Is joining a smol company a big career mistake?

(This sponsored post promotes the P-Max Programme, a grant to help SMEs receive funding, which can be used to retain their staff, or provide them training. Email pmax@asme.org.sg for more details)

We’ll be the first to acknowledge that most SMEs don’t have the best rep amongst employees these days. 

MNCs are big, reliable and prestigious employers. At the other end of the spectrum, we have startups – yes, they are different for SMEs – smaller, exciting, but with the potential for massive growth and disruption. 

So why join a SME? They’re generally seen as uninspiring, outdated organisations relying on the same tired ways to earn money. There’s no job security, the benefits are meh, some colleagues have given up on any ambition. And especially during this COVID-19 period, many of them have been hit hard.

But it is in this same environment we think it’s possible for an individual to succeed. 

Why? As someone who has worked most of his life in SMEs, here’s why:

The potential to be the big fish in a small pond. 

 The first thing you need to understand about most SMEs is the word ‘small’. There are very few people in the company. READ: There is less competition for progression and increments. 

If you know anyone climbing the corporate ladder in a MNC, you’d know they have to wait their turn for promotion, no matter how hard they grind. 

It’s a pretty rigid structure, where people often (not always, often) get promoted based on seniority, or whether the company has invested heavily in them (a scholar). 

In a smaller company, your achievements and contributions are far more visible. And arguably, far more impactful. 

Don’t believe us? What are the chances of you becoming Apple’s CEO in your lifetime? To be really blunt, it seems unlikely. The chances of you taking over a local business? Far better. 

Show your value to the company, and don’t be ashamed to ask for more when you think you deserve it. 

The relative stability compared to a startup

We love startups and the dramatic risks that entrepreneurs take. It’s a great story. Everyone knows the big name startups that get millions of dollars in funding. But we’re also very aware that for everyone of these ‘unicorns’, they’re even more than just die silently unreported. Check out the survivorship bias. 

In this sense, SMEs offer a little more stability in the form of a tried-and-tested business model. There are still networks to tap on, ropes to learn and relationships to be built.

That said, just because there’s some stability, it doesn’t mean you should sit back and shake your leg in a SME. In fact, you should take advantage of the relative stability to take risks and do things a little differently. 

Maybe it’s providing a new service to existing customers. Using digital service and SaaS to smoothen painful processes. Or targeting a new segment. There’s no reason why you can’t have a startup mindset in a SME (or MNC, even). 

The power of becoming a generalist instead of a specialist 

(This is not to say that being a specialist sucks. We’re just saying – being a generalist has its benefits)

When I was a junior copywriter at an MNC about four years back, all I did was write e-direct mailers for PayPal and check the daily supermarket ads to see if there were typos. I volunteered to work on other brands, but that was about the limit of my work experience. 

When I joined a SME, I was thrown into the deep end. Instead of just writing funny lines at my desk, I learnt to meet and service clients (a whole new skillset) and pulled double (triple!) duty as a video editor. 

More often than not, being in an SME will require you to step up to several other roles. You could choose to say this is ‘sai-kang’ and do everything poorly and miserably, or you could own it and learn as much as you can from the experience.

You’ll become a far more valuable hire for your next job – which need not be another SME, btw! 

Perhaps most importantly: learn how to start your own business 

Now, it’s true you can learn technical or industry specific skills just about anywhere. But we’d argue running a company takes a whole bunch of other skills. i.e – being a great teacher doesn’t make you a great owner of a Tuition Centre, for example. 

If you want to be an entrepreneur or start your own tiny side hustle, being in a SME will generally help. 

Intentionally or unintentionally, you’ll get to witness firsthand what it takes to run a small business. Not only can you learn what to do from your boss – you can also learn exactly what NOT to do.

This conversation is not complete without knowing the challenges SMEs face

We’re just going to put it out there. SMEs in Singapore face big hiring challenges. People often forget that smaller businesses compete against the best businesses not only customers, but also talent

When you’re a small company with a small warchest, going up against juggernauts that can pay top dollar to their staff means you get outpriced pretty often. What they can do though, is compete on other aspects: better culture, growth and flexibility. 

The government recognises that SMEs need to upgrade and retain their staff, so they created the P-Max programme to help them do exactly that.

A small caveat before we end: 

This article isn’t asking you to run out there and join the very first SME you see. There are bad SMEs to join, in the same way there are bad MNCs and startups.

In fact, many of the same opportunities we’ve mentioned above are not exclusive to SMEs. 

What we hope you take away from it is this: just because you’ve joined a smaller or less glamourous organisation, doesn’t mean that your career won’t amount to anything. 

The important factor here is you. Lots of people join SMEs and become mediocre employees. Lots of people join MNCs and become mediocre employees. Motivated people can find opportunities easily, unmotivated people will give up even when success is served to them on a golden platter. 

Have the right attitude. Learn the right skills. Know the right people. Let go of self-limiting beliefs. 

The size of the company isn’t everything.

Stay Woke, Salaryman 

About our sponsor:

This article was sponsored by the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises (ASME) to promote uptake of the P-Max Programme, an initiative to help SMEs in Singapore retain and upskill their talent.

SMEs and their new PMETs/Older Worker PMETs that successfully sign up for the programme, complete their respective workshops, work together and complete the toolkits and employ the PMET/Older Worker PMETs for 6 months, will be rewarded with an assistance grant of up to $10,000. 

If you’re at a SME right now and have been there for less than three months, we have a proposal for you: get your boss to apply for the grant, and then ask them to use that grant to do exactly what it was supposed to do:

  1. Upgrade you (and then send you for a course) 
  2. Retain you (and give you a more competitive salary of at least $2,500)

Read more about it in our sponsor declaration below. 

*Older Worker (age 50 and above) 

If you meet the following criteria, you might qualify for the grant. 

  • Are a Singapore citizen or PR
  • Possess educational qualifications that are Diploma or higher, or employed/have prior work experience in a PMET position; and
  • Have graduated or completed National Service for a minimum period of 12 months

Coax your boss into applying for it at pmax@asme.org.sg 


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