How can I compete with big companies in attracting the best staff?

Our panel of experts is here to help

Illustrations: Vanessa Arnaud

How can I compete with big companies in attracting the best staff?

John Gordon 

is CEO and founder of the how to: Academy, which organises talks and compact courses for “people who think big”. He is also the co-founder of Intelligence Squared, a global debate forum; Contagious, a new media consultancy; and Globalista, a travel information service.


Dotti Irving

is the founder and CEO of Four Colman Getty, a leading consultancy for the arts and culture, which over the past three decades has helped to develop the profiles of clients such as JK Rowling and Nigella Lawson. Current clients include The Man Booker Prize and BFI London Film Festival.


Piero Frescobaldi 

is chairman and co-founder of UNIT9, whose film directors, product designers, software engineers, art directors, designers and producers create installations, events, social films, VR content, games and digital campaigns for a wide range of clients around the globe.

"For years I worked solo as an app developer. Now I’ve started my own company and I’ve been amazed by how many of my talented former colleagues have come on board – leaving behind jobs at major companies. I’m aware that they’re used to certain perks – flexible holiday, company jollies, gym membership – and I want to do everything I can for them. Logistically and financially, however, it’s a challenge. How can I offer a great working environment while making sure the company still delivers?"

John: This is a perennial problem for smaller companies that are starting out. But you do have three trump cards: purpose, leadership and options. The first remains very important for millennials: namely that you’re a company with a purpose and strong values that go beyond simply making money. The second is that you’re not a company being managed through fear but with kindness – in short, the values adumbrated by Simon Sinek in his talks on leadership. The third – share options – is the traditional way to incentivise your team. An attractive share option scheme that’s properly explained and can be seen to promise future benefits if the company performs well is often the clincher versus the benefits/perks offered by larger, more established firms.

Dotti: You need to have confidence in the power of your company. A lot of job satisfaction and pride comes from the quality of work produced and the calibre of the clients you attract – don’t underestimate it. At my company, the fact that we work with prestigious arts organisations is a big draw. That said, there are things you can do to build company culture, even if you’re small. At Four Colman Getty we offer one really engaging cultural outing each month (with subsidised tickets). We also have a First Friday 5pm get-together, where we discuss business landed and pitches we’ve worked on, and share anything brilliant we’ve noticed another company doing. Then we have a glass of bubbly.
It’s very bonding.

Piero: The question you should be asking yourself is: “What do you have to offer that big corporates don’t?” A lot of people will choose your company because a) they’ll be able to see the difference their hard work makes within the organisation, b) they’ll be inspired by having direct access to its founder, and c) they’ll be treated as an individual, not a cog. My advice is to focus not on material perks, but on day-to-day empowerment. Make yourself available; communicate transparently with your team on challenges and successes alike; delegate, allowing them to make decisions for the benefit of the larger team; and reward them, for example, with time off after a hard stint of work. In a small company you have the freedom to make these decisions.