Big or Small? Pros and Cons of Interning at a Start-Up vs a Big Company

Weighing up the intern experience for students looking to score an opportunity interning at a start-up vs a big company.

Open plan office in a start-up

With the current state of the job market, scoring an internship is a pretty impressive feat. There are so many talented, brilliant students out there and only so many placements open for interns. So it’s good for prospective applicants to be familiar with who and where they’re going to be getting their work experience from. In today’s climate of innovation, entrepreneurship and self-made business are constantly on the rise, and we very much are living in the age of the start-up business – meaning a smaller, independent business, typically with fewer employees, fewer limitations and a whole lot of freedom. Working or interning at a a start-up vs a big company each are incredible experiences both with their own advantages to bring to the table. And neither is better or seen to be more respected than the other. It’s just about working out which environment is the best fit for you.

The Big Company

Big companies might be what first comes to your mind when considering internships. Getting a placement somewhere like Amazon, Deloitte or PwC is very competitive and very prestigious, usually with long application processes to wade through the sheer number of prospective interns. They typically have more formal internship projects, with planned itineraries of tasks and projects and scheduled intern events, meaning you’ll always know what you have on your agenda and what you need to do next.

While working at a bigger company, you will be expected to act like an employee – these organisations are large, well-funded and never have a shortage of projects, so you can expect to be put to work right away and be treated like an employee. That means acting like an employee: business-casual, shiny shoes, an early-is-on-time-and-on-time-is-late type of mindset. Your higher-ups will wear suits and ties and likely not know your name. But if you get them to know your name, you best believe they’ll be connected enough to take you far and wide. These companies will be large so you probably won’t get to know everyone, which can be frustrating from a network perspective.

You’ll likely only be exposed to your team, and top-tier organisations like these have employees that are so high-flying and busy they simply may not have the time to mentor you, or give you the 1:1 learning experience you’re after. There will however probably be other interns due to how well-funded these internship programs are. So you’ll get to know and get to collaborate with a bunch of other like minded students your age who you can start your own network with.

Working in a large company office

Because there will most likely be a set intern program, you will be relegated to specific assignments for you and your skillset. Meaning that ideally by the conclusion of your time there you’ll have a project you can present in future. Unfortunately, this could mean you become an expert at one particular niche, and won’t get an overarching look at all aspects of working in that company or your chosen field. Internships should provide you with a sample of all the flavours. But sometimes, due to the rigidity of many large company’s internship programs, you may not get that opportunity.   

The prestige of having interned at a company with a recognisable brand name is probably one of the biggest draw cards for prospective interns. Future employers are always impressed to hear you did an internship at Apple or Channel 10. Which means that just a brand name can open all kinds of doors for you. There’s definitely a cool factor of having a famous name on your resume. Plus, you’ll probably get access to some really awesome perks due to different partnerships within the organisation. For example, discounts, free exercise classes, rewards, freebies, and probably an awesome Christmas Party if you’re around for that!

The Start-Up

If you’re more laidback, relaxed, and believe in investing in the quality of your work rather than what kind of blazer you’re wearing, the start-up route may be for you.

The likelihood of getting your foot in the door really depends on the start-up. It could be a little less competitive with there being so many different start-ups out there, not all with the allure of a famous brand name, but they will have less intern positions available than at big companies, so you may be fighting with other applicants to fill just one slot.  The work you do there may be less formalised than at a big company, more haphazard and touch-and-go. You’ll be tasked with what needs doing instead of just a special intern project, as well as aiding other employees with their own assignments. 

People talking round an office table

Team boundaries and positions tend to be a lot looser in start-ups. So you might be asked to wear a lot of different hats and do a lot of different types of work. Which ultimately gives you a lot of exposure and work experience across different fields. The lack of a formal internship program will mean though, that you will be treated like a full-time employee. It’s unlikely you will be spoon-fed or coddled or given your own unique ‘intern’ special treatment. For better and for worse. 

There will be a lot less employees. The nature of start-ups is that they are smaller, more niche and independent, so you’ll get to know everyone you’re working with and make really solid connections. There may be only one or two other interns, but this will give you a much better opportunity to get to know your superiors. And besides, most people in the start-up field are young, hip and super modern, so don’t take this as a loss anyway!

Office culture tends to be very laissez-faire and unconcerned with stiff, traditional 9-to-5 structures. Don’t be surprised to hear your bosses throwing out swear words or complaining about the latest TV show finale, and most of the time, you can pretty much rock up wearing t-shirt and jeans. A lot of start-ups often share an office building with other small businesses. Some have an office in an official shared workspace like a WeWork. Shared workspaces are their own beast, with lots of different businesses in the same place and sharing facilities. You’ll get to meet lots of different people across lots of different fields and businesses just outside the door, and shared workspace companies usually hold events for all the clients in the building and free functions themselves.  

Or Both?

Interning at start-ups versus big companies are very different experiences. Start-ups tend to be more laid back, intimate and with practical hands-on learning, where big companies are more formal, organised and prestigious. It’s different strokes for different folks! We would recommend that you try your hand across both. One season, intern for a cool new start-up, and the next, intern for the big company of your dreams! You may be surprised by what you prefer, you won’t regret that invaluable takeaways and connections you get from both.