I work in a start-up, employing about 50 people in all, and have tended to work for smaller companies throughout my career. In spite of my own entrepreneurial tendencies and inclination to work in smaller companies, I believe that most people would probably be better off starting their careers in a larger organization before taking the small company route. So before you sit down to write a resume and send it to potential employers, take quick stock of my reasons below:
Training - to be frank, in a small company people expect you to pull your own weight from day one. Small organizations have very little inclination or resources to train employees for their roles or to invest in their professional development. Hey, it's not a good thing, it's simply reality. Small organizations are too busy surviving. In every small organization I ever worked, I felt like I was riding a bullet train, with work continuing around the clock and even on weekends. Training? Forget about it.
By contrast, large organizations are more inclined to take the long view and spend more on employee training and professional growth. They hold employee orientations, send team members to professional training seminars and often appoint more experienced employees to mentor new ones. The environment of a large organization tends to be more nurturing and tolerant of newer employees and their potential early stumbles.
Experience - you have to give it large organizations, they have perfected many practices that small organizations can only dream of. In everything from quality control, to manufacturing practices to analytics and beyond, large organizations have the edge on their small brethren. For someone starting their career, a good foundation in best practices is critical. Such a foundation would serve you well if you ever decided to move to a smaller organization to which you could bring these skills. Having such a solid foundation would be equally useful if you decide to start your own business.
Depth vs. Breadth - one of the reasons I like working for a small organization is that I get a lot of variety in my work. My core job is business development, but I also do a great deal of strategy & marketing. If I want to get involved in a new area, it's very easy for me to pick a project and get started. However, I believe that for someone starting their career, building a deep foundation of functional expertise is the way to go. Working for a small organization one tends to become a jack of all trades, while in a large organization where responsibilities are more carefully defined you get to become a master of one functional area. Diversification is excellent, but in my opinion it should come a bit further down the road. Also be aware that in a small organization you may be the only person with your job description. If you are just starting out and you are the only marketing or purchasing guy on staff, who will you learn from? How will you grow your skills except for through trial and error?
Having said all this, under current economic conditions most people can't be picky about which job they take. If you get an offer, be grateful and take it. Forget about small or large. If you're unemployed, you might want to take a look at this survival guide.