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Louisville Small Business GLI Talent Attraction

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in a panel discussion about Talent Attraction for GLI. If you’re not familiar with GLI (Greater Louisville Inc), they are an amazing professional organization that is doing incredible things for both businesses in our community and the city as a whole. As a small company, Mediaura can testify first-hand how becoming involved with their organization can truly transform and help grow a business. There are so many resources and helpful GLI employees that really go above-and-beyond what you would expect, because they believe in their mission and want to help local-area businesses succeed. One of the best decisions we ever made as a company was to become a member and get as involved in GLI as possible. I strongly recommend you check them out if you haven’t already done so.

As I said, this morning I was invited to participate in a discussion about Talent Attraction and how corporate culture plays a role in recruiting talent. Joining me on the panel were Melissa Leary from Zappos and Kelly Helegeson from Signature HealthCARE, and they were able to talk about how their own corporate culture plays a role in attracting the talent they require. I was aware of the Zappos culture because they really do innovative things and have a unique corporate culture that I feel is quite similar to Mediuara’s own model of business. They are a great example of a large corporation that retains “small company” values and celebrates its employees.

For those that were able to attend the presentation, I apologize for my cold (thanks for the water Greg) and the rush (we were running short on time!), but I hope everyone was able to walk away with an idea of Mediaura’s innovative approach to corporate culture and how it plays a massive role in our business strategy.

My presentation focused on how attracting the right talent by building a unique environment that makes people want to go to work every day, is imperative – especially for a small business. What many small businesses and startups don’t always realize, is that in order to attract extremely talented employees, you have to be able to offer them something that they won’t be able to have at a larger corporation. You really have to offer them incentives and a culture that can compete against the type of salary benefits that a larger company can offer. Where I see many small businesses failing their potential, is when they create a rigid and stringent environment. Where is the incentive for that talented individual? What is going to attract them to work for your company if they can join a role in a similar environment, and frankly make a lot more money at a larger conglomerate? Instead, what you need to do is create a culture that is attractive and engaging enough for them to ‘take a chance’ and come work for you.

So what are some of the challenges that small businesses face with recruiting accomplished talent? There are many, but here is just a sample that we go up against every day:

1. Talented Individuals thinking that they must relocate for opportunities that match their potential (commonly referred to as “the Brain Drain”)
Speaking from my own personal experience as someone born and raised in Louisville, I always felt that I was going to have to leave the city in order to achieve the type of success that I wanted for myself. At the time, that was the predominant sentiment in the city as a whole. If you wanted to work in manufacturing, healthcare, or QSR then this was the place to be; but if you wanted to work in a high-tech environment or some other innovative job field, there wasn’t much for you in the city. So the bulk of my career has been out-of-state and out of the country for these reasons. The local government has realized this problem can be solved and when I returned to Louisville after a decade of living and working elsewhere, the transformation of this city astounded me. Louisville is quite aptly dubbed “Possibility City” because your potential here is as great as you choose to make it. As a high-tech company, the level of support and promotion that we receive from this community is second-to-none. Think of the early days of Seattle, or Portland, Oregon 4-5 years ago. That’s sort of where Louisville is at right now in the realm of technology growth. In a few years, I have absolutely no doubt that Louisville will become a major player in the realm of technology nationally and internationally, because the ambition, drive and community support is there. This is why Mediaura has been able to grow from a one-man operation into a quite competitive (and Nationally Award-Winning) small business. Most importantly, the level of talent we have formerly sought out from other cities can now be found locally due to those individuals no longer feeling the need to relocate for opportunities in the tech realm. People are quickly becoming aware that the opportunity and the potential for that sort of career now exist in our city. Organizations such as GLI and the Mayor’s office really deserve massive amounts of credit for raising that awareness. It’s incredible what they have done to support our industry and help nurture its growth in our community.

2. Location, Location, Location…
When you approach individuals from outside of the area with an opportunity to relocate to Louisville, their reaction isn’t always exactly one of elation and enthusiasm. It’s more like, “You want me to move where?” because the preconceived notions of the city (while terribly unfounded) do permeate and exist quite heavily. I think they tend to imagine the Beverly Hillbillies sat behind monstrous Commodore 64s trying to program “the interwebs.” It’s a stereotype and a stigma that again, organizations such as GLI and the local government, have done an amazing job at helping to eradicate. I always feel that there are two types of people; those who have been to Louisville and those who haven’t. The people who have never spent any time here, have a very skewed perception of the city to those who have visited and know what it is like. Those who have come to Louisville, they know that it is probably the country’s best-kept secret. It’s safe, it’s innovative, the tech industry is growing here at an incredible rate, and there is so much to do socially. The culture of the city as a whole is just phenomenal. Typically when we’re trying to bring someone onto our team from outside of the city, all we really have to do is have them spend a day here, because the city does an incredible job at selling itself. I mean let’s face it, who doesn’t want to live in GQ’s “Manliest City in America?

3. Salary Requirements vs. Talent Level
Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to have a successful startup if you only hire junior or entry-level talent. However, if you’re a small company (especially one that is entirely self-funded such as our own), you probably don’t have the financial resources to woo that mid-level executive or experienced professional from their comfy corporate job to your team. So how do you win them to your cause? You have to offer them an environment and culture that they can’t find anywhere else. If you can’t compete with the larger companies on salary then you have to win them through other means. This is where I see most companies missing the mark. At Mediaura we have created a company that we want to work at and an environment that other people are anxious to become a part of. We’re quite unconventional, but you have to be because you have to figure out how your company is going to stand out from the competition and compel people to want to join. If a talented individual is disillusioned with aspects of the larger corporate machine, you can often convince them to bring their talents to a smaller organization as long as you let them know they will be not only appreciated, but that freedom comes with it.

4. Guaranteed Long-Term Employment
Let me share some statistics with you
– 20-30% of Venture Capital based businesses fail (we were not one)
– Almost 90% of startups fail
– Only 48% of new businesses are able to last longer than 5 years
Now imagine you have a secure and stable job at a larger company, but you’re terribly unhappy or feel that your talents aren’t being utilized or that you’re not being challenged. Perhaps you’d like to work somewhere else. Chances are, you’d love to work at a company with a unique corporate culture or in a fun and exciting environment; however, you’ll be risking a lot in order to do so. Talent attraction comes into play for small businesses here because you have to sell your dream or the company potential to these people. You need to make them understand and believe in your vision so that they want to come on board and help make that a reality. You also need to appreciate the gamble these individuals are taking, and that’s why it’s so important to let them know how valuable they are to your organization whenever possible. As long as a talented individual feels appreciated and that the company is loyal to their needs, they will return the favor.

5. Multi-tasking / Multiple Hats Worn
Smaller companies aren’t going to have the resources to fulfill all of the roles traditionally found at a larger company. So there is going to be a lot more that needs to be done and a lot more responsibility expected for someone taking on a role in a smaller business. That’s why it’s important to not only find individuals that fit into your corporate culture or that meet the job requirements but also people with that “can do” attitude who rise to challenges. Within our company, it’s not atypical for one person to have the responsibility of three people. These people being able to operate in such a capacity and not skip a beat is crucial to our success. We have been extremely fortunate at finding and hiring talent that exceeds those expectations. Think of it as getting more “bang for your buck” in terms of talent and salary. What also can be attractive to individuals is the possibility this creates in experimenting in another field. If they are a programmer but they have a strong interest in graphic design as well, for example, this can be an opportunity for them to explore that avenue.

6. Long Hours Likely
Nurturing and growing a small business takes a lot of TLC and a lot of time and attention. So another challenge that we often face is that you are essentially asking people to work longer hours for less money (than they would receive at a larger corporation). You may be wondering, “how can you do that?” The answer isn’t simple, but if you create an environment that people want to be in, then the battle is already halfway won. Nothing is worse than working in an environment where you’re looking at the clock every 15 minutes to see how much closer you are to going home. I know, I’ve been there. However, when you develop a corporate culture that brings out the best in your talent and nurtures their skills, then they almost never want to leave the office. At Mediaura we have developed quite a unique problem, in that our CEO often has to force people to take a vacation. Why? Because every day is different and there is always something exciting going on, and no one wants to miss it. It’s not uncommon for me to come into the office on a weekend or late-at-night and find someone sat at their desk working on a project for no other reason than they had some free time and wanted to get back to work. As a small business, let me tell you, it’s a great “problem” to have.

Those are just some of the things we’re up against when trying to recruit the level of talent we need. As a software development and Interactive company, we pride ourselves on innovation. Yet, in order to be innovative and cutting-edge, you need to have a team of talented, innovative, and cutting-edge minds. So how do you create that environment? It’s a multi-step process but here are some things that small businesses can offer that not all larger corporations can:

1. Autonomy
This facet of our corporate culture, probably more so than any other, is the main attraction for working at our company. Everyone in our organization has at one point in their career worked for a larger company, and while there are many benefits to larger organizations, there are many drawbacks. One of the greatest complaints that our employees have had about that type of environment is the rigid corporate structure. No one likes to be micro-managed and talented individuals – they loathe it. Why? It hinders their creativity and limits their freedom. Think of it like high school versus university. In high school, you have a very stringent organization and everything is monitored, whereas at university you’re able to work at your own pace in a space of time allotted. That’s how the structure at Mediaura operates. Looking at lines of code or dealing with complex algorithms all day can be very taxing, but there is also an art to doing it right. If we were to micro-manage on top of that stress, the burnout rate would skyrocket and employee satisfaction would plummet to paralyzing lows. That’s why we focus more on accountability as a whole. Every team member is aware of their project deadlines, and as long as their work is done correctly and on time, we allow them the freedom to work at their own pace. If you want to work for three hours straight and check out your Facebook page for a bit, so be it. As long as your work is getting completed, we’re not going to worry about it. This also promotes collaboration amongst the team, because if someone has a question they can take the time to get advice or ask questions rather than hurrying up to get something done. Rushed projects are always filled with issues.

2. “Make An Impact”
One of the most compelling things that small businesses have going for them is the impact an employee will have on a project. Talented individuals really love being able to demonstrate their skills, and in a smaller environment, those assets have a major impact. There aren’t 10-20 people performing the same function, so a person’s skillset becomes their calling card. That same individual at a larger corporation may only work on a small fraction of a project, but at a smaller company, their role is much more substantial and vital. Talented professionals want to feel valued and appreciated. They want their skills and talents to be recognized. No one ever wants to feel replaceable or just a cog in a machine, and in a small business environment they are able to see the immediate impact they have on a project. It becomes clear to them that they are a valuable asset and crucial to the overall business. This can also expand past the company and permeate into the community or the overall industry as well. At Mediaura we develop software solutions that transform the way companies are able to do business, and I mean that quite sincerely. Our programmers and developers know that they are working on projects that will have an impact not only on our clients’ businesses but also for the community as a whole. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing something you helped to develop change people’s lives or their business dynamic, and know that you played a major role in its creation.

3. Freedom to Experiment and Challenge Ideas
A problem with larger corporate cultures is that they are not always quick to evolve or respond to emerging technology. They may be operating on a business model that hasn’t changed for 20-30 years; and while some people may think “well if it’s not broke don’t fix it” and they would be right, the problem arises when something does need to change and doing so becomes quite a large ordeal. Anyone that has worked for a large business knows about those dreaded two words: Red Tape. Smaller businesses have an edge, in that they are often quite more adaptable to change. Therefore, talent that prefers to work at a quick pace and at the forefront of new technology will be attracted to the possibilities that a small business can offer them.

4. Flexible Work Environment
A lot of employers don’t quite comprehend the positive impact that a flexible environment can have on employees. Mediaura has won awards based on our flexible work environment, and we continue to evolve those ideas because we have seen what a difference it makes to our bottom line. People, by their very nature, live quite dynamic lives. They have families or personal situations that occur unexpectedly that necessitate their full attention. We recognize that life can be unpredictable sometimes, and we never want to penalize a team member for those types of situations, because we realize that they are often helpless to prevent them or the situation is out of their hands. Andrew and Amy (the owners of Mediaura) worked very hard at developing a flexible work model that accommodates situations such as these. Companies often tell their employees how valued they are, but they don’t often put that into practice. A flexible work environment is a great way to demonstrate that you’re a company that means what you say. One of the benefits of our industry is that if an employee needs to work from home for whatever reason, they are able to do so. Our team members appreciate this because they see that what is important to them (their own well-being, their families, etc.) is important to us as well. It’s just another way of showing how valued and appreciative we are of the people who work at our company.

5. Appreciate The Individual
People work an average of 40 hours a week (more if you’re in technology, trust me), so a major portion of their lives is spent in an office setting and around their co-workers; but how often do you really get to know the people you work with? Not just the people you like but the entire office? More companies need to see their employees as not only functional in their job capacity, but also as walking advertisements for the business itself. What that means is, companies need to start engaging with their employees and learning about them as individuals. A good example of this that I like to give, is the story of the birthday. For many years I worked at a larger company, and whenever it was someone’s birthday, we all gathered into the breakroom, sang “Happy Birthday” and ate some cake. In theory, it’s a nice sentiment – in reality, it becomes a hollow practice really fast. It felt like we were in the breakroom every-other-day to celebrate someone’s birthday (even if I had never seen them before) and aside from an increased potential of diabetes, nothing was really gained from the experience. Even when it was my own birthday, I found myself thinking that I’d rather just stay at my desk and work. There is only so much cake one person can handle in a year. My point is, it became a very generic thing to do and a few times the recipients didn’t even eat or like cake. So here they were sat in a room full of relative strangers watching them all eat cake that they couldn’t have or want. That doesn’t really make a person feel special on their birthday, does it? Employers should take the time to build team comradery (more than just yearly team outings) and make it a daily occurrence. The more you can make an employee feel appreciated and unique, the more loyalty to your brand and the company you will build with them. It’s an invaluable investment. The Mediaura philosophy is the more team unity that exists the higher the quality of work results. We make it a point to not only get to know the individual but to also celebrate who they are and their interests. For example, we just had a team member who had a birthday and one of his passions is video games. So we planned a surprise for him, and yesterday afternoon we all got together and spent an hour or two having a LAN party with the entire team playing Starcraft. Not only was he surprised, but the first thing he did was to log onto his social media accounts and talk about it; saying things like, “I work at the coolest company ever” “my boss is the best.” This not only had a positive impact on him, but his enthusiasm was now apparent to the whole world-wide-web. His friends (and strangers) alike were responding with, “How do I get a job there?!?” By taking the time and making an effort we are now known as “The Coolest Company Ever” and that will have a positive impact on how we are perceived by people in the community.

These are just a few of the examples of things we do to enhance our corporate culture. Mediaura has become quite legendary in the community for our Beer & Ping-Pong Fridays, where every Friday at 3 pm those who have some downtime can drink some beer and play ping-pong. It promotes team bonding and helps to alleviate the stress of the week so that everyone goes into the weekend feeling refreshed and excited to return on Monday. Now you don’t have to have a ping-pong table and drink beer to get the same results, you can go about building relationships in countless ways – the point is that you make the effort to do it. Because when you create an environment that people look forward to participating in, job satisfaction increases, productivity increases, work quality exceeds expectations, accountability reigns supreme, and your HR requirements decrease. Most importantly for small businesses, your ability to attract high-quality, competitive talent becomes unstoppable, because you are seen as “a cool company to work for.”

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