Big Shop vs Small Shop

Imagine you just graduated from a competitive MBA program. Against all odds, you’ve snagged two banking (trader) offers despite the skepticism of every single career counselor at your school.  Which of these two options has more upside?

Big:  The Big Bank is a bulge bracket. It’s done fairly well despite the recession.  The position is not exactly an associate position, but it’s close enough—same pay, same benefits, different title. The trading position doesn’t cover the hottest product.  The bank’s pitch to you is “why wouldn’t you come here?”   Your future colleagues seem sharp and they have decent academic pedigree.  You would be one out of thousands upon thousands of employees. However, the firm’s revenues exceed the GDP of several countries combined.

Small: Think small, like 200 employees instead of 20,000 employees. While the firm’s traders and salespeople may seem sharp, you get the sense they would be eaten alive at a bulge bracket.  The firm does a few hundred million in revenue a year, profit margins aren’t all that. It pays well, since you eat what you kill and there aren’t that many hunters around.  You are unsure if your function in this shop is as interesting as the function at the bulge bracket, though it seems broader and perhaps offers greater options down the road (i.e. You wouldn’t get pigeonholed). The rising star of the small shop thinks the world of you and has earmarked you for a major management position down the road.  There is no brand name, but limitless opportunities as the big fish in a small pond.

Question: If you were seriously in this position, which of the two firms would you go with?

Why I care: A good friend was in this position, waffled back and forth until he finally decided to go with the small shop. He hasn’t been there long, but he’s seen enough to feel as though he’s made the biggest mistake of his life.  I think it’s too soon to tell, but would love to know what other people think.