Comparing Large vs. Small (“Boutique”) Consulting Firms

Originally published on my website: rebeccaxliu.com

Summary:

  • Benefits of working at a larger consulting firm: more glamorous lifestyle, more exposure to different types of work, better overall prestige and brand recognition, more ownership over your work, better pay
  • Benefits of working at a boutique (i.e., smaller) consulting firm: usually better work / life balance (although not always by a lot), getting to better know the people, playing a role in building the firm culture, specializing in a particular industry or type of work
  • Toss-ups / things that are highly dependent on your firm and experience: mentorship / training and the type of people you’re around

A lot more details:

Consulting is one of the more popular industries for people to go into after college. When people talk about going into consulting, they’re usually referring to 10–15 of the largest, most well-known firms (e.g., MBB, Big 4, Oliver Wyman, Kearney, Accenture, LEK — not a comprehensive list at all, but just some that are popular). I’ve written about my experiences working in consulting vs. industry previously, so now I want to discuss the experience of being at a large consulting firm vs. a boutique.

When I talk to people who are interested in going into consulting, I encourage them to think beyond just those 10–15 firms and look at boutique firms as well. By “boutique,” I really just mean smaller consulting firms, although some use it to describe firms that specialize in a certain type of work or industry (regardless of size). Throughout my three years in consulting, I’ve worked both at a larger firm (Strategy& / PwC) and at a boutique. I really enjoyed my time working in consulting overall, and I think boutique firms are underrated. Overall, large firms and boutiques are opposites in a lot of ways, so most people will probably prefer one over the other.

First, some context:

During undergraduate, I interned at and was a part of a wide range of organizations: actuarial intern at Allstate, social impact consulting, operations at an edtech startup, procurement consulting, and a student-run education nonprofit. As a senior, I felt torn between working in Corporate America ($$$) and Making a Difference. It took me awhile to realize these aren’t mutually exclusive, and when I was in undergrad, I certainly thought they were. I ended up reconciling the two by thinking I’d work in consulting for a few years and then bring my skills to the social sector afterward. At Strategy&, I had a good experience and learned a lot, but still yearned to work in a more socially impactful field. One day on a whim, I googled something along the lines of “education industry growth strategy” and found a boutique consulting firm in Boston with ~20 people specializing in that very thing. A few months later when I saw a job opening, I eagerly applied and thought I had landed my dream job when I got the offer. This new job would allow me to combine my skills working in consulting (I’d done a couple of growth strategy projects) with my passion for education.

In December 2018, I moved to Boston to pursue my dream job at the time. I had only visited Boston once before for a couple of days, and I only knew a couple of people who lived there. While I don’t live there anymore, I’m so grateful for my time in this beautiful city and all the friendships I made and have maintained since living there. This was the view from the roof of my apartment building.

I’m going to compare large firms vs. boutiques (going to call them that for simplification) across some dimensions that people usually value or wonder about before going into consulting. As a disclaimer, this is purely based on my own experience and not a comprehensive guide for all large consulting firms ever and all boutique firms ever.

Lifestyle:

If you care about having the kind of lifestyle that makes for a good instagram aesthetic, you’re probably going to prefer larger firms. At S&, I ate at 5–10 Michelins in my 1.5 years, and a lot of people eat at a lot more. (For comparison, I’ve eaten at 0 since leaving S&, which I am very okay with.) You rack up hotel and airline points, can travel to cities of your choice on the weekends, and you don’t have to pay for food and some other stuff (e.g., workout classes up to a certain amount) when you’re traveling. At a boutique firm, you’re simply not going to have as luxurious of a lifestyle. That’s not to say there aren’t nice perks; at my boutique, we had a summer trip to Newport, Rhode Island (including watching a polo match and access to practically unlimited seafood). We also sat in a box at a Celtics game.

Type of work:

Large firms usually do a wider variety of work. Some analysts / associates are able to carve out a specific niche for themselves, doing work in a specific industry or one type of work. But most people don’t have much of a say and will work on a wide range of industries and types of work. This includes industries that a lot of people don’t consider glamorous like insurance, oil and gas, logistics, manufacturing, etc. People who are interested in basically anything and everything are well-suited for large consulting firms in this sense. At larger firms, you’ll likely have to specialize and have more of a say in the type of work you do the longer you stay.

I’m not the kind of person who’s indiscriminately interested in everything (and if you’re not either — that’s okay!), so this was one of the main draws of working for a boutique firm. I’ve worked with mentoring and other education organizations for 10+ years, so I knew I wanted to try working in education specifically. Most large firms don’t do that many social sector projects — not saying it’s impossible to work on these at a larger firm, just more challenging. At the boutique firm, I loved being able to focus solely on growth strategy and go-to-market work in the education industry. It gave me a much better understanding of the industry that would have been hard to come by otherwise. That being said, you won’t necessarily have much of a say in the specific projects you work on at a boutique firm either.

Prestige / exit opportunities:

In general, larger firms seem more prestigious and will afford you better exit opportunities (especially if you’re at MBB). Your neighbors, friends, people you meet at parties, etc. are also a lot more likely to recognize the name of a large consulting firm. However, if you intend on working in the same industry for a long time, your experience at a boutique can still have a lot of weight. For instance, in early 2020 I interviewed with several edtech startups and VC firms and many were familiar with my boutique firm.

Ownership and roles in work:

This is a little unintuitive, but I had more ownership over my work at a larger firm. Directors and managers were more focused on selling here vs. at boutique firms, so they have less time to (micro)manage you. My directors and managers still made themselves pretty available to me, and I always felt like I had the right level of support. But because there’s less oversight, I had more agency over my work and more of a stake in it. On one of my projects, I built a capacity model for a healthcare insurance company and worked directly with various VPs and departments (e.g., finance, analytics) to gather data, present the findings, and incorporate input from stakeholders. At boutique firms, especially more nascent ones, partners might feel like they have more to prove to their clients and be more reluctant to give associates ownership or as much client interaction. This is pretty understandable if you think about it from the perspective of the partners, but something that surprised me initially.

Pay:

This is definitely not the most important factor (although some may disagree), but it’s a question that I get a lot. The pay is going to be better at large firms at the junior level. I’m assuming the same is true at the more senior levels, but I can’t comment on this from personal experience. I took a ~15% pay cut to work at the boutique firm.

Travel and work-life balance:

At S&, I was usually traveling Monday — Thursday to a large city (e.g., NYC, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Salt Lake City). At the boutique, we only traveled for client meetings at the end of a phase of a project. A lot of times, only the partners and directors were traveling while the associates would call into the meeting from Boston. This amounted to traveling once every couple of months or so.

Work-life balance is frequently intertwined with travel. Depending on if you want to be traveling all the time or not, the travel piece can exacerbate work / life balance or make it seem more worth it. On average, I worked more hours at S& than the boutique, but not by a lot more. I think there’s a misconception that at large firms you’ll work a crazy number of hours vs. at boutiques you’ll work 40. This is a rough estimate, but at S& it probably averaged to ~55 hours a week and ~53 at the boutique (I didn’t actually do the math, but this is to show that it’s probably a little less than S&). At the boutique firm, we were “double staffed”, which meant we had two projects at a time to work on. This is common at some other smaller firms. On one hand, you get more exposure to different types of projects, but on the other it can be difficult to manage. Overall, I probably worked less hours during the weekday at the boutique firm, but more weekends.

People:

There’s a lot more variety in caliber (however you measure that) across boutique firms compared to large firms. At large firms, people are going to be at a pretty similar caliber. When looking at boutique firms, it’s important to do your research about the people. Some boutique firms are founded by partners or directors from MBB or other large firms. Those firms likely have a lot of the same training and culture as larger firms.

As an associate at S&, a lot of my peers didn’t know what they wanted to do after S& (and that’s perfectly okay!). But at the boutique, all of my coworkers had previously worked in education, volunteered for education nonprofits, or at the very least were passionate about education. I loved being in an environment where people were united by the desire to positively impact the world through education.

There are obviously a lot more people at larger consulting firms, but there will be cliques or groups of people who work on specific types of work. As mentioned above, if you’re an associate you might find a niche and work with a set group of people. When I was at S&, I worked on a wide variety of projects and therefore a wide variety of people. At a large firm if you don’t have the best experience with someone, it’s fine since a few months later, you’ll likely never have to work with them again. However at boutique firms, it’s important that you are at least friendly with everyone, since the small size and infrequent travels means you’ll be seeing a lot of your coworkers. For me this was awesome — I loved getting to know all my coworkers well. Their significant others and children would join at team events and it’s great getting to know more about people’s personal lives. On the other hand, if you prefer to keep your professional and personal lives separate, it’s a little harder to do this if you’re at a boutique (although definitely still doable). Finally, larger firms will typically have more diversity (especially culturally).

Culture / firm involvement:

At S& I was involved with the Northwestern recruiting team: I did coffee chats, spoke with students at info sessions, prepared candidates for final round interviews, and hosted students during their final round interviews. Other than the recruiting team, I wasn’t involved with many other parts of the culture.

At the boutique firm, I was deeply involved with the culture. I created and led an onboarding session for new hires, started a women’s group, spearheaded lunch and learn presentations, led meetings for other associates on a monthly basis, participated in the social committee, volunteer committee, and the recruiting team. For the recruiting team, I pitched the firm to students at college info sessions, reviewed resumes, and interviewed and had coffee with candidates. Being so involved with firm development was one of the best parts of the job. You do have to be careful about balance, because project work has to be your #1 focus in consulting.

Mentorship / professional development / training:

This is very dependent on the people at your firm for boutiques. Larger firms are going to have more structured mentoring and training programs. I attended trainings on topics that were relevant to many types of projects including financial modeling and building compelling presentations.

My boutique firm started placing much more of an emphasis on training and mentorship a few months after I joined vs. when I initially joined (nothing to do with me — just a happy coincidence). Because we were a smaller firm that did a specific type of work, we were able to focus on skills that were immediately relevant to our projects (e.g., creating and analyzing surveys, conducting interviews, using Qualtrics).

A lot of training and mentorship will happen on the job as you work with and observe more experienced colleagues. My formal mentorship experience was more specific and tailored at the boutique, because the firm was smaller. At the boutique firm, I had a great relationship with my formal mentor (i.e., the one I was assigned to — in consulting firms, almost everyone can become an informal mentor). This was partially because he was ex-MBB, so he better understood my previous experiences. We also got along well professionally and personally, which isn’t something that you can predict or attribute to the size of your firm. My mentor personally knew the people I was working with (since the firm is so small and we’re together all the time) and had a good understanding of what types of projects I was on. At larger firms, you may not ever work with your formal mentors, and they may not be personally familiar with the people you work with.

In closing: Overall, I really enjoyed my experiences both at S& and at a boutique firm. The two types of consulting firms are incredibly different. Neither is objectively “better” — it depends on your interests and objectives. I wanted to provide more perspective on boutique firms, since I haven’t seen that much written about them. I’m always happy to chat more, so don’t hesitate to reach out!

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