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As a small business, you have a lot more to offer top talent than your competitors – even if they’re 10 times your size

By Jess Campbell

If you’re a small business owner, you know that attracting – let alone keeping – top talent can be a tough game. It’s especially ruthless when your competitors are giants that offer everything but the moon to all the greatest talent.

One of the worst things you can do as a small business is believe that you’re not competitive when it comes to attracting the top talent in your industry. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you’re not as mighty as the next guy.

Finding and keeping top talent isn’t necessarily about offering a corner office with an outstanding view, a gym membership and a parking space (although there are people who value that, and that’s okay). For a small business, bringing great people onto your team is about demonstrating that size really doesn’t matter – people do.

What you really, really want

Sharon Vinderine is the CEO of Parent Tested Parent Approved (PTPA), a media company that connect brands with a community of parents and influencers who provide feedback on new products used by families every day. The company has been around for more than a decade but employs just eight full-time staffers. Vinderine says that finding and keeping top talent as a small business can depend on the stage of life that both the business and the new hire are in.

“As a small business owner, I feel like I’ve run the gamut, like we’ve been hit with every scenario when hiring. Sometimes, you can find people who are just done with big corporations. They’re looking for a change, they want to settle down, they know what they need to live on and live happily, and they’re good with that. But then you can have some senior management that, unless they have a vested interested in the company like a profit share, are much more difficult to attract, no question,” she said.

With bigger corporations, expectations are usually clear: this person has that role with those responsibilities. That kind of definitive structure is attractive to some people – but those are not the people who will be attracted to your small business.

“Depending on the age of the person you’re looking to bring on, typically if they’re younger, they like to know there are a lot of rungs on the ladder that they can climb to get to a higher position,” said Vinderine. “When you’re in a small company, there’s less [obvious] opportunity for growth because it’s less hierarchical and, very much, everybody does a little bit of everything.”

Of course, there are many people who are attracted to a more fluid role.

“When you have someone who’s a little more established, has a family, a mortgage – at that point, I feel it’s a little bit easier to attract great talent because they’re no longer looking to climb the ladder. They’re already somewhat senior, they know what value they can add and they’re looking for stability,” she said.

Values, not (necessarily) culture

Once you get top talent in the door, they’re going to have questions about what your small business can offer them. The old standbys of more money and more power just don’t cut it anymore. Top talent wants to contribute; they want to see their contributions in front of them and they want to feel valued because of them.

“I love the feeling of camaraderie that you get with a small business. You know everyone’s story and they know you take an interest and know you care.”
– Sharon Vinderine

“Basically, everyone is their own boss of their department,” said Vinderine. “While that gives them a lot of responsibility, they have a lot of pride at the end of a project because they were very involved in every step and they can see the impact they directly had. When you’re one of 100 people working toward a goal, you can’t really see what your direct impact was. When you’re one of four people, you know exactly what you contributed to that project. You can have a lot of pride in your work.”

Other things that Vinderine’s team loves about working for PTPA are applicable to most small businesses: the fluidity of roles and no obvious hierarchy, the chance to develop new skills because there’s no obvious hierarchy, autonomy in decision-making for their department and, as Vinderine calls it, “… flexibility for being people (laughs). If someone has to run out because their child is sick, there’s more flexibility in a small business than there is, typically, in a large business. And while flex hours may put more strain on a small business, there’s more empathy there.”

For a long time, creating company culture was the way many companies spurred their recruiting, becoming known for unique amenities like catered lunches, movies in the conference room or treadmill desks. Although company culture is important, it doesn’t hold clout with recruiting like it once did, according to Vinderine.

“Depending on the generation you’re in, you probably have a different definition of what culture is. To us, culture doesn’t mean we’re closing the office for the day and going to Canada’s Wonderland; it means we work together in a harmonious way, we hang out together in the conference room and have lunch together, and we really enjoy each other’s company,” she said.

Instead of focusing heavily on culture, create an environment of empowerment for your small but mighty team.

“In the past, we’ve done a day off site that’s dedicated to everyone sharing their ideas,” said Vinderine. “It’s like a round-table, talking through the pros and cons of each idea and figuring out which ones we want to focus on, then empowering the team members to own those projects. It’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment to not just be a cog in the wheel.”

Aspects of value will be different for everyone on your team, but the one thing you can bet on everyone valuing is recognition for a job well done. Recognition has less to do with singling people out and more to do with leadership, according to Vinderine.

“Through the years, I have been schooled on how to be a better leader. I’ve had turnover, and different experiences with different generations of people in learning how to manage them. Now, my team would probably say I overcompensate when recognizing them for their achievements. On one hand, I want to make sure they know I genuinely appreciate what they’re doing. On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, you always want to make sure everyone on your team is happy. I never want to take that for granted,” she said.

The value and opportunity that small businesses can offer far outweigh the actual size of the company, and will be what attracts top talent to your team. After all, it’s the people that make the company, not the other way around.

“I love the feeling of camaraderie that you get with a small business. You know everyone’s story and they know you take an interest and know you care,” said Vinderine. “The people on your team are the people who will be representative of your company and who will help it through the highs and lows. Making sure that team is fantastic – using an HR manager, if size is appropriate – is literally priceless.” 

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