Working at an Engineering Startup Versus an Established Engineering Company

Weighing up Your Options

Working at an Engineering Startup Versus an Established Engineering Company


When looking for an engineering job, you have two options. You can either work at an engineering startup, or an established engineering company. Each is different, and both have their benefits and drawbacks. No matter which of these you choose, you will gain valuable engineering experience by working there. 

But which should you choose? Well, that depends on what you want from your career. Although this can feel like an intimidating choice, don’t worry, this article will give you an extensive overview of both types of company, enabling you to work out which you are best suited to.

Working at an engineering startup versus an established engineering companyWorking at an engineering startup

A startup is a company in the first stages of operations. In engineering, startups are typically formed to turn an engineering idea into reality, then market and sell it to potential users. They cover a wide range of industries, including the medical, software, and agricultural sectors. Many startups are launched right after the founders graduate from school.

These companies are usually characterized by rapid growth, aiming to disrupt the status quo, and placing a strong emphasis on company culture. Because engineering startups often only employ a few staff members when they open for business, employees generally take on several roles and responsibilities. For example, an engineer might work on product development and investor relations. Exposure to multiple roles allows engineers to develop their skills in several areas.

Since engineers can wear many hats at an engineering startup, there may be fewer opportunities for advancement. Startups often have flat organizational structures, where there are few levels of middle management between leadership and employees. Those in leadership might be the founders of the company, who aren’t leaving their positions anytime soon. This means you could get stuck in the role you’re in for some time.

Because engineering startups can be scrambling for cash, they generally offer lower salaries and fewer perks than established engineering companies. In exchange for this sacrifice, many startups offer equity, usually in the form of stock options. The more successful the company is, the more these stock options are worth. This gives employees an incentive to ensure that the startup succeeds.

A startup needs significant buy-in from all employees to ensure it succeeds, which can lead to poor work/life balance. If you work at a startup, you might be asked to work during the day and also during some evenings, weekends, and holidays. Although this extra time allows you to get done what the business needs to succeed, like developing a product prototype, it can come at the cost of your free time.

The average startup has only five employees, so the impact of the work that you do as an employee is easier to gauge. And this is important: being able to clearly see how much your work impacts the organization can be a significant source of pride.

Unfortunately, with great potential comes great risk. Many startups, for instance, begin life financially insecure, unless, of course, they are well-funded by outside investors. This can lead to a culture of panic and uncertainty, where work is done to impress investors in an attempt to ensure funding is maintained. Uncertain funding and limited business operations mean that startups have a bigger chance of failing than established engineering companies.

Working at an established engineering company

Established engineering companies are those whose operations are more stable. Generally, they have been in business for a few years, have reliable sources of funding and a solid client base, and are far less likely to go under than startups.

Because role definitions tend to be more clearly set at established engineering companies, you are typically confined to one role at the company. That being said, because there are generally more positions available at established engineering companies due to the larger size of their operations, there can be more opportunities to switch roles while staying with the same company. Because there are usually more levels of management at these companies, there can also be more opportunities for advancement.

Established engineering companies usually have more money to work with than startups, so the salary and perks offered at these companies may be better than what is offered at a startup. Although some companies offer stock purchase plans, most do not offer equity to everyday employees like startups do. Equity may be limited only to senior management and executives, so everyday employees have less of a financial incentive to see the company succeed.

Since these companies often have multiple people performing the same job function due to the size of the organization, your work may not make much discernable impact on the organization. At a startup, the impact of any work done is extremely evident—not so much at an established company. Not seeing impactful results can reduce your buy-in with the company, leading to apathy and a lack of engagement.

Because the work of one person does not make or break an established company like it can at a startup, there is usually a better work-life balance at an established company. Although there are exceptions, most employees at these companies are expected to work from 8 am to 5 pm on weekdays. There is no expectation for working during the evening or on weekends and holidays, meaning that employees have more free time outside of work.

Increased job security is also a potential benefit of working at an established engineering company. While there are opportunities for job losses in both established engineering companies and startups, there is far less risk of losing your job with an established engineering company. These companies tend to be more secure because of stable funding.

So, a startup or an established company?

There are pros and cons to taking a job at an engineering startup, just as there are benefits and drawbacks to taking a job at an established engineering company. To decide which to choose, consider what you want to get out of the job.

Engineering startups offer the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could turn out to be something groundbreaking. Because they aren’t so well-established, however, they may have trouble staying afloat. Nine out of 10 startups fail in the first five years they operate. If you want to be on the front line of a company’s operations and can handle a little risk, an engineering startup might be for you.

If you’re more concerned about salary, benefits, and opportunities for advancement, working at an established engineering company might be the choice for you. Whether you choose to work at an engineering startup or an established engineering company, you will gain valuable experience that will advance your engineering career.