The topic of employee benefit packages is a thorn in the side for many small-business owners. There's just no way you can compete with the mid-market and corporate employers out there, so stop worrying about it. I have worked with many micro-business owners who have found less conventional ways to attract and reward top talent

One thing small-business owners discount is the value that working for a small company brings to the table for today's younger workforce. They feel reluctant to go after top talent, believing employees would not leave the comfort of a six-figure salary with a great benefits package. Often, they are wrong.

Many people are deserting their corporate cubicles in favor of flex time, an opportunity to have their voice heard, to feel a sense of ownership, and gain perks that would have been mocked and laughed at a mere 15 years ago. I reached out to small-business owners with three to nine employees who have successfully maintained a happy, loyal lineup of highly skilled employees. These founders offer creative solutions ranging from free perks to an affordable means to provide medical care benefits. 

1. Employee perks that cost little to nothing.

I was surprised to see bicycles and other ways to make commuting easier and more fun among the top on the low-cost benefits list. For employees at the design studio Dialogue Theory, these include memberships to Citi Bike, New York's most-popular bike sharing service, and commuter benefits, allowing the pretax purchase of MetroCards. 
"We understand that our potential hires--digital designers and developers--are highly coveted and that, being a small firm, we need to find creative ways to compete," says co-founder Chris Oquist.

At the people screening service Certn, they actually purchased each employee a Certn branded bike. The manufacturer offered a large discount and employees love riding to work. Better yet, there's a perk for the employer as well. "The number of people who see the bikes and want a job with us is actually insane," says co-founder Andrew McLeod. The company also offers a "blank check" for online learning courses at Udemy and Coursera, even if the topic isn't directly related to the team member's role.

Jessica Scanlon, CEO of Top Dog at Hot Dog Marketing, has some innovative ideas: Final Friday is a big hit at her company. "Six times a year, we offer the last Friday of the month as a free day for employees to work on personal projects or pursue their own professional development," says Scanlon. She also barters her PR services with local coaches and consultants to get training and employee engagement perks at a lower cost or for free. "Little gifts and treats around silly holidays go a long way for a hardworking team," Scanlon says. "We have employees spin a prize wheel on their work anniversary for things like a paid day off and $50 gift cards."

2. Speaking of flex time...

Rather than counting hours, many employers are loosening up the rules around the 40-hour week. While Scanlon offers a professional development day, others have no official in and out times, no set minimum or maximum lunch breaks, and the opportunity to work remotely on Fridays. This is the case at Mekky Media Relations. "I do feel other benefits [outside of healthcare] are a big help to create a positive culture and motivated employees," says founder Michelle Mekky.

Naturally, employers can always fall back on feeding the hungry troops as a fun incentive.  
Flynn Zaiger, CEO at Online Optimism didn't have to spend much at all to make his first employee happy. "I was hungry and loved the burrito restaurant down the street," he says. So, every Friday, to celebrate his hard work and our weekly wins, we'd go down the block and enjoy a burrito on my company's tab. For about six dollars a week (eight if we ordered guacamole) it was an extremely low-cost motivational tool. But it worked." The New Orleans based company has since moved on to healthier options by offering Friday meals in local restaurants. "Taking advantage of what makes your office unique (in this case, our geography) is a great way to find unique benefits for your organization," says Zaiger.

3. Employee benefits that cost just a little bit more.

Allyson Conklin, founder of Allyson Conklin Public Relations, hits the road with her employees. "What I've discovered over the past few years is that my employees, who are mostly Millennials, choose to work at my company because of the work/life balance, mentorship, and growth opportunities. So we offer more nontraditional benefits," says Conklin. One of those benefits is what Conklin calls an annual enrichment trip. "After an employee has worked for me for a year, I give them the opportunity to choose a conference or event that we can attend together. It doesn't necessarily need to relate to PR, but instead can be something that will ignite inspiration and growth in their career and personal life and will give us the opportunity to connect one-on-one outside of the office."

As their companies grow well into six-figure annual revenues, many employers begin to offer medical benefits in addition to the culture-building benefits like those above. You don't have to jump in with both feet either; most begin with a monthly stipend toward the cost of insurance. 

The best way to determine effective perks and benefits? Ask your employees. Don't get hung up on what you think is important. They may have a very different set of priorities.