Larger organisations can counter the appeal of start-ups with some canny repositioning, says Andrew Baird
If you’re an early talent recruiter at a start-up, chances are that you’ve never had it so good. Right now you’ll be lolling on your bean bag, stroking the office pet and watching your application numbers soar. But if you’re a corporate recruiter, things mightn’t look so rosy recruitment-wise. For many, the queues at the door are shorter than those at bunting shops the morning after Platty Jubes.
Let’s start with some data. More than a third (37%) of students and recent graduates looking for a job want to work for a start-up, compared to 29% who’d prefer a larger employer, according to a survey by Prospects. This same survey showed that 63% of those who want to work for a small business believe that it brings them better professional and social opportunities.
Big business won’t be able to stem the talent migration towards start-ups completely. But it might be able to nudge the dial back in its favour if it follows a few simple rules. First, it should take a tip from Sun Tsu’s book and understand what the opposition has going for it.
Why start-ups appeal
It’s easy to fall into the trap that it’s all about working environment – casual dress code, table football, bike racks and so on. But the truth is that the appeal is much more profound, and thus much trickier to overcome.
The web is full of students explaining why they join start-ups. Most explanations hit the same notes. Start-ups, they say, offer you a broader range of experience, more of a social life, superior flexible working, earlier accountability, more rapid progression and the chance to make a social impact that aligns with your personal values.
You can see why the early jobseeker wants to discover more. They believe they’ll quickly become a proven business generalist, hanging out with like-minded friends, working from home whenever they want and changing the world for the better. More corporate-minded peers, however, will receive only restricted learning, be trapped on a narrow career ladder and won’t have any impact other than making money.
What’s the best counter to this narrative? As every good debater knows, it’s about challenging assumptions and shifting the conversation to subjects better suited to your strengths.
Ten tips for marketing against start-ups
1. Make your size a virtue. Embrace your bigness. Talk about the size of your workforce, your expertise, your footprint, your influence. Make it feel that working for a large organisation means greater opportunity and impact.
2. Suggest security. Being big means you’re (likely to be) more robust. This doesn’t just mean that you’re able to pay the salary bill every month. It also means that you have the history, the network and the strategic knowhow to lead a business successfully through all the challenges this crazy world might throw at it.
3. Promote your personal development… Make sure your development proposition looms large. Celebrate the breadth and depth of your L&D infrastructure – that ‘university’ you founded might be your trump card. Also, consider sharing your L&D philosophy: talking inspirationally about your belief in development could win hearts as well as minds.
4. … and your career development. Early talent might assume your career development is all about time-served vertical ascent. Share career paths and stories that demonstrate otherwise. Talk about the potential to develop horizontally, diagonally and even in a curiously squiggly line. And the bigger you are, the more opportunities there are, right? Suggest that your organisation is an almost limitless toybox, career-wise, and thus much more promising than a flat structure where everyone is stymied by reporting directly to the CEO.
5. Emphasise your flexible working. Unless you’re Tesla, you’ve probably changed your working practices and are honing your hybrid model. Shout about that. Show that just because you’re a corporate it doesn’t mean everyone works nine-to-five in a beige cubicle. Maybe you can even share that your hybrid model has meant a repurposing of your office space into something that facilitates collaboration, brainstorming and other forms of creative endeavour.
6. Talk about geography. If you have a network of national or international offices, and some evidence of mobilising people around them, say so. Also emphasise that even if employees don’t move offices physically, they’re probably still interacting with various colleagues from distant and fascinating places.
7. Find an employee who’s been bitten by a start-up. A cheeky tactic, but try profiling an employee who started their career in a start-up and left for something bigger (and less all-consuming).
8. Discuss diversity and your employee communities. Start-ups can be diverse, but they rarely boast employees of (say) 27 different nationalities. And if you have employee communities or support groups, bring them to the fore. Talk about how much people learn and accomplish by being part of a strong set others who share comparable characteristics.
9. Quantify your social impact. Joining a start-up might mean you can make a positive change to the world, but probably not at scale. (And it’s never a certainty that the start-up will come to anything anyway: 60% go bust in their first three years.) A big organisation can make a widespread, lasting impact through its sustainability policies, its influence on clients and suppliers, even its core work. Use statistics in your marketing to leverage the sizeable benefits you bring to communities, economies and the planet.
10. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t do any of the above, however, if it’s simply not true. Bend the truth too far and your cynical millennial/Gen Z audience won’t buy it. Be especially wary of suggesting your corporate workplace ‘is just like a start-up’ or ‘feels like a start-up but with so much more support’. If you say that and your employees have to fill in requisition forms for a new laptop case, have no voice in departmental strategy or are led by a grey-suited number cruncher who thinks AI stands for Avian Influenza, your hard-won talent will walk at the earliest opportunity.