How to Find Ambitious Employees Attracting proactive people isn't easy, but it's well worth the effort.

By Chris Penttila

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Every entrepreneur wants a talented, ambitious team. But finding, hiring and managing standout employees can be quite a challenge.

When Kevin Schaff started Thought Equity Motion six years ago, the idea was to sell pre-produced commercials made from stock video.

As the business evolved, however, it became clear that the emerging market opportunity was actually in licensing online video. Schaff, 35, decided to refocus the company on becoming the world's largest repository of real time search, preview and online delivery for motion-based content. The industry "was fragmented," says Schaff, who is also the company's CEO. "We wanted to pull it all together."

Today, Denver-based Thought Equity Motion works with content partners and clients including Paramount, National Geographic, the NCAA, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and Mad Men. "You can't watch T.V. for 30 minutes and not see our product," Schaff says. The company's sales exceed $15 million a year.

Does he ever wish he could hit the fast forward button during job interviews to see which applicants would be the best employees? "Oh yeah," he says. "People are by far the most expensive mistake we make."

Entrepreneurs Still Struggle With Hiring
Small businesses need ambitious employees who can take initiative to get the job done. And small employers now have an opportunity to upgrade their workforce since the number of available job candidates has grown.

There's evidence that small employers are putting more emphasis on soft skills: 50 percent of small business owners in an October Intuit Payroll survey say they would rather hire a flexible "people person" or a "jack of all trades" instead of a highly-specialized "creative genius" or "math whiz."

The recession also has employees rethinking what they want in a job. An August CareerBuilder report found nearly 60 percent of workers surveyed were interested to work for a small business, and 20 percent of workers laid off from fulltime jobs over the last year had found jobs at small businesses.

These numbers are compelling for two reasons, says Jason Ferrara, CareerBuilder's vice president of corporate marketing. First, they show the relevance of small businesses in a poor economy. Second, they say something about job seekers. "Not everyone wants to work for a large, multi-national company," Ferrara says.

The good news? Small employers have a very large, interested applicant pool at their fingertips. The bad news? Small business hiring is up only 1.9 percent so far this year while salaries are down 6.5 percent, according to data from online small business payroll company SurePayroll. Many small businesses have trimmed workweeks to avoid layoffs--something that's not always a great selling point with the most sought-after applicants. "What we're seeing right now is a very strong level of underemployment," says SurePayroll President Michael Alter.

Ferrara still sees small employers struggling to define their "employment brand," or the company's purpose and the type of workers it needs, while grappling with a resume deluge. When small companies do pinpoint the very best applicants, they can fall short in selling them on future opportunities for advancement. "Large companies do a better job at this," Ferrara says. "As an entrepreneur, you're more concerned about communicating the financial [aspects] of the company."

Attracting the Best and Brightest
Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint , a San Francisco company that produces a line of naturally sweetened water products, says finding referrals is the ticket to attracting the best people in the recession. "If there's a reference from somebody in the beverage industry who has worked with this person--or even a grocery chain that has worked with this person--it definitely helps," says Goldin, whose company generates more than $1 million in sales annually.

Applicants have approached Hint with a great resume in hand, but Goldin, 42, still wants to know they've done their research. She remembers being impressed when Hint current head of sales contacted the company to say it was on his short list of desirable employers, and went on to explain why. "He's terrific, and he could have gone to a lot of [companies]," she says. "He was really selling us on why he loved the product, and what he said made a ton of sense to us."

Thought Equity has pulled its employees into the recruitment process by paying them a bonus for referring talented applicants who get hired. Encouraging employees to recruit their new coworkers has been very effective, says Schaff, who estimates 90 percent of the company's new hires are coming to the company via referral.

The company still receives about 100 resumes every day--mainly from younger applicants. Jobs in technology and development can still be very tough to fill. The company must also constantly re-recruit its best employees as competitors try to upgrade their workforces. "Good people are always being recruited, and you always have to focus on making sure that you can retain them," Schaff says.

Ultimately, attracting talented, self-directed employees requires great positioning, great messaging and a great understanding of what they want in a job. Financial incentives don't hurt, either: Hint offers its 25 employees equity in the company, something Goldin sees as a big motivator for the most talented, ambitious employees.

Alter predicts Main Street's recovery will be slow as small business owners get their existing employees back up to full employment plus overtime before they start hiring new people. Still, he's encouraged that small business wages have been declining at a shallower pace in recent months. "This tells me that we're hitting bottom, and as we start to hit bottom we will recover," he says. "I just don't see a big, robust recovery."

Strong recovery or not, Goldin plans to increase Hint's headcount in 2010. "As we open with stores across the country, we'll definitely need salespeople to manage those accounts," she says.

Exceptional talent is out there, provided entrepreneurs can sell them on the opportunity and turn them loose on the job. Says Ferrara: "You should be hiring people who are smarter than you."

Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in The Costco Connection, Oregon Business magazine, QSR Magazine, and other publications. She lives in the Chapel Hill, NC, area and covers workplace issues on her blog, .

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog,

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