Yes, the two are different. But when it comes to describing their quality, you can’t make blanket categorizations (i.e., good vs. evil). There are good and bad experiences at startups. There are good and bad experiences at big companies. You need to evaluate each on a case-by-case basis. And you need to know what you want. Then you can figure out which individual employment opportunity is a match for you.
I heard a story of a person who founded a startup and ran it for several years. Of course the appeal of the startup is choice of what you work on. Due to a bookkeeping error, there was some confusion with the federal tax authority regarding some financial matters. Because the startup had only two employees, one of them was tasked with resolving the issue, which took about 50% of their time over the next year. It was a huge drain on working on their true passion and very frustrating. Although anecdotal, the point of this story is to not assume that a startup you can spend 100% of your efforts working on your research or product. Because startups tend to be very focused on development, the rest of the support structure isn’t there like at a large company. A support structure can run the range of being a bureaucratic drain to being a enabling gain. In more places than you may assume, it is an enabling gain. Lacking the support structure you need to do everything yourself. Everything.
A friend who founded a startup has talked about “terminal success”. His point is that even if you are in a startup that is successful in creating the technology or product, you may not have enough mass (i.e., influence) to affect the market. You are effectively at a dead end, despite development success. Even though they got everything they wanted in terms of getting the startup going, they didn’t have enough market influence to make an impact. The pure notion of “build it and they will come” is a fallicy. This friend says, “generally it takes about 4 years to build up enough reputation to really get your business going. Basically, you will be taking a loss for about 4 years until people hear about you enough to get going. You will also need to allocate about 1/3 of your budget for marketing programs – that is programs, not headcount. Doing a startup is hard – you have to really want to do it.” This friend eventually left the startup and joined a large company because they wanted to be in an organization that already had the mass to make significant impact in the market, and that is where I met him. But there are plenty of success stories regarding startups, some of them massive mind-blowing successes. I’m not here to dismiss startups. My point is to not assume that a startup’s success is guaranteed or that it is a cakewalk.
I work at a large company, so I admit to having some bias. But in the 15 years I have been with my company, even through the dot com era, I had opportunities to learn and engage in challenging and fun and varied work, interaction with a lot of really good people, and I have been well compensated financially. And I have been able to change positions about every 2 years. So instead of changing employers every 2 years and dealing with that churn, I have been able to achieve the same desired result while accumulating deeper contacts into the company, promotions, accruing more vacation, etc. The large company gives me a mobility and new opportunities that a small startup probably doesn’t have.
There are pros and cons to both startups and big companies. There are times and places where one makes more sense than the other. They are complimentary. Your task is to analyze your situation, and determine your desire with your eyes wide open, and figure out which one makes the most sense for you.