Finding Career Salvation Working For Small Businesses

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Stories of people being chronically unable to find a job abound, even five years into a supposed economic recovery. This is particularly true for 20-somethings, who are finding it difficult to even start a career path, and for people over 50, who have lost good jobs, and are unable to replace them even years later. Many of these people may be looking for a job in the wrong places – like large companies. But for a lot of people, career salvation may come from working instead for small businesses.

Why it’s so hard to get a “real job”

It should be clear at this point that chronic unemployment isn’t really about a bad economy. It’s really about structural changes happening in the business world.

Finding Career Salvation Working For Small Businesses
Finding Career Salvation Working For Small Businesses
There are at least a half dozen reasons why employers can no longer afford to hire people. Simply put, every person hired represents an expense and a liability to the employer. This is especially true when it comes to the most costly employees – those with full-time jobs and full benefit packages. Not only are they more expensive, but there are also far more implied agreements and guarantees that could create legal issues.

But it’s not necessarily true that there are no jobs out there. What are disappearing rapidly are full-time, permanent jobs that pay living wages and offer full benefits.

Until you grasp this reality, you may continue to blame yourself for your career problems, which would do absolutely nothing to help you move forward.

Welcome to the world of small business and informal work

Largely as a result of college indoctrination, most workers today seek out positions in large organizations (those with anywhere from 50 to 500,000 employees). And it is true that jobs with such employers tend to pay better, offer better benefits, provide higher career visibility, and at least at one time, held up the possibility to be on the career fast-track.

The problem is that those are exactly the businesses that are not hiring. Meanwhile, small businesses – those with anywhere from 1 to 50 employees – are the places that are hiring. Just not in the way that we normally think of it.

Small businesses have all kinds of needs, but lack the ability to hire people on a traditional full-time, permanent basis – complete with benefits. But they are often wide open to part-time, contract, and seasonal work situations. No, there probably won’t be any benefits, nor will there be any implied promise of permanent employment.

But once you establish yourself as a viable player in a small business, you may have a situation that comes as close to permanent job security as you’ll ever find. Here’s the thing: unlike large employers, small businesses can’t afford the technology, the robots, and the off-shoring of labor that are causing employment to dry up with the big firms. Small businesses are typically hands-on enterprises, catering to a very local clientele.

But they still have roles that need to be to be filled on an informal basis. It could include sales, accounting, administrative, IT, marketing or special projects. Once a small business comes to depend on you in any of these capacities, you have a better than even chance of it becoming a very long-term arrangement.

My experience working for small businesses

Just so that you know that I’m not making up all of this stuff about small business, it’s a path I’ve been following for more than 13 years.

Like just about everyone else, when I finished college I too wanted to work for large, well-known organizations. I did some time at a few, mostly during my ridiculously long mortgage career. I worked for some well-known banks and large mortgage bankers, and learned quickly that they are all about systems over people.

That didn’t work for me. I am not a system guy! None of my stays with any of the big boys lasted more than two years. Each time I changed jobs to go to another large organization – hoping to find something new and different – I quickly discovered that it was the same ole, same ole.

I was working with a large, multi-state mortgage lender as a loan originator in 2000, and bumping up against bureaucratic walls at every turn. Now when you are in sales, and on 100% commission, the last thing you need is bureaucratic bull$!#. It gets in the way of earning a living, if you know what I mean.

That year, I finally decided I was done with large companies. I moved over to a privately owned mortgage broker that had fewer than 20 employees – mostly commissioned sales people like me. Despite warnings from my old manager over at Bureau of Bureaucracy Mortgage, I worked for that broker for eight years, and made more money than I ever made in my life.

In my accounting career, I never actually had the displeasure of working in a large organization. The largest firm I worked for was a CPA firm that had 30 employees, including 20 accountants. I was there for 3 ½ years, and after that I went out and did contract accounting work (referred to as “per diem“ work in accounting), mostly with sole practitioner CPAs. Even though I’m not a CPA, I’ve always been able to find work in some informal capacity with very small firms.

My current accounting stint is also with a sole practitioner, one with no more than a half dozen people. It was tax season-only for the first few years, but became year-round, part-time just over a year ago. And I’ve been there for over five years now.

So that’s the “employment” side of my life for the past 13+ years. Eight years earning commissions with a small mortgage brokerage firm, followed by five years of part-time, contract work with a small CPA firm.

Getting out of the pressure cooker of Corporate America

Almost everyone I know who works for large organizations complains of incessant competition with coworkers, abuse from bosses and upper management, infighting, being “targeted”, a state of perpetual over-work, and a sense of hopelessness. I’ve even met people who were glad they finally lost their jobs. And others distraught at the prospect of surviving yet another layoff, and having to clean up the mess that follows.

Please read this article, White-Collar World: What the Office Has Done to American Life, if you think that any of what I’ve written above is an exaggeration.

I can happily report that in my 13 years of continuously working with small businesses, that I’ve experienced none of those problems. Small businesses are focused on doing business – period. There’s no time or inclination toward nonsensical crap. Even more significant, I’ve been able to pursue other business opportunities – like this blog – while I’m working at small businesses. In many large organizations you might be fired as soon as that kind of information comes to light. And yes, I’ve known people who were fired for that very reason.

A better blend of personal and professional life

In any business arrangement, there are always times to step up. Tax season is such an example if you’re working in public accounting. The rest of the time, the arrangement is casual. There are no set times, no hard schedules, just a need to make sure that the work gets done. It’s much easier to blend that kind of work experience into your life. Flexibility with work, in combination with flexibility in your personal life, makes life more pleasant across the board.

I’ve worked this way for so long that I could never go back to the corporate nine-to-five routine.

Jobs aren’t advertised

This is a factor that is critical to understand if you do decide to pursue working with small businesses. In virtually every situation where I found work with a small business, it was because I approached them – usually cold. (If you want to make a living these days, you have to embrace being a salesman!)

As a rule, you won’t find work advertised in the local newspaper, on Craigslist, or being hawked by a headhunter. You have to write a bunch of letters, send out a lot of emails, and even make phone calls. But there is work out there, and in all different economies. My current accounting gig came about early in 2009, which was just about the bottom of the Great Recession.

Flexibility is absolutely required. If you want a business to be flexible with you, you have to reciprocate. That means being willing to accept an informal situation that will be substantially less than full-time. It also means making yourself available when needed, and being prepared to do the work that needs to be done.

If you want to work with entrepreneurs – which is what all small business people are – you have to become an entrepreneur yourself. That’s a stretch for people who are used to being part of a system, want limited job responsibilities, and insist on a full-time, permanent position, with a salary and full benefits.

Your skills and your flexibility are what a small business will be interested in. Don’t even hint at wanting a career position.

Greater career stability

In my experience, working for small businesses has been more stable than when I was with large companies. At large employers, I always felt as if there was a gun to my head – that if I can’t do the specific job that my employer wanted me to do on this day, that I’d be replaced.

I’ve never had that feeling working in a small business. The arrangement is as much relational as it is professional. I’ve always been made to feel that my contribution makes a difference, and that my work has meaning. That’s the advantage to working with real people, rather than contrived systems in which everyone is replaceable.

I’ve also found that you learn more skills working in a small business than you do at a large company. In large organizations, you’re usually working on a thin slice of the company’s overall business. But in a small business, you could be working on nearly every aspect of that business. That just gives you more skills, more exposure, and more contact with customers and clients.

All of those skills that you acquire along the way contribute to your career stability, because virtually every employer out there – and especially the small ones – are looking for those very skills.

That diversity of skills makes you more valuable and stable than the person who has mostly been a link in a chain at a large company for the past 10 or 20 years.

Blending an informal small business arrangement with your own business

I personally love the flexibility of working in a small business. Think about it:

  • You can sometimes work for multiple small businesses at the same time, creating a full-time career equivalent (I’ve actually done this in my distant past)
  • You can create a part-time career for retirement
  • You can establish a high-paying, part-time career (not everyone needs or wants to work full time)
  • You can blend an informal arrangement in a small business with your own business

That last one is the one that I like best, because that’s what I’m doing right now. My primary income source is freelance blog writing, and I also earn an income from this blog. But my part-time accounting gig is a nice supplement, providing not only an additional income, but also enabling me to keep relevant job skills, and contributing to a portfolio of multiple income streams.

In today’s economy, creating multiple income streams has become critical. Charles Hugh Smith has written that transforming into a mobile creative is fast becoming the new normal in the American workforce. Having multiple income streams is at the core of what being a mobile creative is all about. It’s a new class of rising entrepreneurs and semi-entrepreneurs who bring flexibility, adaptability, creativity, mobility, self-employment and informal work arrangements together to create a whole new life-style and work-style.

If you’ve been having trouble finding a “real job”, start investigating the possibilities of what skills and talents you can offer to a small business. It may be a foot in the door to your career, or it might put you on a path to become a mobile creative – a lifestyle in which you are constantly creating new work situations and income sources.

And it beats the hell out of having your resumes ignored by the large companies you’re sending them out to.

Have you ever worked for a very small business, or considered doing so? Can you see any of the advantages I’ve pointed out here?

( Photo by ChrisHConnelly )

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