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Small Business Should Win Most Recruiting Battles, Here’s Why They Don’t (Recruiting advantages at small businesses – a comprehensive guide)

Ask retirees what was the best job in your career? And often the answer is a job at a small business. And because so many respond positively that a job at a small business was the best one in their professional career, I literally laugh when small business managers complain they can’t recruit against elite firms like Google. Even though many employees that have worked at these megacorporations describe them as impersonal, bureaucratic behemoths!

It’s also surprising that many small business recruiters don’t realize that “68% of corporate employees would work in a smaller start-up if they had the opportunity (Source:” And that percentage is likely to be even higher now after the way that large corporations treated their employees during the pandemic and the shift to remote work. Because small businesses and startups have an entrepreneurial work environment, they alone can be flexible and offer recruits their “dream job” where they will be doing “the best work of their life.

Yet despite this advantage, small businesses still lose any candidates to elite firms primarily because their recruiters are not data-driven marketing experts. So they don’t know the “attraction triggers” that will universally get the attention of top candidates. They also lose out because their hiring managers don’t take time to “sculpt the job” so that the finalist considers it close to “their dream job.”

If you are a manager at a small firm or a startup (or for that matter any sized firm). That wants to successfully draw top candidates away from elite firms like Amazon. Here is a list of 25 proven attraction factors and selling points that will guarantee that your company will successfully attract and land many of those that are also considering large elite firms. And your first step needs to make a crystal-clear distinction between the two job choices.

Small business managers need to focus their recruiting selling points on “the work, the family-like work environment, and the chance to actually change things. And then accurately describe a new-hire’s life in an impersonal corporate bureaucracy. Where their initial assignments will be painfully dull because no one else wants them.

First, remind them that they won’t be lost in a huge impersonal corporate bureaucracy. Proactively make it clear to potential recruits that if they were to work at larger elite companies like Google and Facebook as a new-hire. It will likely be an ugly experience because as a rookie among thousands of recent hires, almost no one will guide or listen to you. You will likely also be joining a firm that has already done some questionable things in the areas related to the environment, ethics, and privacy. The most impactful attraction factors are listed first in each category.


A Comprehensive List Of Small Business Selling Points… That Ensure That Your Applicants Will “Be Doing The Best Work Of Their Life”

Next, realize that the only real recruiting disadvantage that small businesses face is that their recruiters are not data-driven experts in candidate attraction and recruitment marketing. Because if they were, their managers would realize that selling applicants on working at a small business is actually relatively easy. Because they literally can have 25 different advantages over large corporate bureaucracies. These many benefits are so impactful that they will likely mean that your new-hire will likely end up “doing the best work of their life.” The many benefits of working at a small business are broken into three distinct categories, with the highest impact selling features listed first under each category.

Category #1 – Focus on “the work” because it is the most compelling attraction feature

The primary driver for top performers and innovators is exciting and compelling work. So use all of the following attraction and selling points that apply to your organization.

  • You will be doing exciting “can’t put it down” work – once you realize that top performers are attracted by completely different things than the average employee,  you will shift your recruitment messaging. So they realize that you are offering them work that is so interesting and exciting that they “won’t want to put it down.” And as a small niche business, also emphasize that you and your entire team will be developing breakthrough products. And that you will also be utilizing new technologies, working with compelling teammates and you will have a real chance of being first in an important area.
  • Your work will have purpose and you will feel the exciting impacts of your work – emphasize that no matter what job you have at a smaller firm, you won’t be far from the product and the customers. And that’s an important attraction factor because research has revealed that the #1 motivator among Millennials is that their “work must have meaning” and that they are “motivated more by mission and purpose than a paycheck” (Source: Gallup research). And at a small business, if you demand that your work will have purpose, you will also easily be able to see and experience the impact of your work and how it may change the world. 
  • Having broader responsibilities will help you grow – with the lean staffing levels at small firms, you will also likely be assigned much broader job responsibilities and cross-functional opportunities that a new-hire would never get at a large corporation. And these broader responsibilities will serve as a form of “job enlargement.” So they will help you avoid the monotony of a narrowly defined corporate job. And these broader responsibilities will also ensure that you know how to multitask, likely including more areas where you have a strong interest, as well as additional areas where you would like to learn. So you will likely experience a constant adrenaline rush because you will play a major role in every company problem, decision, and opportunity. So you may have a real chance of literally “doing the best work of your life.”
  • Our flexible job descriptions will finally give you freedom – in a corporation, you will operate under a job description that is uniform around the world. However at a small business where everyone knows your changing capabilities and interests. Your initial job description will likely be designed around you. And it will be periodically adjusted so that you are spending most of your time doing what you do best. Because our goal is to give each employee the freedom to maximize their growth and learning.
  • We want you to build something, not fix old stuff – research has shown that candidates want a chance to “create something brand new.” Which isn’t likely to happen as a new-hire at a big corporation. Where instead, you will almost certainly be assigned to “fix” an already existing feature or process. So provide your potential applicants with examples of things where new-hires were allowed to develop new things from scratch.

Category #2 – Your organizational culture and structure are compelling selling features

In addition to the work itself, the work environment will have many compelling features.

  • Your CEO will be an entrepreneur, who will demand constant innovation – at a small business, you will be guaranteed to have an entrepreneur as your CEO. In direct contrast, many corporations become lumbering bureaucratic giants. Partially because of the constant criticism that they receive from business analysts and large shareholders. However, under the guidance of a leadership team dominated by entrepreneurs, you will be encouraged to continually take significant risks to innovate. So you will be constantly challenged by them to increase your impact and to explore new ways. And also because of their small size, those that come up with innovative ideas will get a chance to participate in their implementation.
  • You will actually work alongside and influence senior leadership – it will never happen in a big corporation. However, as a new-hire in a small business, there will be fewer layers of hierarchy. So you will likely see and work with most senior leaders regularly. And they will know both your name, your interests, and your work. And that access will provide you with multiple opportunities to directly pitch or pretest your new ideas.
  • You will enjoy a collaborative family-like work environment – many employees love working in a family environment. However, they only laugh when large corporations make that “like a family” promise. But it’s a fact that small businesses and startups can only be successful if they have a collaborative work environment so describe and provide examples of how you don’t have corporate functional silos like the big firms have. And that your executives openly listen and share everything with employees. And finally, review how a majority of your implemented ideas actually came from “the bottom up.”
  • You will have maximum freedom with fewer rules, less seniority, and reduced politics – at a smaller firm you will experience fewer constraints. Because there will be many fewer policies, rules, and approvals. And in most cases, there will also be fewer hard-to-spot corporate politics and unwelcomed interference by lawyers. And because small firms are less likely to have unions. You won’t have enforced seniority and other significant constraints on you and your coworkers.
  • You will intimately know your customers – working at a large corporation, you might have millions of customers. However, if you want intimate connections with your customers, you need to work out an SME (Small To Medium Size Enterprise). Recruiters must emphasize their company’s close connections with customers because it is a top attraction factor. Because a primary employee motivator is a direct connection with those who benefit from one’s work” (Source: the Harvard Business School).
  • You will work alongside outstanding co-workers – business is no different from sports. Everyone wants to work alongside the very best sharing coworkers who are smarter and better performers than themselves. At a small business, teammates are more willing to coach and share. Because with a small number of total workers, everyone is highly dependent on each other. So throughout the recruiting process, highlight some of the outstanding team members that the new-hire will learn from. 
  • With little market power, everything at a startup will be highly adaptable – because SMEs and startups have no market power. They must be able to quickly respond to changes in the business environment, industry competition, and customer needs. So potential applicants and candidates that are themselves agile and adaptable will simply love working in this agile environment.
  • You will thrive with our breathtaking learning speed – learning is almost always a top attraction factor for top performers, leaders, and innovators. However, one study found that 52% of employees are never… or rarely learning new things. And those who are learning are 10 times more likely to be inspired to give their best effort on the job. Less employee learning occurs in the corporate environment, where there are likely dozens of experts that will find the answers for you. In contrast, in a small business, the lean staffing levels and the need for constant improvement often require individual employees to develop a mastery of each of their subject areas. So you “will be expected to search and find your own answers.” And that will have the added positive consequence of challenging you; speeding up and broadening your learning.
  • We are transparent and we don’t keep secrets – unlike big corporations, that openly restrict the amount of information that underlings are allowed access to. Our company doesn’t have unnecessary information restrictions and many company secrets. We will provide every employee with access to all the information that they want because that will improve their decision-making.
  • You will experience rapid approvals without the typical painful corporate delay – with little bureaucracy and no tedious budgeting processes. You will know and have easy access to the handful of decision-makers. And that will mean a rapid approval or rejection of your ideas. Also because of your direct interaction with executives. When your proposals are rejected, you will be able to find out precisely why. And because the executives will know and trust you, in many cases, you will be able to make your own decisions without any approvals.
  • An absence of quarterly pressure to continually produce profits – because public corporations are driven by published quarterly results. At corporations, everyone is under severe pressure to constantly deliver profits. Where small businesses are under much less public scrutiny from analysts and shareholder advocates. And that longer-term perspective allows more time for creative employees and teams to further develop and improve their new ideas and products. 
  • Surprise layoffs will be the last resort – corporations are so concerned about the bottom line, that they will regularly conduct mass layoffs with little concern for the employees. However at a small business, because everyone knows you well and your family situation, your leaders will be more empathetic and compassionate. And that means that layoffs will be the very last resort. Instead, open positions will simply go unfilled. And that will increase your job security.
  • Identify the attraction factors and then directly sell each one – survey your target applicants to determine what would attract them to your job. Don’t forget your purpose, values, environmental record, new technologies, and high online customer/product ratings.
  • Finally, you will have a great manager that is less selfish – a bad manager can turn any job into a nightmare. And in the corporate world, bad managers that are looking out for themselves are, unfortunately, the norm. Because of the low staffing levels in small businesses, they simply can’t afford to have many layers of management or a single weak manager. And the managers that we do have will need to excel at team management. So rather than relying on orders and titles, our leaders and managers influence, nudge, and sell employees on what needs to be done. And when formal management is not needed, we expect our employees to self-manage, to act as leaders, and to make tough decisions.


Category #3 – There will be many direct benefits for the individual new-hire

Small businesses are unique in that they can offer benefits that individual applicants are likely to really care about.

  • You will finally fit – at a big corporation, and you will likely have to change in order to fit in. However, at a smaller firm, where fit is absolutely essential, you won’t be hired unless you fit. So maybe for the first time in your working career, you will be understood and accepted for who you are. 
  • Everyone will depend on you – at small firms, there will be little redundancy and no formal backups. And that will mean that your entire department, and perhaps the entire company, will literally depend on you and your work. This dependency will make it even clearer to the applicant that they will add direct value.
  • Finally, you will be appreciated – because of its small size, everyone throughout the small business will be well aware of your contributions. And because of that awareness, you can expect everything you do to be fully appreciated (both formally and informally).
  • You will have input into your work-life balance – most employees desire to have input into where and when their work is done. So that they can sculpt” their own optimal work schedule and or work/life balance. And because they are small, everyone on your team will likely know and understand your needs. We will allow the new-hire to provide significant input into what work they do, and where and when they do it. So perhaps, for the first time, you will finally have a high degree of control over your work/life balance. 
  • Your results and impacts will be rewarded – as a small organization, everyone will know everyone else’s pay and rewards. So you will quickly find that our rewards are focused on your actual contribution and company success. And not on seniority, years of experience, your credentials, or your internal friendships. And that transparency will make it easy for you to feel that you’re being treated fairly. 
  • Your job offer can be sculptured so that it is close to your dream job – if you become our final candidate. We will specifically ask you to highlight the different “dream job factors” that will influence your decision on whether to say yes. And then, we will work with you in order to ensure that this opportunity meets as many of those dream job factors as possible. You can find a complete description of these “best work of your life” compelling features here.

Recruiting Actions That Small Businesses And Startups Should Take

In addition to providing potential applicants with recruiting messaging that covers the compelling aspects of your job and company. There are seven actions that leadership at the small business should take in order to improve their recruiting process. They include:

  • Educate your recruiters and managers about your recruiting advantages – start improving your recruiting process with an education campaign.  Target your hiring managers and recruiters so they are fully aware that small firms can and do successfully compete side-by-side against well-known corporations. 
  • Focus on the work, not the money – you may think you can’t compete on money, but you may not have to. One study found that the opportunity to do more meaningful work was the #1 attraction factor. Followed by increased responsibilities and pay was only #3. So start off by realizing that most of us volunteer and work for free if the impact is great enough. So it’s a huge mistake to assume that money is the top reason why top performers accept a new job. Of course, these candidates expect reasonable pay. However, how much money they require depends on the excitement and purpose of the job. And how it will enhance their growth and development. So in your recruiting arguments, first emphasize the many work and cultural advantages that you offer. And then, when you are down to your shortlist of finalists, work with them to decide what minimum compensation that they require. As well as what you can afford based on the tremendous talent that your business is getting.
  • Realize that small firms can also have a panache image – some applicants may initially desire the panache image of working at a mega or elite firm like Google, Amazon, or Meta. But others will also envy your work situation when they learn that you work as a pioneer at a startup pushing the envelope and will be the first to produce a major breakthrough. So emphasize the fact that those who work for you are true pioneers to envy.
  • Your small business must become visible – because everyone knows their name, many candidates are automatically attracted to large corporations. However, small businesses can gain the same visibility by being “talked about” in the business and local press and online. Most in PR will tell you that you can be talked about in the media if you are developing an exciting product, you are growing rapidly, you have unique ways of treating employees, and when your executives have exciting stories to tell.
  • A story inventory will make the difference – literally the most effective way to sell a top candidate is through stories. So whenever possible, provide them with one or more stories covering how another employee experienced exciting work and opportunities at your company. The most effective way to do that is to develop a “story inventory.” Which is a library of stories and examples that recruiters and hiring managers can access. And because employee referrals are the #1 best recruiting source. Make that inventory available to your employees so that they can use powerful stories to convert top prospects into referrals. Details on how to develop a recruiting story inventory can be found here.
  • You will attract many more applicants by not requiring unnecessary credentials – nearly 60% of employers demand a college degree (even though it’s not a good predictor of success). So if you purposely post lower unnecessary job credentials, you can attract those that the large firms won’t even consider. This is especially true for entry-level jobs, where corporations, for some reason, still require experience in the job.
  • Recruit at the “right time” to successfully draw away frustrated employees from big corporations – part of your recruiting strategy should be proactively recruiting away talent from large firms. Most employees at large corporations can easily be found on LinkedIn. And you can best attract them if you approach them at “the right time.” This means recruiting when organizations are undergoing a scandal, a significant stock price drop, or a major product failure. Also, when there is a CEO departure or rumors of slowed growth, a merger, or layoffs. You can find out more about “right time” recruiting here.
  • Exclusively use the most effective sourcing tools – to succeed, it is essential that both your sourcing and recruiting functions are data-driven. So that you only use the approaches that actually result in the hiring of above-average performers like top performer referrals and boomerang rehires. You can find a list of those tools here. You can also find a list of the most powerful attraction factors here.
If you can only do one thing – assemble a group of top performers in your key jobs. And provide them with this list of compelling job and company features. Then, anonymously asked them to select and rank the top 10 attraction features that they find would be the most compelling to a new hire. From that final list, ask them which ones they found true at your company. Use those final features in your recruiting messaging.

Final Thoughts

The key to recruiting success at both small and large firms is exactly the same. You must use marketing research surveys in order to find out precisely which “attraction factors” attract the different classes of your recruiting prospects. Technical prospects, top performers, and innovators prioritize different things in the job and the organization. However, if you don’t have time to survey your potential applicants, actual applicants, finalists, and new hires, I have provided a list of 25 compelling factors that I have found to get the attention of even those that are currently working at elite corporations. If you don’t believe me, run the list of factors by some of your current applicants in order to test and identify which ones they find to be the most compelling.

Author’s Note

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