Orders of magnitude: how companies differ at scale

January 18, 2023
Estimated reading time:
7 mins

I am furious.

Looking at my career history, there’s a huge hole.

I’ve worked at companies with annual revenues of approximately $2M, $20M, $2B and $20B.

But I’ve never worked at a $200M per year company to complete the set. Damn. If you run a company like this, call me.

These companies differ by orders of magnitude in their annual revenue. That changes everything else about the business too. Supporting $2M in sales is qualitatively different than supporting $20B in sales. When you grow by 10x, everything fundamentally changes.

Growth changes things. A lot. Not pictured: full Legal, HR, Tech, Sales, and an ungodly amount of meetings to keep them all on the same page.

I know the popular narrative is “haha big company so slow.” For the most part, that’s true, but it’s only half the story. That slower speed is a function of the impact you can have, both when things go wrong, and go right. I’ve worked on initiatives that take weeks or months to get to market, but when they do, 50,000 customers sign up in the first week. That's an impact on a scale you don’t usually have at SmallCo.

The reality is that being ‘big’ changes the whole mindset and culture of the company -- and it should!. When you’re at $20M of revenue, a project that generates another $10M is transformational; when you’re at $20B, an extra $10M is a distraction.

Here’s a breakdown of the major differences I’ve seen. I’ve also included some additional context, because these companies were also in different industries, and at different levels of maturity and so on. I’ll refer to these companies as their approximate annual revenue, e.g. $2M, $20M, $2B, $20B.

Background info





Customers served


Management structure

My relationship with senior management

Product development cycle

Time spent on stakeholder management and alignment


Finance team and infrastructure

Accounts Payable

Cash management


HR team and infrastructure

Performance management


Tech stack and infrastructure

Employee life



What do I mean by large but unclear? As an example, I’ve produced pieces of work that go to our senior leadership, and hopefully influence their thinking. If the company ultimately, say, changes a growth strategy, or pursues a new line of business, how much of that is due to my work vs. other factors? It’s hard to say, but if I have impacted their thinking in a way that leads to totally new markets opening up, then the impact of my work is massive.

Level of autonomy

Which one is best?

That depends. It depends on what you want, what stage of your career you’re at, your family situations, and many other things. None of these are necessarily better or worse than the others, but they are different.

The analogy of an oil tanker vs. a speedboat is a good one here. The speedboat is more agile, nimble, and probably more fun. The oil tanker is huge, and takes ages to speed up, slow down, or change direction.

So it depends on your goal. If you want to whizz around near to shore with a few friends, have some fun, then the speedboat is awesome. But if your goal is to ship a million barrels of oil halfway around the world, then the oil tanker is really fucking good. You’ll need to spend time to hire, train, and manage the crew, but if you do, you can do big things.

You just have to know what you want.

I want to make money

Go and work for BigCo. The pay is better, and the company is probably more financially stable. You’ll do a good job, be paid well, and probably work with some great people.

I want work-life balance

Work for a smaller company (but not a startup). The money isn’t as good but you can still do a great job, be well-respected, and not have the pressures that come with other jobs. Although the benefits and flexible working may not be as good, I’ve found that’s mitigated by reduced workload and expectations.

I want to make an impact

Work for either a startup or a huge company. At a startup, your company could change the world if it gets huge. You can directly see the impact of your work, and you can fairly immediately make the business better if you want to.

At bigger companies your impact is much more diluted and tangled up with that of other people. That can be frustrating, but if you manage to get everyone pulling in the same direction -- which will take time and energy on your behalf -- then you can put a lot of resources behind something and have an impact at scale.

I’ve just graduated from college/grad school and don’t know what I want

I’ll give you the advice that James Altucher once gave me:

find something your [sic] mildly interested in and work for a mega corporation. What's your favorite TV show? Who produces it. Work for them. They are obviously good at what they do. Its never bad to be the janitor at the best company in the world. You learn how to clean up their shit. Which makes you CEO-level for just about any other company. This is really true.

I want to start my own company one day

Any of the above could work. I’d lean towards BigCo for a year or two, then keep moving down in company size until you’re ready to make the jump. As per the above advice you’ll learn how big companies run, as well as the reality of life in smaller companies. (Health warning: take this with a pinch of salt as I have never started a company.)

All that said: your mileage may vary, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. As with many things, you might need to try a few different things before you find what you really like. That’s OK -- that’s life.

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