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OWNER'S MANUAL

How to Get a Job at a Small Business

Working for an entrepreneur is the perfect training ground for would-be founders. Here's how to get hired.

There are lots of reasons to want to work for a small business. The companies are smaller, to cite the most obvious. You'll have to pitch in and do things that fall outside your area of expertise, which can be great career experience. You'll probably also have more access to the owner—and there's no better way to learn about running your own business than to watch it in action.

The downside to seeking work at a smaller operation? Getting the attention of said owner, who may be understaffed and overworked, can be challenge. Here's how to make the best impression.

1. Understand the territory.

While some small business owners have a corporate background, many are lifelong entrepreneurs.

That's why traditional job hunting techniques often don't usually work. The average small business owner sees reading stacks of resumes and interviewing multiple candidates as a chore, not an opportunity. Some even see it as a process to avoid at all costs, thinking, "Hey, I don't have time for this. I have a business to run."

That perspective makes getting hired a lot harder for people who take a conventional approach, but also makes it easier for people who put in the time and effort to really set themselves apart.

2. Determine who you want to work for.

Sounds obvious, right? Not really. Many job seekers play the numbers game and respond to as many job postings as possible.

The shotgun approach is less likely to work with a small business owner, mainly because it requires them to sift through dozens of potential candidates to find the right one. Your goal is to show a small business owner that you are the right candidate, and that means you have to do the work.

Instead of playing the numbers game, put in the time to determine a company you definitely want to work for, and then...

3. Truly know the company.

"I would love to work for you," you say to a small business owner; what the owner hears is, "I would love for you to pay me."

To the business owner, you can't possibly know if you want to work for the company unless you know a lot about it; that's the difference between just wanting a job and wanting a role in a specific company. Talk to friends, relatives, customers... anyone you can find. Know as much as you can.

Then leverage what you learn and...

4. Decide what you can offer immediately.

Most small business owners hate to train new employees. Training takes time, money, effort... all of which are in short supply. The ideal new hire hits the productivity ground running, at least in part.

While you don't need to be able to do everything, it helps if the owner can see an immediate return on their hiring investment. Identify one or two important things you can contribute from day one.

5. Create a show and tell.

Once you know what you can offer, consider putting it on display. If you're a programmer, create a mock-up of a new application. If you want a sales position, create a plan for how you'll target a different market or customer base or how you will implement marketing strategies the business is currently not using.

Since you know the company and know what you can immediately offer, prove it. Your initiative will be impressive and you'll overcome concerns that you may be all talk and no action.

6. Get a referral.

Business is all about relationships; that's especially true for small business owners. We've all made bad hiring decisions, so a referral from a person we trust is like gold.

You may have to dig deep into your network, or even forge new connections, but the effort will be worth it.

7. Knock.

You don't have to wait for an opening to be posted; after all, you've identified ways you can immediately help the business. Show up, ask to speak to the owner, and pitch away.

Just make sure you get right to the benefits. For example, you could say, "I've checked out your website, and while it's good it could be a lot better. Here is a list of the changes I would make in the first month, including how those changes would improve conversions and SEO results. And here's a mock-up I created of a new site design."

At the very least the owner will listen, since you're describing about specific ways to improve their business. Everyone has time for that kind of discussion.

8. Take charge.

Many small business owners are terrible interviewers. Like a friend of mine says, "I don't work in HR, I run a business."

While you certainly shouldn't be pushy, don't be passive. Be direct and to the point. Explain what you can do. Describe your background. Talk about how the owner will benefit from hiring you. Show you know that working for a small business is different and you're excited by the challenge.

Selling yourself should be easy, especially since you know so much about the company and how you can make an immediate impact. Never be afraid to run the interview. Many business owners will be happy to let you.

9. Ask for the job.

Business owners know how to close a deal, and most don't mind being closed. After all, a decision put off until tomorrow is a decision added to the to-do list; who wants more on their plate?

Ask for the job. If you've set yourself apart you might get hired on the spot.

You have nothing to lose by asking, and everything to gain.

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Last updated: May 17, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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