How Small Businesses Can Swim with the Big Fish

Engage with the West Michigan Woman Community!

Happy hours, free stuff, remote work—perks that used to set small businesses apart have become increasingly commonplace.

Offering more of these benefits, large businesses have the edge over the little guys in many ways, especially since they can also provide higher pay (even if they don't always choose to). And yet, there are still plenty of ways small businesses can attract and retain top talent.

Groups like Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) aim to help small businesses swim with the big fish, offering loans to those who need them, technical assistance, and plenty of connections.

"Two out of every three jobs that exist in our economy are created by small business owners," said CEO Milinda Ysasi. "We want to continue to support them because I think oftentimes they're the unseen drivers of our local, and really national, economy."

Ysasi noted that all business owners are facing challenges right now, including supply chain issues, labor, inflation, and even rent for a commercial space.

"The reality is, small business owners alone cannot control the dynamics of a global economy," she said. "But what they can do is try to develop not only jobs, but really quality jobs. And when they focus on those quality jobs, they can hopefully have different results."

We asked Ysasi for her advice on how exactly small business owners can develop quality jobs and attract quality people.

What is a quality job? Ysasi lists a few key traits as dynamics of a quality job: Economic and scheduling stability, sustaining pay, benefits, training opportunities, equity, respect, and giving employees a voice. Of course, these are all tied together!

Offer flexibility. While some larger companies are still offering remote work, these are large, blanket policies that are made to mitigate risk on a large scale. That means they don't take the individual into account, and can be changed at any moment, with no recourse for the worker (e.g. Tesla suddenly demanding all workers return to the office). Small business owners, however, can actually take the time to work one-on-one with their small handful of employees and create tailored schedules that take family and personal life into account.

While it's not always easy work, Ysasi said, "What I'm going to get is a person who is much more committed to this organization because I've tried to find a way to respond to their needs. We know that people don't leave their lives when they come to work. What we're trying to do in a work environment is help them not have to worry about that."

Provide mobility. Nobody wants to feel stuck in one place, so one of the best ways to keep an employee around is to help them grow with training opportunities and clear career pathways.

"Nobody owns talent. We're all renting talent," Ysasi said. "One of the best things my former middle-sized employer did was create these pathways and say, 'We're going to give you skills and education and training. We can't guarantee a job for life, but we're going to guarantee that you're going to learn and you're going to grow here.' So, I do see small business owners engaging in that, as well."

Create connections. Another benefit to small businesses, at least for many employees, is the ability to have a closer connection to the customers and community around them. Whether it's a coffee shop or an office job, a healthy small business allows for authentic relationships to form, and the benefits go beyond retaining talent—these relationships create accountability, which often drives better outcomes.

While your small business may not be able to afford a perpetually stocked fridge of seltzer water or a break room with a ping-pong table, what you can offer is flexibility, mobility, connection, and above all, respect. And if you're a small business owner, don't give up.

"Don't forget about the economic and community impact that you all are having," Ysasi said. "Never forget the power you have to create the work environment you want to have."

Written by Josh Veal, Contributing Writer for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sep '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.


More stories you'll love