Corporate vs. Startup – 4 critical differences you must understand to get the job

corporate job vs startup job

Not all dogs, er jobs, are created equal.

I saw two conflicting stories yesterday that sum up the differences between the corporate world and the startup world. One story said companies should hire on expertise alone. The other said it’s all about passion.

If you can’t guess which one of these entrepreneurs agree with, you won’t get a job at a startup.

Here are four other differences between corporate jobs and startup jobs you must understand:

1. Past vs. Future
To get a corporate job you need to prove what you’ve done in the past. You need to show that you’ve already got the goods, and you’ve already done similar work. You prove that with a strong resume full of action verbs like led, generated and exceeded.

To get a startup job, you need to prove what you can do in the future.  Unless you were employee #1 at a very hot startup, there’s nothing on your resume that will a). get the attention of a hiring entrepreneur or b). even get read. When it comes to resumes and your past experience, entrepreneurs say “blah, blah, blah.” (I kid you not, that was a quote.)

The difference: What you did in the past is yesterday’s news. To get a job at a startup, tell them what you will do tomorrow.

2. Mouth vs. Ears
Interviewing for a corporate job requires a lot of talking. You talk with the recruiter. You talk with HR departments. You talk with hiring managers and potential teammates. You talk to prove that you know what you’re talking about. You talk to get the job.

Interviewing for a startup job requires a lot of listening. Listening to the story of the business. Listening to where the idea came from and how the business has grown. Listening to how much fun has been had, and how crazy the ride has been. You listen to prove that you’re fascinated by the business. Cause if you’re not fascinated by the business, you shouldn’t be working there.

The difference: A startup interview is not about you. It’s about the business, and your interest in the business. Prove that you’re fascinated by corking your pie hole and being completely absorbed by the story.

3. Pedigree vs. Mutts
Want a job at Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, McKinsey or Citigroup? Get your degrees in order. A college degree is a minimum requirement to entry. For the bigger, better jobs its best have an MBA. Its better to have an ivy league one.

Want a job at a startup? Start by forgetting the fact that you went to school. Entrepreneurs believe in doing, not studying. If you were the right fit for a startup, you would have spent those years starting something.

The difference: What you’ve studied is purely academic. To get a startup job, all that matters is what you can do. Hide the degree and talk about that.

4. Money vs. Cash Flow
When interviewing for a corporate job you’ll negotiate your salary. You’ll discuss things like 401K matching and vesting. You might even talk about stock and bonus plan. All these things will be sorted out, tied up neatly with a bow, and offered up for your signature.

When interviewing for a startup job you’ll talk about cash flow. In startups, cash is king and salaries are the enemy. You might be asked to take a pay cut. You may even be asked to work for free. They’re not lowballing you with their first offer expecting you to negotiate. They’re telling you what they’ve got. And if you want to work there, you should take it.

The difference: If you’re taking the job for where the job will take you financially, a corporate job is the answer. If the benefits and perks that come along with the job never crossed your mind, you’ve got the right mindset for a startup. 

Which brings us back to the experience vs. passion studies. The bottom line is this; experience won’t get you a job at a startup. Passion will. So if you’re passionate about the business…if you already know how you want to help, if, when they offer you a giant lint ball as compensation for your work, it feels like Christmas morning…then you’ve got the passion. Go get the startup job.

Have you gotten a startup job without being passionate about the company? Did you last?

Entrepreneurs, would you rather have an employee who is excited about the business or who has expertise to share?

About the author: Kathy Ver Eecke works with startups in the early stages, where the good stuff happens. Download a free copy of her ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Getting Any Startup Job, if you’re trying to break into a startup or if you’re hiring employees for your startup.


  • Amy

    Reply Reply March 12, 2012


    People who are looking for jobs can feel much better about applying for positions where they have absolutely no experience. That’s especially great for those looking to change career paths without going back to school. Enthusiasm trumps experience. Can’t get better than that.

  • Bryce

    Reply Reply March 12, 2012

    Hi Kathy,

    You nailed it. I’ve interviewed for both kinds of positions and worked in both areas as well.

    When I came to work for Balanced Worklife, I had a number of soft skills that would help with the job, but I had never ran a company’s blog, launched a web app, or managed email and other marketing campaigns. But all those things and more I can say I’ve done now.

    If I had interviewed for a job with those duties at a fortune 500 without ever doing them first, I probably would never have even gotten the interview.

    I think recent grads are missing out on a top-notch opportunity to grow your experience and skill set if they don’t consider start-ups or small businesses in their career path.

    Excellently done Kathy,


    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply March 12, 2012

      Bryce – That’s a perfect example. And you’re right, you would not have gotten a corporate job that included so much social media and web work without having social media and web work under your belt. But your current company saw that you had skills, ambition and an interest in the business, and that was enough for them.

      I’ve yet to interview (or work for) an entrepreneur who wouldn’t hire a passionate, motivated candidate over one who had already done similar work. Prove you’re interested in the business, and you’re half way to hired.

      Thanks for comment Bryce

  • ceptam

    Reply Reply March 13, 2012

    What about safety of jobs. Startup can close shop anytime. Though there are no safety of jobs in todays economy but startups are more vulnerable.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply March 13, 2012

      No doubt. But with risk comes reward. If you don’t have the right risk profile, you probably shouldn’t be working in a startup. (I’ve put together a highly unscientific way to gauge your startup risk profile at the end of this post . See if you’ve got what it takes)

  • Mike Mason

    Reply Reply March 14, 2012

    Hi Kathy. I’m a 25 year corp guy (hotels) who is now running a tech start up. Corporate experience comes with some baggage (from my own experience) that’s tough to deal with in such a fiery environment.

    1. They’re typically specialists — not generalists. Startups need generalists, those who are willing to do anything and at any time.
    2. They’re a bit tougher when it comes to change: Many believe they’re change agents, but put them in a startup where you can change your business model/product 3 times before lunch, and that becomes a different story.
    3. They have a great love of process and procedure: This in many ways could be a blessing to some startups where even the basic procedures are lacking, but in general, the enemy of rapid-fire blocking and tackling which is necessary in a growing business, is the typical SOP.

    We’re in the hunt right now for a CTO and 2 sales people. I plan on giving them this link to help them self-select in or out of the process. Nicely done.


    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply March 14, 2012

      “…in a startup where you can change your business model/product 3 times before lunch..” Holy cannoli did you say a mouth full. You’re exactly right. The problem is, the corporate people reading that think you’re exaggerating. But startup veterans are all nodding saying “yup, that’s a typical Tuesday.”

      The real difference is in the fact that the veterans also think this is why they’ll succeed, and the corporate people think it’s why they’ll fail. (They’ll both be right about half the time).

      So job seekers need to decided which camp will light their fire.

      Thanks for the additional insight, and the entrepreneur perspective!

  • Richard

    Reply Reply March 14, 2012

    Very good explanation. I figured out that passion would get you the start up job. I would rather have someone who was very passionate instead of just experience. Yes, you do end up negotiating your salary at a corporate job.

  • Above Odds

    Reply Reply March 21, 2012

    I am a new in the game of trying to start up my business. I have in the past tried to hire people that were experienced. Thank you for this article because I have since not kept them. They were not passionate enough about the job and I eventually had to take over their activities. I seen that my passion came across better than their expertise. Great article!!!

  • jon

    Reply Reply March 21, 2012

    i agree, i think passion wins over experience and knowledge everytime, passion shows the person is willing to learn, experience and knowledge is very important but if the person isnt interested or doesnt care a monkey for your business then you´ll get nowhere

  • Alex

    Reply Reply March 21, 2012

    I’ve worked on both sides of the fence, and know many people still in each world (corporate and startup).

    I think you nailed the differences quite well. Too many people see the successful startups and assume that they indicate how everything goes.

    Passion does indeed make up for a lot of things, because it means you’ll put in the effort to overcome the obstacles that experience MIGHT have prepared you for.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply March 22, 2012

      Spoken like someone who knows what they’re talking about! (like the ‘MIGHT have prepared you for’) Thanks Alex.

  • Theresa Torres

    Reply Reply March 25, 2012

    Hi Kathy,
    Yes, I think we really need to understand these differences so that we can position ourselves in the job that is best suited to us.
    Many may prefer the security or the perceived security of corporate jobs while others may have more guts to go for a startup.
    I myself prefer to be in the middle and want experience and passion because I believe they both have value although one may work best than the other in the situations that you mentioned.
    Thanks for sharing this very informative post.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply March 25, 2012

      Theresa – yeah, there is something to be said about having that perfect balance. I think you’re stating a good case for finding employees who have been in the startup world before, and are excited to join your startup now. May be the best of both worlds.



    Reply Reply March 26, 2012

    “Interviewing for a startup job requires a lot of listening”- this is so true because sometimes listening helps us in making the right decisions.

  • Pedigree vs. Mutts, ha. I think you can apply that to smaller to mid-size companies in general, we need people who are going to produce NOW, today not what they did 10 years ago. I like that section the best

  • bryan

    Reply Reply March 30, 2012

    what ive seen is that people hear a lot of money can be made online so they rush into it and then give up far toooo quickly when they dont see immediate results, they dont realise that like everything, it takes time, blood , sweat and tears and passion of course

  • Personally I have been looking into applying for a position at a startup and was searching articles on the subject and found this. Personally having come from a large corporate environment the change will be welcome.

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