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Advice for Finding Work in Smaller Companies (as seen in The Wall Street Journal)

Updated: Jun 27

What approach should a job seeker have when beginning to look for work at a small business and how is this different than a larger company?

Small and large businesses hire for basically the same reason: the internal need for new talent to have a positive effect on whatever it is that they do to create the revenue for their bottom line.


While a larger company benefits from instant name recognition and a higher profile, a smaller company may not be well known outside of a small circle of industry individuals.


How will the job seeker find these great, but smaller company opportunities? Smaller companies are also less likely to be advertising potential openings until they are ‘truly ready to hire’, and not just contemplating hiring. My recommendation is to take a proactive approach when desiring to find your next career opportunity at one of the many smaller companies in your industry niche.

What exactly is a proactive approach in this case? It means taking control of your job search and not just surfing job ads.

Job seekers can use a secret that recruiting industry professionals use to help uncover these smaller, lesser known companies for your industry: the One-Back and the One-Forward technique.

Recruiters use this technique with the resumes in their own databases and when using their job board accounts to look at resumes, but individuals can use this same technique using LinkedIn as their resume ‘data source.’ The concept is simple: Many other individuals, with skill sets just like yours, work at any number of companies that you likely have never heard of, since they may be smaller companies without that name recognition.


This technique will help you to create a list of these companies: a target list of potential employers that you should be reaching out to in your efforts to market yourself / your skills.


What you offer in expertise will help those companies move forward in this tough economy.

You can start by finding just one individual with a similar background or skill set as yourself. Do a People Search on LinkedIn to find this starter (resume) profile. Assuming that you have found an individual that offers similar skills that you offer, take a look at where they worked before joining their current company. That’s called a ‘One-Back’, or one company before they worked at their current company.\

Grab a sheet of paper and start creating a list with this first new company name.

Now go back into People Search, click advanced search, enter their current employer’s name in the company field of this People Search window and be sure to toggle the options to include ‘current and past’ employees for this company, along with adding appropriate titles of individuals similar to your function into the title space on the search form. Now you have a list of people to look through and this is where you can begin to create a larger list of One-Backs, and a list of One-Forwards.

The One-Forwards are companies that individuals, similar to yourself, went to work for after leaving this current company.

In just a short amount of time using this technique, you will be able to compile a list of potential employers that you should be contacting to introduce yourself. Some will inevitably be larger companies that you have heard about, but many will be these smaller companies that you have never heard of before.


Those companies are much less likely to be on your competition’s radar and that increases your chances of success in your job search.


Once you have a list of companies that could benefit from your skills and accomplishments, be sure to be reaching out to the individuals that would be the hiring managers for your potential roles (you can find those managers by using similar search techniques using LinkedIn).

Now you just need to practice and rehearse your marketing message so that when you do reach out and create your own introduction to these individuals, you are ready to convey why it might be the ‘best business decision that make all day’ if they were to choose to hire your talent for their team.

Are smaller companies hiring? How have they taken advantage of talent during the recession?

Smaller companies are hiring too. It’s a financial balancing act whether the company is large or small, but smaller companies are hiring -when they can see the value equation will be in their favor. So, be sure your message is focused not on you, but on how they will benefit by hiring you. How will your expertise help this smaller company? How will the manager’s life get easier with an individual with your skills on their team?

If you are in a role that directly affects revenue, then of course include that you will have a direct and positive effect on their revenue streams.

Remember, smaller companies have taken extra advantage of the talent they already have during this recession, but that cannot continue indefinitely. As in past recessions, smaller companies have asked their employees to do even more to help the companies survive and thrive. But after a while, all of that extra workload must be redistributed by hiring new talent.

Make sure to position yourself as an asset that can help these smaller companies take that next step in their own growth - that’s the surest way to get a hiring individual off the fence and interested in hiring you.

What are some qualities to highlight during the interview process if you’re seeking work at a smaller company? (i.e. is showing entrepreneurial skills more important and what’s an example of how you can convey them to an employer?)

The key difference between a large and small company is the infrastructure and support for each individual worker. Larger companies typically have well-defined duties, responsibilities and many support individuals that interact together to create a great work outcome. But individuals who have only worked at these larger companies often find it very difficult when trying to adjust to their new role in a small company.


Taken-for-granted support functions that existed in the larger company are no longer available to help you succeed and it’s expected that you will wear many hats in your new role.


Someone that may have been all on the operations side in the larger company may now find themselves struggling with also having to be involved on the marketing side, and even struggling with items like having to create their own presentations without the support individuals that take on those other responsibilities in the larger companies.

Highlight your abilities to work independently, without the need for too much support.

Illustrate through example where you have taken the reins and worn several hats at once. Show them through your examples that you can bring significant industry expertise to their team. This will help a smaller company manager see you as just the self-sufficient addition with the expertise that they may be looking for to solve their needs.

Of course, be sure to convey that you are a team player too, but they should feel you are happy and ready to expand your role and wear multiple hats as needed -and that will help you beat your competition to join their company.

How should job seekers find contacts at a smaller company, who should they reach out to?

You hear a lot of talk today about LinkedIn, but most people really have no idea of how they can use it in their job search efforts. Before LinkedIn, few had their own database of industry information to tap as needed. Now with a properly developed LinkedIn Profile, you can search and see almost any manager in your industry.


We know whom to call, we are just not used to doing it.


In just a few moments of conversation with those that I coach, almost everyone knows that they should be contacting the decision-maker. Unless you are looking for a position within human resources, that decision-maker is not in HR. Understanding how the organization chart typically works for your industry, you can search and look for the decision-makers at these smaller companies using LinkedIn.

Start with the list of smaller companies that you have created with your One-Back and One-Forward research efforts from above.

Use the advanced search feature on LinkedIn People Search to look up current employees with manager, director, VP, etc. in their title to locate to potential hiring individual that would likely be the decision-maker when hiring for your typical role. If you can see their contact information in their profile, great, but if not you can simply look at their company’s website to discover the company’s email ‘format’ and apply that format to their name and email them directly.

Of course, if you really want to get noticed, pick up the phone and call them with your value and start a dialogue that can lead to your next great career opportunity.

Is networking more important than in larger organizations?

Networking is very important no matter the size of the company. Most people shy away from networking as this activity that they have heard about, and know that they need to do, but they truly don’t know ‘what’ to do. It starts with having something I call the ‘Best 25 Seconds of Your Life’.

It’s the common idea of an elevator pitch.

Networking without a short sales presentation about yourself is just plain awkward and not very effective. The solution is very simple: you have 25 seconds to convey two major points about yourself when networking. 1. Who you are. And, 2. Why you are interesting or memorable. Be sure to make your interesting or memorable points about the value you would bring to any company considering your as an addition to their team.


In smaller companies it’s much more like a family.


Be contacting and networking with several individuals within the company -and working to build chemistry with these contacts that you may uncover. As your dialogue with the company evolves and they begin to discuss you internally, you will have already warmed up those discussions of you by laying a foundation of chemistry through your networking activities.

What are some mistakes/wrong assumptions that job seekers make when applying for work at a small business?

The largest single mistake is the one that leads to individuals with large company background fail in their roles in these smaller companies.

Underestimating the level and type of support you will have in your job function in these smaller companies. Yes, you need to do what you did for the larger company, but you very likely will also need to do the support functions that others performed for you in your previous roles -if you are to succeed in these smaller companies.

Many arrive unprepared for this challenge, so be prepared for this adjustment to have your best chance of success.

Need more help & Advice? Reach out today–


John Crant

Author, Career Coach & Speaker on Job Search and Career Management

Featured Speaker for

The New York Public Library's JOB SEARCH CENTRAL


In the Media: As Seen As Featured in 

amNY, Time Out New York, The Wall Street Journal (and its, CRAIN'S New York BusinessForbes, CNNBBC, FOX News (on Social Media Marketing), AriseTV, New York PostThe Huffington PostEssence magazine, CareerBuilder and The Ladders

On the Radio: As Guest: WHCR 90.3 FM "The Voice of Harlem"


As an industry manager, executive recruiter, recruiting & sales trainer, event speaker, and as VP of a nationwide system of recruitment offices, I have seen most every aspect of the hiring process and this varied insight is what provides the clarity you will find in this book.


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