companies of any size can get right about culture and work?

One of my favorite movies of all-time is Office Space. Just so you don’t think I'm totally culturally bankrupt, some of my other favorite movies include Anchorman, Groundhog Day, and Zoolander.

OK, maybe I need a bit more culture. But what makes Office Space such a classic is that it is equally absurd yet relatable. That is the way of the best movies, you can see yourself playing out the scenes in your own head.

That includes the more nightmarish and cringe-worthy scenes. For example, I’ve never been asked about my "flair". However, I definitely got similar "new TPS cover sheet" warnings. I never got quizzed about what I do for the company by "the Bob's", but I did have a manager that constantly hovered over my cubicle during work.

The company from Office Space, Initech, definitely gave off big company vibes. They had a dress code (strange to think tech companies once required suits and ties). They hired outside consultants to do their dirty work. They had gaping organizational silos and inefficient Internal communications. Oh, and those soul crushing team birthday celebrations 😂

May your corporate birthday dreams be what you always imagined them to be!

My first job in tech as a software engineer actually required suits and ties. We were headquartered on Wall Street and most of our customers were big banks, so it kind of made sense. The company was anything but corporate though. Instead, it felt like an extended family where we actually enjoyed both the work and hanging out after work. We were still small (under 300 employees), so we moved fast.

At the same time, everything felt high stakes. We did not have a lot of people to do things, so we just had to learn things on the fly. There was no “not my job” mentality, you just made things happen.

My first work assignment was to build a system for the sales team to track customers and sales. I didn’t even know what a database was, much less how to build and deploy a production application. Luckily I was a quick learner and I busted my ass to deploy the full system four months later.

Years after I joined another company based in Redwood City known for their databases. I was attracted to the massive salary and big title. Very quickly though, I realized I stepped into a real-life Initech.

In a big company, things move at the pace of the slowest person or team. There is little urgency to get anything done well or fast, other than getting forecasts in. I was constantly told to “manage up”, never deliver bad news, and build alliances to protect myself. Every day felt like a case of the “Mondays”.

The day I quit to officially launch my startup was the greatest feeling of my professional career. While diving into a startup was exciting, the most powerful emotion I experienced was relief. I finally had control of my work and destiny.

Investor Terrence Rohan recently shared some thoughts on the difference between big companies versus startups:

“Big companies exert low levels of stress. But that stress is often low agency, so you often feel miserable in face of problems. Startups exert high levels of stress. But that stress is often high agency, so you often feel energized in the face of problems.”

Even though my startup felt like the wheels were about to fall off every day, I had some semblance of control. At least I could control my decisions even if I could not control the chaos around it. Whatever I did not know or that I messed up, I could quickly learn, course correct, and get on the right path. I fully owned my failures and my successes with the team.

At the big tech company, I could wait weeks before getting movement on anything. I was mired in deal reviews for the smallest of deals, every email was an encoded CYA (cover your ass) message, and any innovative idea was immediately shot down in a chorus of “No’s” and “that’s not what we do here”. I could feel my mind atrophying every day I stayed.

Big companies can afford to operate at a snail’s pace. Their other big company customers are often not much faster. Mostly because big companies have a lot to lose, legal and finance hold the power, not product and engineering. Every team discussion is about minimizing risk rather than taking calculated chances. There is a calculus to decision making that has little to do with serving the customer and more to do with maximizing your stature and growing you and your team’s power and budget.

That is not to say big companies have nothing to offer. They come with higher salaries, better benefits, and access to a larger network of high achievers. There is a certain prestige that comes from working at certain companies, especially at FAANG’s. If you are on the right team, the recognition and impact will be much greater than at a startup. And then there is the whole visa situation.

Which one are you, a big company or startup person?

Most people are of one of two personas. You are either a startup person or a big company person. Neither is better than the other, but we all have preferences and excel in one environment over the other. It’s rare that someone can succeed in both spheres.

I have worked in both worlds. Having worked in startups for a dozen years though, I did not ever see myself leaving startups. I enjoyed the agency and the speed. Back in 2020 though, I found myself back in the big company world when I took the Startup Advocate role at AWS.

As I look back the past month, I realize I just crossed the four-year mark. Given my travels, it just kind of flew by. A few people have asked me why I have stayed as someone that is thoroughly a “startup guy”. Certainly, the compensation and benefits are good. AWS is one of the best brands globally. And the fact that I get to work with startup founders everyday makes the work fulfilling.

The most impressive thing about Amazon though is the culture. No where have I found both high agency and high stress. While some might think high stress is a nightmare, but for me it’s ideal. As Amazonians, we have unreasonably high expectations, constantly raise the bar, and ask what can we do better. I work with people and teams that also have high agency to solve problems, driven to deliver results, and maintain a laser focus on building and innovating on behalf of customers.

Many folks lean on the 16 leadership principles when describing Amazon’s culture. While obviously important, it is hard to get a sense as to what the means in a practical working sense. What has most appealed to me since joining AWS can be boiled down to five observations about what makes Amazon bridge the worlds of big company and startup company:

  • Speed over deliberation – Amazon favors acting quickly over excessive deliberation, even with imperfect information. As Jeff Bezos noted: "Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had."

  • Ideation over perfection – We celebrate risk taking and learning from failures through experimentation, as Bezos said: "If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you're going to double your inventiveness."

  • Data before scale – Amazon is highly data-driven, using metrics to validate ideas through small experiments before scaling, something Bezos once said: “Those kinds of decisions, they cannot be made analytically, so far as I know. They have to be made with gut.”

  • Flywheels over forcing functions – Great businesses build momentum through virtuous cycles focused on the customer experience, not by forcing markets. For example, it took seven years for Bezos to map the now famous Amazon Flywheel.

  • Adaptability above all – Amazon's culture allows us to be highly adaptable amid constant change while maintaining customer obsession. As Bezos warned in his 2016 shareholder latter, "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline."

You could take all five of these cultural traits and insert them into a startup without any issues. In fact, many Amazonians that have launched startups carry over many of Amazonian habits like the writing culture, leadership principles, and decision-making frameworks.

If you worked in big companies, what values or habits did you carry over into your startup? If you have only been in startups, are there aspects of big companies you think would be useful to implement?

PR for a lot of startups feels like a mystery. It is something founders feel they need to do, but think it is too expensive, they need to scale before doing PR, or that PR is just fluffy noise.

Mark attended the Tech in Asia Saigon Summit and attended an event for founders to better explain the value of PR, featuring Ivy Nhi Chau of Ivy+Partners, Yen Nguyen of Quickom, and Thu Huong Le of Tech in Asia.

Ivy, Yen, and Thu Huong discussing startup PR at Tech in Asia

Ivy kicked off the session with a deep dive presentation. She busted common myths of PR, discussing the process and value of PR, and describing the types of PR activities useful to startups based on their stage of growth. Yen shared how taking a slower approach to PR can be a better strategy for product-oriented startups and leveraging events to communicate the value of their advanced technology. Then Thu Huong shared how reporters want to report on broader themes in tech, big scoops, and stories their readers want, not just startup product launches.

Some key takeaways included:

  • Personal branding is not ego stroking, it's a critical component of demonstrating your expertise before you have a product to talk about.

  • PR does not have to be expensive (in fact it can be free), but it does cost time, so be intentional about the activities and channels you focus on.

  • Organize your PR approach using 5W1H, asking yourself the what, why, who, when, where, and how you will do PR so that you can make more impact in a shorter amount of time.

  • Reporters ignore most pitches from startups because they are merely advertisements. Your pitch needs to be geared to topics a reporter and their readers would care about.

  • Before you ever speak to reporters, get professional media training, which helps you have more structured and focused conversations with the media

PR can be a huge benefit for startups, but make sure it is part of a broader strategy for awareness that can directly benefit your startup as opposed to doing PR for vanity purposes.

Alas we got this edition of Founders in the Cloud out late, but it was a whirlwind of events over the past two weeks with six AWS Summits across the globe! Mark spoke at the AWS Summit Hong Kong, while Basil was presenting in the AWS Summit Dubai. We also hosted Summits in Los Angeles, Milan, Bangkok, and Shanghai. Next week we will host two more Summits at Stockholm and Madrid! Keep watch for more Summit action in the US, Canada, Africa, Asia & LATAM later this summer and fall.

Epic AWS Summit Hong Kong photo of everyone that made the event happen!

This week is a big one in NYC for NYC Tech Week which starts today and features over 700 events! If plan to be in NYC this week, reach out to Mark and he can let you know events he will be attending, but you can also see the full list of events here, which includes several HealthTech and Gen Ai events.

We will share more about our respective adventures in our upcoming Friday edition as we dive deep into another up-and-coming startup ecosystem and why it matters for you. Till then cheers!