Why Small Is Better Than Big

Somewhere between 9 employees and 50, the job becomes a burden. The best company I ever worked for was around 20 or 30 people. (It varied over the years.) After it ended, I said I wanted a break, a normal job for a stable employer. Be careful what you wish for; you might actually get it. But more on that in a moment.

The best place I ever worked, it was a special group of innovative, motivated people. But this is typical of great jobs, even in big companies. As Seth Godin pointed out in an interview with Electronic Recruiting Exchange, great employers “decentralize their operations so that each individual facility acts like a company of 20 or 30 people instead of one giant company of a few thousand.”

The reason these small companies work better is that they treat employees like adults. They forge employee relationships carefully, then they give those employees autonomy and respect. Micromanagement is anathema, as are lists of rules. We care about nothing that does not actually help us reach our common goal. So it’s easy to find a reason for doing what we do; therefore, it’s easy to find motivation for it.

If you’ve ever been in that kind of environment, you know what I mean. You work with initiative-driven people who take pride in their work, and you end up just like them. You’re part of a tightly knit team that cries together under the impossible stress, and then cries some more when it ends. You don’t even think of leaving. You never consider it, even though the prospects are bleak, even though the pay sucks (because there’s no money left), even though your phone is ringing off the hook with recruiters.

When we finally ran out of money, got bought out, and laid off, the twitching that had been afflicting my left eye suddenly stopped. I felt sad, but hopeful, like a huge burden had just been lifted off me. I remember actually saying, “I want a normal 9-to-5 job in a stable company. I’m tired of strange hours, crappy pay, and wondering whether I’m going to make my rent payment or who’s going to watch my kids after school. I want a real job.”

God must have been listening. I got exactly what I wanted, and quickly, a job in a larger company, several hundred engineers working in a single facility. It wasn’t a bad job, but I was so unprepared for it. The bureaucracy permeated even down into small teams, so-called. Actually, there was very little teamwork, because there was very little communication, because communication was a chore. If you go down the list of team-breakers in Peopleware, I experienced most of them. And everyone just accepted this state of affairs.

I went into this full of renewed excitement and vigor. Four months later, I plunged into deep depression. In retrospect, that was not the best approach. I did not have to blame the company for my dissatisfaction. I could have taken control of my own destiny, even within what felt like a large mass of snot. But at the time, I didn’t know how. All I knew is I wanted to be free again to do a good job, to be proud of it, and to be appreciated for it. I wanted a position in a small company.

But these positions can be hard to find. This job market consists of numerous independent teams, which can make marketing to them difficult. And these teams are just as picky as you are about new relationships.

One answer is networking, not like TCP/IP, but like LinkedIn and MySpace. As a potential candidate, I have to network, and I have to connect job opportunities to friends who want them. That’s how I strengthen professional friendships. That’s how I forge relationships with recruiters. That’s how I find out about the best opportunities for me and get an “in” for these positions.

I finally did get a position in a small company, not as good as the best place I ever worked. But if it were a wine, it would be 90+ points, easily. What can I say? I like making a difference.