I live in the land of start-up mania, West Michigan. Talk of entrepreneurship and “economic gardening” is everywhere. Around here, we believe that small businesses will lead the nation to economic recovery and a better life for everyone. Small business is the New Big Thing.
But as excited as everyone is about small businesses, how many people really want to be a part of one? Can small businesses also be great places to work? Can a business owner create a nirvana culture at the same time she’s trying to build products, sell ideas, and secure financing?
By their nature, start-ups are exciting, invigorating places to work. They’re like family—they feed our human need for community and purpose. Every successful entrepreneur speaks fondly of the time when it was just a couple of friends and family working late into the night to bring the next great idea to market. Creative tension, delivery deadlines, and funding crises create a powerful and dramatic bonding experience, and stories of “the good ‘ole days” are told and retold.
And so, it’s equal parts irony and tragedy when the company succeeds and grows, and the thrill wears off. The drama devolves into drudgery. All those late nights and group lunches are replaced by routine and structure. Inside jokes need to be explained, quirky behaviors aren’t so cute anymore, and working past midnight to meet a deadline now requires overtime pay. HR issues are not high on an entrepreneur’s list, so the dynamics of a growing team are either ignored or relegated to a staff person, often the CFO or someone who is “good with people.”
If you’re starting a great place to work, or helping someone else do it, your challenge is to bridge the gap between micro and mature. Here are four principles to consider.
- Focus on the human element. Entrepreneurs are over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived multi-taskers. They worry about everything. That’s OK—it’s part of the job. But never forget that your business is for humans, by humans. At the end of the day, the most ingenious idea, deployed flawlessly to the marketplace, means nothing if there isn’t a team that takes pride and ownership of it.
- Always shoot for the best talent you can get. Many small business owners I talk with think that they can’t attract the best talent because they’re not a big enough player in their industry. And many highly talented people who I talk with long to leave their big corporate position to work in a small firm where they can play a big part in launching the next big thing. Don’t sell yourself short. That superstar engineer may be dying to work for you. All you have to do is ask.
- Surround yourself with people who “get it.” It takes a village to grow a business. You’ll need a good accountant and attorney. You’ll likely develop a relationship with a venture capital firm. Then there are the consultants, bankers, and other advisors who want to help you be successful. Historically, this is a crew that hasn’t made the connection between a great place to work and great business success. Make sure your team is enlightened enough to understand that talent and culture matter.
- Take HR personally. I’m not advocating that you do HR yourself; in fact, that’s not using your best talents wisely. But keep HR in your direct line of sight. Give it the same attention that you give financials, product development, or customer satisfaction. If you concentrate more on talent and culture, you can worry less about financials and customer satisfaction.
Every business starts small. Now and then, that small company grows, creating wealth and security for its employees, owners, and other key stakeholders. Imagine what would happen in our world of work if this growth occurred in that happiest of all places—a great place to work. Now that’s a big deal.
Beth Kelly is the Managing Partner of HR Collaborative, an HR management firm located in Michigan. Her company has created the HR systems and processes to help her clients become a Great Place to Work, regardless of their size. Beth is also the author of The EE Gap: HR for Small Business Success.For more information check out Beth's blog.