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6 Overlooked Ways Small Companies Can Compete for Big Talent Sure, you can't attract talent with salaries matching those of the tech giant down the street. But you may have something of value that tech giant will never have.

By Heather R. Huhman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


The Engine Is Red, a small creative agency based in Santa Rosa, Calif., and Minneapolis, acquires top talent through a slightly unorthodox route. The company, says founder Chris Denny, focuses on building relationships through online communities, rather than posting to job boards.

Related: To Attract and Retain Talent Focus on Your 'Why'

"When we were looking for software and web developers," Denny told me, "We joined Slack channels and sites like Stack Overflow to drive more candidates than a traditional job posting."

That strategy works: Recently, The Engine Is Red successfully poached its marketing manager from a global cycling brand. "While they are nearly 100 times our size, and the project budgets aren't even comparable, our culture was attractive, and we were able to bring him on board," Denny said. "Six months later, he is thriving, and producing some of the best work of his career."

Denny's agency, it turns out, is just one example of how small companies are able to compete with large organizations for top talent. The reason is that employees value more than just a high salary: According to January research conducted by Glassdoor, employees place culture and values, senior leadership, career opportunities, business outlook and work-life balance above compensation and benefits.

Want to stay competitive against big companies? Here are six talent acquisition hacks:

1. Team up with other local small companies.

Axonify, an employee-knowledge platform located in Waterloo, Ontario, is seeing continual growth. CEO Carol Leaman said the company hired 50 people last year and plans to hire another 50 in 2017.

This can be a challenge because hiring for small companies can be risky; and with so much rapid growth, time is of the essence. So Leaman looked to her community for support.

"We recently teamed up with some other local tech companies to host a joint recruitment event at the Shopify office in Toronto," she said. "For us, working together with other local companies allowed us all to bring the best talent in Toronto together and show them the opportunities that are available outside of Toronto, in the Waterloo region."

Related: 9 Tips for Poaching Top Talent

The takeaway: Start networking at local events. Look for companies with similar values and develop mutually-beneficial relationships. When the time is right, team up for effective talent acquisition initiatives, like job fairs. Combining efforts builds a bigger audience of talented candidates.

2. Use micro-internships to uncover great non-traditional candidates.

Small companies can't afford to make bad hires, which is why Parker Dewey, a consulting firm located in Chicago, uses micro-internships.

"These are essentially short-term projects completed by college students and recent grads," said Jeffrey Moss, the founder and CEO. "Unlike traditional freelancers, these are highly motivated individuals who are seeking full-time roles. In addition, this lets us, and them, confirm 'fit' before committing to a full-time role. Furthermore, this lets us evaluate the ROI for the role itself."

The takeaway: When it comes to micro-internships, Moss advises recruiting recent graduates with non-traditional backgrounds and majors to assess them for factors like grit, creativity and skills that may not translate on paper.

3. Share the company's "why" at every opportunity.

Bryan Clayton started mowing lawns at 15 years old and grew his business to over 100 people over the course of 15 years. He relied heavily on hiring Guatemalan immigrants, who would come to the United States, save money and return home to take care of their families and start farms.

"Our company created prosperity for our people and that's why we did what we did," he said. "This became our company's purpose, our "why.'"

Clayton used this "create prosperity" focus to attract talent for his new company in Nashville, Your Green Pal, which gives local lawn care services a place to compete for business. "Our company celebrates our "why' on a monthly basis by interviewing and showcasing one of our vendor partners that bought a new house, expanded their business, bought new equipment or put their child through college because of the opportunity our platform gave them," he said.

"When small businesses recruit and retain talent by communicating their "why,' they can out-recruit and out-maneuver large corporations on attracting talent."

The takeaway: Small companies should tout their purpose in their employer branding. That way, they'll find talented individuals who are equally passionate about contributing to each company's "why."

4. Focus on establishing and maintaining diversity.

December 2016 research from the Institute for Public Relations and Weber Shandwick found that 47 percent of millennials surveyed said they considered the diversity and inclusion of a workplace an important criterion in their job search.

Carol Leaman, president and CEO at Axonify, says she has found this to be true at her company; so she places a heavy emphasis on promoting Axonify's diversity.

"It is about creating a diverse, healthy, innovative and inspiring workplace that attracts talent and retains our employees," she said. "In fact, our executive team is comprised of five women and five men, and we're really proud of the gender balance in the company as a whole. It's been a really positive factor when attracting women, especially."

The takeaway: Diversity has a high appeal for job candidates.

5. Create a family-friendly employer brand.

Small companies need to craft their employer brand messaging in a way that immediately sets them apart from the competition. A big part of this is catering to job-seekers with families, because they make up a large portion of the talent market.

People with families want benefits, but smaller companies are often limited by their budgets. One such desired benefit? According to a July 2016 report by Jobvite, 65 percent of recruiters said 401(k) options help attract candidates.

Fortunately, for small companies, services like ForUsAll make retirement options easy and affordable. The company's investment-advisor representatives assist small business owners in ways to offer a 401(k), with built-in administrative and investment fiduciary protection that works with existing HR software and tracks employee eligibility.

The takeaway: Pay attention to the benefits families want.

6. Get referrals and then train, rather than require a perfect fit up-front.

EaseCentral, an HR and benefits software company located in San Francisco relies heavily on referrals. "Our training-team member didn't have directly applicable benefits-insurance experience, but she had the work style, professionalism and drive that we needed for our team," said David Reid, CEO and co-founder.

"The employee that referred her knew her personality and professionalism would be a great fit; and now, less than a year and a half later, she leads our training team and is truly one of our stars."

Related: 10 Tips for Retaining Top Talent

The takeaway: Referrals are typically shorter to hire, better cultural fits and destined to stay longer than traditional hires, making them ideal for small companies.
Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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