Smallest Fish are the Sweetest
I once asked my rich uncle - yes, I grew up on the poor side of the tracks, but there really was a rich uncle - what his advice to a young man starting out on the path of life was. What was the secret to his success? His answer was succinct, "The smallest fish are the sweetest." And ever since then I have followed his advice: keeping my businesses smallish and maintaining a family atmosphere, focusing on smaller customers so as to balance out the few big ones, and basically trying to keep life manageable.
It occurs to me that in developing your career too, the same observation could hold true. Especially here in Japan where everyone obsesses about working for large and prestigious companies. While it is true that smaller companies are more likely to be under financial pressure and thus are inherently less stable, they are also likely to be sources of unexpected and early rewards.
Whenever I look at the job histories on applicants' resumes, I see a clear pattern. In large firms, substantial promotions and pay raises normally take 3-5 years of sustained effort. The bar is set high, and the competition for the same jobs is intense from your co-workers. In contrast, at smaller firms the promotions start as soon as the guy above you leaves - which is likely to happen every 2-3 years. The profit sharing can be negotiated up front with the CEO, since profit sharing guarantees he/she can reduce their fixed costs, and project responsibilities are only as far away as your willingness to deliver a new product or service to a new customer.
Smaller firms also tend to be much quicker at reacting to market changes, competitive threats, new technologies, and new business opportunities - all of which are likely to contribute to your well-being if you read them right. Basically in small companies, the profits (after profit sharing) go directly to the CEO and/or shareholders, and thus any improvement is easy for senior management to recognize and reward. If the company can't offer you cash, there are always shares - something you're not likely to get easily at a larger firm.
I strongly recommend that if you want to catalyze your career, consider working at a small company early on. Unless you have kids and a mortgage, the biggest risk is that you will lose 1-2 years of your career development. But more likely you're going to go in as a junior staff member and emerge as a manager-with all the benefits that status brings when you apply for your next job.
Identifying small firms that are doing good business and have opportunities is relatively easy. Because most small firm CEO's are totally absorbed with running their firms and getting sales, they tend to keep their recruiting activities quite connected to the actual needs of the business. So instead of advertising on a continuous basis like big companies do, they're advertising because they absolutely need someone. For this reason they like the online job boards - such as Daijob.com.
You need to keep a continuous look out for such companies, and when they pop up, review the range of jobs. They will tell you what kind of work the client contract might be, possibly even who for, and depending on the volume, what level of need the small hiring firm has. More job listings quite simply means there are not enough people to do the work internally - and knowing this can increase your chances of getting selected even if your skill set isn't entirely appropriate.
Once you're in for the interview, the critical issue is how you are going to negotiate a reasonable package from a frugal founder. As I mentioned previously, it is much easier for a CEO to accept a higher package if he/she isn't paying for it upfront. Indeed, some CEO's like myself, prefer to test a person about their willingness to take on some risk-reward in their compensation. If they are not willing to do this, then it means they lack confidence and probably won't perform well - never a good thing to be thinking as a CEO when you're bringing in a fresh unproven person.
Lastly, small companies is not always beautiful. They can be demanding and autocratic. So in your interview, make sure you ask the company policies about working hours, compensation for overtime, the ratio of foreigners to Japanese (at least you want some foreign colleagues), taking time off for special events and sickness, and the actual ability to take holidays. A small company run by a forward-thinking CEO is going to give you a lot of flexibility, even though they may not necessarily be within the company rules. Gauge his/her body language and reactions. Also, ask the same questions to your line manager or if you can meet them, the company's CFO. If either the CEO or the manager starts looking at you strangely or saying "muzukashii ne?" then you probably want to steer clear of that firm. There is nothing more miserable than being caught in a small company where people are overworked, unrecognized and basically unhappy.