Luz Iglesias of recruiting company Hirefly Inc. provides practical tips for small businesses looking for highly skilled talent.

When you started your business, you probably began on your own or with a few trusted family or friends. So what happens as your business grows (hurray!) and you have to start hiring outside your circle? How do you compete with corporate giants for the best people?

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Let’s face it. In hiring as in other things, large organizations have a lot more tools and resources than you do: applicant tracking systems, premium access to job boards, and booths at career fairs, all in place to attract the best and brightest new recruits.

And despite the billions they spend, large organizations actually spend far less on hiring highly skilled talent than smaller organizations do. Average cost per hire in a large company is a lean $1,949 compared to $3,665 in smaller ones, who more often rely on expensive third-party recruiters.

At the same time, hiring well can be far more important in a small organization than in a large one, as each person makes up a larger part of the team. Employees in smaller organizations can make or break success in a way that “cogs in the wheel” of a large organization can’t.

The good news is that your small size presents fantastic opportunities to take on the big guys. In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us that “Davids win all the time.” Davids use their small and agile qualities to outmaneuver the big guys, and this is no less true in hiring than in other parts of your smaller business. “Power,” Gladwell reminds us, “can come in other forms as well — in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength.”

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So while big organizations are tied up in bureaucratic structures and processes that leave candidates feeling cold, you can sneak in and be remarkably different.

Who to hire as you grow

Before we look at how you can play to your strengths as a small business, let’s agree on who you’re looking for. You probably started your business on your own or with some highly trusted people. What happens when you need to draw the circle wider?

In our experience, small businesses should be looking for new team members who:

  • Genuinely care. They’re not just there to get a paycheck; they want to make a difference.
  • Are trustworthy. You’ll need to depend on them with your customers, your information, your finances, everything. They need rock solid integrity and reliability more than they need a degree in a certain field.
  • Can do lots of different things. Generalists thrive in smaller organizations and are happy to roll up their sleeves to do what’s needed – talk to a customer, improve the website, get the next shipment out the door – whatever it takes to succeed.

The emphasis here is very different than it is for larger organizations who are after people who are specialized in their function (ex. finance, audit, sales), experienced in their sector, and desire long corporate careers. That’s why the large org approach to hiring doesn’t work as well for a smaller company.

How to use your small size to your advantage

If you want to hire people who will succeed in your smaller organization, try this instead:

1. Be real. Large organizations have mastered the boring, impersonal job ad and hiring process. Their bureaucratic structures make these nearly impossible to change. But you can write awesome job ads, get to know high potential candidates as individuals, introduce them to your team, bring them on a tour of your workplace. In short, you can be more intimate and less machine-like than the competition.

2. Be responsive. The number one complaint of people looking for work is lack of response to their applications. Their resume disappears in the black hole of a database. Try replying to every candidate, perhaps adding a coupon or offer for your product. And go the extra mile in wooing the good ones with offers and attention. [Send me a piece of this cake and I’ll come work for you tomorrow.]

3. Emphasize impact. Stability seekers will be turned off working in a small business that lacks the size, money or predictability they seek. But impact seekers will be turned on by the potential to have more responsibility, more access to leadership and decision-making, and more latitude to be themselves. Emphasize all of these early in your recruitment efforts. Look for people who want to make an impact and who seek forgiveness not permission to try new things.

Use your story, your winning personality, and your agility and guile to outsmart the big guys and you’ll find the remarkable people who will help you and your business succeed.