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Blue Chip vs SME: What's best to progress your career

As a sales and marketing manager with experience working with both blue-chip businesses and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), I’ve seen the best (and worst!) of both worlds. 

While blue chips are historically able to weather recessions and withstand market shifts -- crucial in this unstable, post-Brexit moment! -- SMEs tend to offer job seekers a breadth of experience that blue chips can’t rival. 

In fact, we’re currently seeing a real swell of later-career candidates moving towards SMEs, as opposed to the traditional blue chips that traditionally tempt the best talent. 

Why do most people make the move to SMEs? 

In my experience, there are typically three factors at the core of a decision to throw in the corporate towel at a Blue Chip and shift over to an SME:

  1. Agility: the perceived ability of an SME to react quicker to market conditions. 

  2. Autonomy: the perceived lack of red tape and freedom to take true ownership of decisions.

  3. Impact: the desire to be, shall we say, a big fish in a small pond. 

But that doesn’t mean you should write-off blue chips entirely! While many blue chips can actually offer jobseekers all of the above -- as well as the opportunity for career progression, international moves, and cross-discipline training -- some SMEs struggle to do just that. Let’s just say I’ve heard some real horror stories! (But let’s save those for another day…)

In short, it’s often not about the company size, it’s about the company. 

So, as a job seeker, what do I need to take into consideration before deciding between a blue-chip or an SME? 

First of all, don’t assume anything about the company based on its status. SMEs don’t guarantee autonomy, nor do blue chips automatically turn you into a mere corporate cog! 

Instead, test your assumptions at interview. For example, many SMEs will have their founders heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the company, which can go one of two ways: 

  1. They want people with experience, who can take the metaphorical ball and run with it, or…

  2. They’re so attached to their ‘baby’ that they can’t relinquish control! (And they might be suffering from the dreaded ‘ugly baby syndrome’, rendering them absolutely immune to criticism.)

Neither one is better or worse than the other, but it’s crucial to consider which approach will suit you. As always, asking incisive questions at interview will be your biggest asset when it comes to figuring this out. 

Similarly, remember that SMEs can often be risk-averse, reluctant to rush to market and fail. Meanwhile, blue chips can typically swallow such failures and bounce back. Depending on your preferences, the security of a blue-chip could definitely play in your favour.

It’s also key to remember that you can make just as much of an impact at a blue-chip business as you can with an SME.

Plus, if you’re impatient, the time it takes to land large clients at an SME can be frustrating; meanwhile, at a blue-chip, often you can hit the ground running. I recently moved to an SME having spent 7 years in a blue-chip, and this is definitely something which impacted me! I’d expected my previous clients to bring me all their recruiting needs, but that just wasn’t the case and it took time to re-establish my client base and sort trading terms etc.

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Siobhan Nutt

Senior Manager - Sales and Marketing

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