Large, Medium, or Small: What’s Your Best Working Environment?

One of the first things that will draw you to a particular job is the content that you will be writing. However, another important consideration when looking at a new job is the size of the company doing the hiring. Admittedly, a lot of these comments are simple generalizations because Your Humble Narrator has not worked at every company or nonprofit in America.

First, some definitions are in order. “Small” businesses can vary in size depending on whom you’re talking to or what industry they’re in. So, for grins, I checked out the U.S. Government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) site.

“Examples of SBA general size standards include the following:

  • Manufacturing: Maximum number of employees may range from 500 to 1500, depending on the type of product manufactured;
  • Wholesaling: Maximum number of employees may range from 100 to 500 depending on the particular product being provided;
  • Services: Annual receipts may not exceed $2.5 to $21.5 million, depending on the particular service being provided;
  • Retailing: Annual receipts may not exceed $5.0 to $21.0 million, depending on the particular product being provided;
  • General and Heavy Construction: General construction annual receipts may not exceed $13.5 to $17 million, depending on the type of construction;
  • Special Trade Construction: Annual receipts may not exceed $7 million; and
  • Agriculture: Annual receipts may not exceed $0.5 to $9.0 million, depending on the agricultural product. “

It only gets murkier the further you go up the size scale. For instance, a financial website in the UK sets the threshold for a “medium-sized businesses” are

“organizations that are in the startup or growth phase of development and have fewer than 250 employees. This definition of small and medium-sized enterprises is the one adopted by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform for statistical purposes.”

That same site describes a large business as:

“an organization that has grown beyond the limits of a medium-sized business and has 250 or more employees. This definition of a large-sized enterprise is the one adopted by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform for statistical purposes. It is usually from the ranks of large-sized businesses that multinational businesses arise.”

So how do you know if you, as a technical writer, are going into a small, medium, or large business? Well, you can do the research online, or it might even say in the job posting. Or, given this murkiness across industries and countries, you could try to define your business “size” by the size of the operation in which you, personally, must operate. For example, a Fortune 500 company might have thousands of employees across the country or around the world, but the shop you would work in consists of you, your manager, and maybe a graphic designer. The difference between that operation and an actual small business is that you can probably call on employees in other divisions to help you out if you’re buried—in a medium or small business, you might be “it” when it comes to technical communication.

Perhaps, for the technical writer, the best way to understand the “size” of your employer is simply to understand the scope of resources you can access if you need help. Large business: lots of resources; medium business: a couple; small business: there isn’t anyone, bub—you’re it. Okay, so hard definitions are hard to come by; that said, I’ve had experience in a wide range of organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, and several patterns become evident after awhile.


  • Advantages: Broader range of experiences; more creative control over the content because there are not that many people around to second-guess or review what you’re doing; good resume-builder due to the range of likely duties; little to no bureaucracy—you call the owner, walk into his/her office, and suggest something and can get immediate feedback; more entrepreneurial/creative environment because there are fewer corporate “filters” on bright ideas; the excitement of being in on the “ground floor” or part of the core team with the initial “vision”; more opportunity to work on your own if you’re an introvert; more of an opportunity to “shape” the job into anything you want.
  • Disadvantages: Few backups if you’re ill or need help; fewer resources—financial or human—to call upon if you need help; lots more work because there are fewer of you to do it; harder to take a day off; more uncertainty about the future; you have to be the “institutional memory” for a lot of things because there aren’t a lot of other folks on hand to maintain large files—and you still have to keep a close eye on your work and expenditures because money’s tighter; benefits will be tight to nonexistent; might have to work awhile before seeing a profit; loneliness if you like working with large groups of people; more likelihood of “family politics” if it’s a family-owned business and you’re not a relation.
  • Coin Tosses: Smaller businesses, especially new startups, tend to be run by younger people (<50) simply because they have the energy to put in the hours and the freewheeling creativity to try something new. This is not to say that you can’t find older people creating startups or that entrepreneurship and creativity can’t be found in larger organizations—but those would be exceptions in my opinion. Small businesses are also more informal in dress code, office decorum, and business practices because it’s a smaller group of people who all know each other.


  • Advantages: Still not a lot of people around, so there’s still room to “grow the job”; more stability: opportunity for promotions, raises, and paths for advancement, especially if the company has already been around for awhile; work includes more than just you and one or two other people—usually at least a graphic designer and maybe a web person—you’ve got backups and an editor if you need someone else to check your work; benefits more likely a part of the compensation package.
  • Disadvantages: The “heroic” phase of building the team is mostly over—you’re an employee, not part of a team starting something new; less creative control: you might have to answer to a manager, lawyer, or committee before your bright ideas can be implemented; you might still feel understaffed or underappreciated (a large communication staff is often rare in organizations until they find a need for it).
  • Coin Tosses: Processes, dress code, and rules of decorum are still looser than they are in a very large organization, but definitely more formal than a small business where every day is “Casual Friday.” If you prefer a little more structure and a few more resources to do your job, medium-size businesses might be for you.


  • Advantages: More people and resources to help with large projects (larger budgets, in-house print shop, archives, etc.); more predictable rules, pay, benefits, and paths for promotion; more opportunities for career advancement and development; larger, more ambitious projects; less likelihood of corporate collapse in the event of a major economic event; larger/better facilities with access to day care, exercise rooms, etc.
  • Disadvantages: Lots of bureaucracy, paperwork, formalized processes, and big-group politics; difficult to express your creativity unless it is within very specific boundaries; gossip more likely to flourish with additional layers between front-line staff and leadership/management; less opportunity for expanding the variety or scope of your job unless you work on cross-division project teams (of course if you prefer consistency and predictability in your work, this could be an advantage to you).
  • Coin Tosses: Corporate America is organized very much like a factory, with individual tasks broken out by function like a division-of-labor assembly line. This structure requires consistency of, and conformity with, the corporate culture, rules, and behavior on and off the job. A larger organization means more people and more meetings to keep that larger workforce apprised of what’s going on—great if you’re an extrovert, not so great if you’re an introvert and prefer to deal with only a few people on a daily basis.

These are some general thoughts for your consideration. And yes, I realize that they are stereotypes. Newer large companies like Google have made serious efforts to give people a “small-company feel” in a large organization. This can include a looser corporate culture—no neckties, more time for creative outlets, more whimsical corporate décor, or more opportunities for working at home or achieving “work-life balance.” Regardless of what floats your particular boat, odds are you’re going to spend more time there than anywhere else, so in addition to doing up-front research, it is not out of line to ask “cultural questions” during your interview.

The Boomers and Generation X have gone a long way toward changing the corporate culture in this country, some of it to the good (not all of it—don’t even get me started on that today). Perhaps the most important contribution might be recognizing that, with 30-year job security now the exception rather than the norm, companies and other organizations need to provide other incentives and opportunities to hire motivated employees. Where you work matters, and how you work matters that much more.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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