Today kicks off National Small Business Week. I have a very personal history with small businesses, and because of that history, I often recommend to many people coming out of college that they try to find a job at a small business if they can. Here's why.
Like many liberal arts graduates, I came out of college with a good education, but few marketable skills. I wanted an opportunity to learn real-world skills that would increase my market value, and after many applications and interviews at large corporations, it was hard to find a company I could get excited about. (To be fair, the feeling was probably reciprocal.)
I started to narrow my search to small businesses because of their resourceful, get-it-done attitude -- it's something I had always admired and a culture I wanted to be a part of.
After much interviewing, I was finally hired. Phew. Neither the industry nor the job function were related to what I wanted to do, but I was excited to be a part of something I could get excited about. (Plus, you know, livin' ain't cheap.) This move turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
Stumbling Head First Into the Small Business World
When I first started, I figured it was my job to say "yes" to everything. I wanted to prove my value, make myself useful, and above all else -- keep the job. I assumed if someone asked you to do something, you just said you would do it, and figure out the details as you go -- even if it's not in your job description. I thought a couple things would come from this:
I'd learn some marketable skills.
Figuring out how to do new things might help me get a promotion and figure out what I want to do with my life (or more realistically, what life would let me do to earn a living.)
What I didn't know was that the things they were asking me to do were a huge opportunity not afforded to many. Most companies would have simply hired an expert, or designated the job to someone within the organization with way more experience. But I was at a small business, and I didn't yet realize just how many hats small business owners and employees typically wear.
People often say big companies are the best place to get formalized training. But I was preparing for the best training I've ever received -- training for anything. Over time, my job ended up spanning the following areas:
Copywriting & copyediting
Office supply stocking
Social media marketing
Security (I kid you not, though I had the help of a very temperamental alarm system.)
I started out doing some basic administrative stuff. After a couple months, I started sneaking into our email marketing tool to fix some newsletter typos before they went out, so I asked the marketing lead if she needed help with proofreading. She did. So I started to do some proofreading, which led to contributing to the internal newsletters, which led to doing copyediting and copywriting for marketing materials, which led to email marketing, which led to blogging, which led to social media ... see where I'm going with this?
This expansive job description may sound chaotic, but it's precisely what kept me from living in my parents' basement.
How This Kept Me From My Parents' Basement
Well, first of all, it gave me a job that helped me pay my rent. But that's the immediate result -- and it doesn't escape me that people can eventually end up on their parents' couch even if they have a job right now.
Because a small business took a chance on me, I got the chance to learn all of that stuff. That may sound minor. But it is huge. Do you know how long it would take me to learn even just a little bit of that at a big, bureaucratic organization? I don't know ... years, maybe? If I ever even got the opportunity?
It's so key I had the opportunity to establish this broad base, because it gave me the chance to figure out what I was actually good at -- what I could actually make a living doing, and be happy doing. I also didn't realize it immediately, but wearing all these hats would help instill in me a passion that extended beyond day-to-day job duties -- it extended a passion for entrepreneurship. A passion for building something.
Eric Dosal, co-founder and CEO of BrightGauge Software, explains this phenomenon well. "Starting a business is about a relentless pursuit of an idea with a group of people that believe in that idea. Each day brings new challenges and most of the time it's things you may not have dealt with before. So it forces you to always 'check yourself' and make sure you are focused on the right things, because done right it can be the most rewarding time of your professional life."
I've since taken the broad base I learned wearing multiple hats at a few different small businesses, and specialized in content. Content might not work out, though. I might get fired. The job market for my skills might become bleak. But if that happens, I'll still have a basic set of skills to draw from that I learned from wearing multiple hats at a small business -- from being trained to be adaptable, and to learn new things, fast. That is what will help keep me off my parents' couch -- the things I learned working at small businesses.
Opportunities Exist Where You Might Not Expect
If I had taken another entry level job, but at a big, slow-moving, bureaucratic organization, I think I'd still be clawing my way up the corporate ladder, possibly feeling pigeon-holed into whatever industry or job function just happened to give me my first shot. It could have been something I truly loved, or truly hated; what's more important is that it likely would have given me very little flexibility in ways to make a living in the future, decreasing my chances at self-sufficiency. I often wonder what would have happened if the first company to give me my shot out of college was one of those places, and not a small business.
College graduation was only a few weeks ago. Many graduates probably don't have a job lined up yet. If that's you -- or if your job doesn't let you to be as self-sufficient as you'd like -- that history I just shared is why I recommend looking at small businesses in your career search. Even (especially) if the career isn't exactly what you thought you'd be doing.
Your job will be extremely hard work, and some of it might be doing things you don't like doing. However, you will have the opportunity to learn new skills that you will have a hell of a time even getting close to elsewhere, and working with people that have an attitude that will serve you well to be near.
Are you a small business owner? Do you work at a small business, or have you in the past? Share the favorite part of your job in the comments.