There are three things you want to optimize for in your first PM job: exposure, mentorship and association with successful companies.

Exposure – In your first job you want to get as much exposure as possible to core product management functions, types of products/technology, and functional teams the PMs tend to interact with (engineering, sales, marketing, finance, executive teams, client service, etc). This will give you great context for how things work in many different areas—a fantastic asset to have early in your PM career.

  • Big companies tend to win in this category IF you get access to these different areas. Understanding how much you’ll actually interact with these different areas is key. Even if your scope is somewhat narrow you still probably are better off in a bigger company.
  • Small companies have fewer products and fewer people with deep specialization a, which doesn’t allow you to learn how all the different functional areas fit together (an important trait for PMs). That said you’ll probably have access to everyone in the company and have the opportunity to do tasks you’d never get in a big Co.

Mentorship – This is the number one thing I’d optimize for your first PM role. How skillful and experienced is the person you’ll be reporting to? Do they seem inclined to mentor you? In my career, this was the single biggest factor in my development as a PM and should be high on your list.

  • I think big and small companies can be on level playing fields here. You really just need to get to know your prospective boss during the interview process and make a judgement call.
  • One word of caution! Definitely avoid being the only product person in a small company as a junior PM. Product is a very nuanced role that requires a certain level of mastery before you’ll likely to succeed as a solo PM. I learned this one the hard way! 🙂

Assocation with Successful Companies – While being associated with success doesn’t mean you’re actually a better PM, it does affect the way others view you and your future opportunities. As irrational as the halo effect is—it is still very real.

  • Big companies tend to have the advantage here since there is less risk of them failing.
  • Startups on the other hand have the potential to both help or hurt your career on this particular issue—its just impossible to predict in the early stages. They’re probably not worth the extra risk for your first PM role unless you plan to spend your career working in startups anyways.

A final consideration

A lot depends on where you want to spend your career. If you want to be in small companies, then it may be worth taking your chances and joining a small company. That’s actually what I did (despite the extra risk). If you think you might like bigger companies start there and you can always move down to a smaller company in the future.

When I started out as a PM I interviewed with both big and small companies and evaluated each opportunity on its own merits. That approach worked really well for me.