Five ways small businesses can compete with big companies for top talent

Can’t match the wages offered by your giant rivals? Not to worry—a bit of creativity and flexibility can still attract the best and brightest

Two people fishing, one with multiple hooks

(Illustration by Laura Weiszer)

Here’s a story of two Christmas parties.

The first, a lavish shindig thrown by Atlantis Creative Group, a strategic marketing company in Toronto, featured a red carpet, limousines and, if you can believe it, a live tiger. The second, held the following year, after Atlantis had been sold, couldn’t match the glitz. “I thought, How can we have the same effect without the big budget?” says then CEO Paul Marchildon (now an independent “leisureologist” specializing in employee satisfaction). His solution: to have his staff create a Christmas celebration at the local YMCA for single moms with young kids. Atlantis brought a tree, a Santa Claus, presents and a whole team of motivated employees who, it turned out, much preferred the experience to a swank soiree.

The moral of this heartwarming tale is that you don’t need tons of cash to create rewarding work experiences. There was a time when employees worked for paycheques and little else. But today, people—especially millennials—care more about intrinsic rewards, such as the meaningfulness of their work and the satisfaction they get from it. A recent survey from advisory firm Korn Ferry found just 3% of employees said pay was their main driver at work; 73% said they were motivated mostly by purpose and meaning.

This is great news for smaller companies, which often can’t compete with the massive salaries on offer from their bigger counterparts. “By necessity, we have to think outside the box,” says Pascale Pageau, founder of law firm Delegatus Legal Services in Montreal. Entrepreneurs like Pageau have learned that getting creative with intrinsic rewards can attract—and, even more important, keep—amazing staff. Here’s how.

1. Lose the seniority system

“Our approach is that there simply is no seniority,” says Pageau, who cultivates a family-like work culture in her team of 25 lawyers. “Nobody ever says, ‘you’re a paralegal and I’m a lawyer’ or ‘I’m senior and you’re new.’” On day one, Pageau ensures every hire knows they’re equal to everyone else, which is attractive to bright recruits worried about starting at the bottom. It also weeds out big egos, she says. “People looking for a big title and control over others don’t join the firm in the first place.”

2. Pump up your perks

Your business might be uniquely positioned to give your people perks no one else can. “Every business has something they can offer, whether it’s a product or service at a discount, or extending [deals] to friends,” says Kristen Wood, CEO of The Ten Spot beauty bars. For instance, Wood offers her employees free facial waxing and 50% off other services, and she finds “a clear correlation” between those incentives and the volume of applications she gets. Wood has also found value in getting creative with in-kind exchanges. For example, she’s partnered with a local gym to swap Ten Spot spa perks for memberships for her staff.

3. Give ’em (literal) ownership

We’ve all heard of the early Facebook staffers who became billionaires because they agreed to take stock options in lieu of a bigger salary. But even if you’re not planning a blockbuster IPO, offering shares in your company can be a win-win. At Ottawa-based tech firm Orangutech, CEO Barry Doucette rewards his leadership team with stock options, which, he says, have the double benefit of encouraging folks to stick around for a payout and to help the company grow. He’s not alone in this approach: Studies show stock- or share-ownership plans make employees act more like owners, which tends to improve performance and ultimately leads to a more satisfying workplace.

4. Up your cool factor

The cooler your company, the more people will want to be there. Your level of “coolness” isn’t totally under your control, but there are some universally hip policies you can add without moving to a reclaimed foundry or installing a sushi burrito kiosk. “Huge in the hip factor is [reduced] summer hours,” says Marchildon. These are something many large firms have dialed back, and they cost little, improve morale and make bosses seem straight-up awesome. Other ideas: Adopt a dog-friendly policy, relax restrictions on social media and deck out a space with couches and a stocked fridge.

5. Customize your thanks

A public thank you is an ego-stroking honour for an extrovert, but to an introvert it might actually be a disincentive. A massive company could never cater its perks to individual preferences, but smaller businesses sure can. At the Ten Spot, Wood says, employees get asked quarterly, “What could we do to make your life better?” Very few, she says, respond with “more money” when a custom, personal and far more meaningful reward is on offer.