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Big Jobs Hiding in Small Places

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Giant, well-known employers like GE, J.P. Morgan Chase and McKinsey & Co. offer plenty of lures to talented professionals, but if you limit your job search to corporate America, you may be overlooking intriguing opportunities.

Sixty percent of new jobs created between late 2009 and mid-2013 were at small firms–those with fewer than 500 employees–according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

Often, it can be refreshing to join a smaller team where your impact is a lot more visible than in a bigger firm. But winning a great job at a small or mid-sized business is a little different than at a big corporation. In a small, scrappy firm, qualities and habits that won you points in a large organization can be seen as liabilities. I have spent much of my career writing about entrepreneurial companies, and here’s my advice on finding one that is right for you.

Look for the right vibe. In a small company, every person counts—and it will be glaringly obvious to you and everyone else if you don’t fit into the culture. To uncover the firms that are doing interesting work and pick up clues on which ones may be good matches for you, check out lists of the best small companies like Forbes’s America’s Best Small Companies and FORTUNE’s Best Small and Medium Sized Companies to Work For. (Full disclosure: I have been a recent contributor to both publications). Many regional and local publications publish their own lists, and these may be especially helpful if you’re looking for a job in commuting distance. Also look for the names of companies where the leaders have won or become finalists in contests like EY Entrepreneur of the Year and the Inc. 500. Often, the profiles of the winning entrepreneurs will give you a sense of what their companies are like—and the things they value.

Consider the hours. Many small startups will expect you to embrace work 24/7, while mom-and-pop operations may have more of a family-friendly atmosphere where the day ends at 5 or 6 p.m.—but there are many exceptions. Make sure you’re clear on your own preference and focus your search on companies that are in sync.

Show you can execute—not just talk about it. Mentioning you managed 50 people in your last job will win you points if you submit a resume in corporate America, but it may raise some questions in the minds of a small-company hiring manager: Can you get things done in a leaner environment, without a lot of support staff? Will you balk if you have to share an administrative assistant—or have to function without one? If the company has an open floor plan, will you be comfortable working that closely with your colleagues? To allay potential fears that you’ll stall without a lot of handholding, emphasize a few projects you pulled off without major assists from direct reports on your resume and in your interview. Writing a white paper or closing a deal, for instance, don’t necessarily require a large supporting cast.

Embrace the tradeoffs. Small companies bring many advantages, like freedom from bureaucracy, opportunities to grow and sometimes, a more family-friendly atmosphere. But you may have to accept some downsides—like being part of a brand that isn’t an automatic calling card, a tighter budget, a skimpier benefits package than you had in your last job or the fact that the owner’s not-so-qualified family members work there. The number one mistake I’ve seen seasoned pros make when transitioning to a smaller company is letting their egos run amok and making it clear they think they’re better than the existing team or can’t work in a situation where there’s a ceiling on spending. If you’re feeling frustrated with how a small firm is run, look for ways to help the company grow until you move on. At the very least you’ll leave with good relationships and measurable results to show for the time you invested.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.