Only 7 Employees...ack.
October 20, 2012 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Do you work for a small company (less than 10 employees)? Can you tell me what it's like? I've just accepted a job for a small, 7 person company and I am feeling a bit nervous about it.

Context: I just finished up a 6 month contract position for a large, global company. Prior to that, I worked for a company that had about 50 employees, prior to that, I worked for a company that had around 400 employees.

Now, starting Monday, I'm working for a tiny company in NYC - tiny as in I am going to be one of 7 employees (including the president). I am expecting some culture shock, which happens during any job change I suppose, but I feel especially nervous about this for some reason. Without getting overly specific, it's basically a small design firm that liases with various architecture firms and furniture fabricator firms on projects. I am going to be training as a new PM type. But the dinky small-ness of the place is really freaking me out - I am worried about whether I'm going to get sick of everyone really quickly, whether it will suck not having a dedicated HR department, whether it will be the kind of environment where I will have to put in 18 hour days. I tried to suss a lot of this out during my interview for the position but wasn't able to any definitive conclusion, and the pros - it's a return to my industry after nearly a year of "tangential" work, it's an area I am very interested in, it will provide me ample training and educational opportunities - tipped the scales in favor of my accepting. But I am very nervous about the small-ness nonetheless.

In case it's relevant, I think part of what is making me nervous as well is the fact that the job happened very quickly - I applied, interviewed, and accepted the job within one week. I have never had anything turnaround this quickly - they had an urgent need and I happened to be around at the right time, but it still kind of is freaking me out.

Other potentially contributing factors: I am in my mid-late 20s, have been working for 5 years, still feel pretty green.

I know you don't work for my company, but I would still love to hear some input from people who work in teeny tiny companies. Do you like it? What, if any, are the upsides? What, if any, are the downsides? How long have you been there and how long do you intend to stay? Basically, am I going to regret this somehow, or am I just being silly?
posted by thereemix to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I work in NYC at company that consists of myself, my boss, and the new assistant. I get along with my boss and my coworker great -- my boss is very understanding, isn't big on small-talk (neither am I,) and is generally very, very calm and cool when things go wrong -- but if there was any sort of a personality clash, I could see that sort of environment being hellish. Due to the way the business works, I really hardly ever have to stay late unless I've fallen behind. Maybe once or twice a month I'll be stuck in the office until 8 PM, but I don't think I've ever left later than that. The only problem comes when someone wants to take a vacation: the other person has to make up the work and the vacationer always end up coming back to an avalanche of work the other person couldn't make up. With 7 people that may be less of a problem, but there's a lot of interdependence and good communication is mandatory.
posted by griphus at 10:26 AM on October 20, 2012

The upside for me was that no matter what your job is, you are pretty likely to have to do a little bit of everything, which can be a great learning experience. I worked for a small IT company when I first got started and ended up doing everything from installing printers to administrating Novell and exchange servers to configuring cisco routers for VOIP installations, stuff that I was really in no way qualified to do and had to learn on the job.

The downside is that its going to be harder to find a promotion there unless the company is expanding, there probably aren't going to be formal training opportunities, and so on. Depending on how fluid your industry is, that may not be a problem. Just make a note of all the stuff you did and be ready to move on in 2-3 years if you don't feel like you're going anywhere there.
posted by empath at 10:30 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't currently, but I have. What it's like depends largely on how you get along with the other people in the company. With big companies, things sort of tend towards a corporate average, where everywhere starts to feel sort of the same. A company with 1,000 employees can't really hire specifically for people who fit we'll with the team, because the team by then is fairly diverse. This means that you end up with a variety of people and views at a company like this, and most people end up fairly reserved, because they know not everyone agrees with them, and they don't want to rock the boat.

You can get anything at a small company. Your six co-workers might soon become your closest friends, or you might hate them all and want to quit after a week. Where a large company is like a small town, a small company can be an exclusive social club, where you might fit in great and love it, or you might not fit in at all and you'll hate it. Fortunately, people hiring into their social clubs tend to take this into account, and aren't as likely to give you the job if they don't think you'll fit in.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:32 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

As with a big company, it all depends. Think of it this way; in a big company, you really are still working in a smaller group, your department of boss and coworkers, most of the time. There's no way to know without trying it. It could work out really well, and you could end up being very happy there.

The upsides of a small company are: being able to go right to the boss with concerns. Being able to try new things if you're willing. Being able to largely define your own role, and expand or change it. Being able to shape the company's personality for the future.

Your new coworkers may be just as anxious about getting along with you, remember. Go in with a positive and open attitude, and see if it works out.
posted by emjaybee at 10:33 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

My experience in very very small orgs (one company, one nonprofit) is completely in line with your instinctive concerns. Sorry. The same subjective, impulsive decision to bring me on board (right now! you're perfect! we're like a family here!) was used for other business and HR decisions all the time. Lots of operating in crisis mode, 180-degree shifts w/no notice, with everyone edgy about the president's personal whims. It turned out both of these entities were under financial strain. I'm definitely not a job-hopper but I moved on from both of these situations in less than 6 months.
posted by headnsouth at 10:35 AM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

My experience:

Upsides: less bureaucracy. Getting authority to do things is simple. A concrete example of this is that if a small company wants to hire somebody, they can get it done in a week and nobody in HR pitches a fit.

Better Cross-enterprise visibility. In large companies it's easy to forget that your department isn't the whole company, and it can be difficult to correctly balance competing constraints because each staff member is so far from the other constraint. In a tiny company you know what's taking time, what's pressing and important, and you quickly see the entire business cycle.

Easy transition to upper management if the company succeeds. I used to work for a 15 person company that now (10 years later) employs 6,000 people. All of my co-workers who stayed on are now senior management.

Downsides: lower stability. Two blown sales cycles in a row and it's a real problem. That said, the flip side is two boom sales cycles in a row and you've doubled in size.

if there are personality issues, there's no way to hide.

Less leverage. You don't have a large developed sales force, distribution channels, marketing expertise, access to capital, partnerships, legal expertise, etc. So some ideas that might be viable in a large company are infeasible in a small one.

Differences: totally different types of learning. A small company will force you to expand your skillset on the fly, often with little "official" support because you're forced to cover more ground. But a large company is more likely to let you carefully take specific trainings and provide educational reimbursement.


All in all, I think small companies are a great experience, even if all you do is work there for three years and then go back to a large company saying "I got experience doing X, Y, and Z and now I want to work in a job where I focus on A, B and C"
posted by grudgebgon at 10:36 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work in an office of about 10 people, with about 5 or 6 others who sort of float in and out when necessary. I used to work for a large design firm with more than a hundred employees. The difference is pretty big.

First off, what starts to matter the most is if you have your own space. The large workforce at the aforementioned design firm necessitated a large work space. This was awesome because it meant all the higher ups got nice offices, and the rest of us got really big ass cubicles and often worked many, many feet away from other people. I personally had a corner all to myself and man, was I happy!

Now I work in an open office and technically share a desk area with one other person. I often feel on stage and am uncomfortable relaxing as much as I used to when the privacy afforded by my cubicle at the design firm gave me the chance to have the brain breaks I so desperately need. I've also had to drop $300 on noise canceling headphones so I can block out the noise of my deskmate's daily bodily functions. Where once I could sort of control my interactions with other people, I now work in the office equivalent of a small town. This is not my favorite thing, but despite all the downsides I am growing socially and have grown artistically too because there's always someone looking over your shoulder with advice and input, and I have the chance to look at other people's work all the time and learn from that, too.

As for work hours, most of us put in maybe one extra hour of work per day (though there's one person that works 3 hours extra and doesn't need to but does anyway and it's irritating). My bosses are adamant that we all have lives outside of work but appreciate that we're all willing to put in the extra hours if something big comes up. You may get bosses that are as respectful. You may get dickheads who don't understand why you need to sleep. YMMV. I did take a salary hit though. :( This makes me sad.

My advice? Take the job, and try to stay there for at least a year and a half. Suss out the small environment and try to make the most of everything you have access to, and use it as a training exercise in dealing with obnoxious situations.

The one thing I find sort of funny is that at the big design firm my position there had me working with every department and almost every person in the place. In my new job I barely talk to three of the people that work in another part of our small office, which we all joke about frequently as we figure we should really have easier access to one another.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:38 AM on October 20, 2012

I've come to believe that your day-to-day relationships with your co-workers is actually more key to your emotional health than the type of work you're doing. I've worked for "dream companies" where the people were careerist sociopaths who stepped all over "lesser" employees ... and I've had jobs in fields that had absolutely nothing to do with my interests, but the folks I worked with were thoughtful, funny, conscientious, and respectful of my needs.

I think the same philosophy holds true for the size of a company. Even in a larger firm, you usually end up working with a specific subset of people anyway, yes? You're part of a project team (or at least a pool of people that make up the teams) and you only call on others outside of your snow globe when it's necessary to move things up or down the work chain. So, in practical relationship terms, I've found that it doesn't make much difference if I'm working for a 50,000-plus-employee international firm or a boutique company of five to ten. I think the same rules apply.

I'd say you've already had a taste of the real difference, in my experience. When you're at a small firm, things can move much faster... and that's a good and a bad thing. Especially when you've got a culture where the original founder/visionary still calls all the shots. I've found that people who have the guts and tenacity to build up a small business over decades are unusually invested in their work. By necessity, of course. And that can go both ways.

It means the company has stayed small perhaps because they do what they do exceptionally well, and the founder knows exactly how many people it takes to excel. As a result, it can be a model of efficacy: there's a "hands-on" approach from every person involved, and everybody contributes, often in ways that are technically outside of their job description, to get it done. It requires buy-in, camaraderie, and a willingness to pick up where others have left off in different phases of a project. But it can also go sour when a founder insists on being involved in every. single. aspect. of a company's operation, and the whole place suffers (on levels ranging from irritating to fatal) from their micro-management. This is not every company, and it may not be yours. It is a phenomenon I've noticed from working at small companies over the years.

But the variables are endless and impossible to predict in theory. It's quite possible you'll be putting in longer hours. But on the other hand, the culture may encourage you to throw down tools at 6 PM every day and have your own life. It's possible that you'll be in a collaborative hothouse environment where everybody is involved in everyone else's work to some extent. It's possible that your boss will be mercurial and overprotective. It's also possible that you may have more leniency and creative latitude because the place doesn't operate by some outside handed-down cookie-cutter process.

You may just have to learn more about the culture by jumping in there and seeing for yourself. My primary piece of advice would be to try not to get scared and run away at the first sign of trouble, because every small office has its quirks and maybe not all of them will be to your liking. You have to decide what your adaptability threshold is, and whether this place is sympathetic or hostile to your own style. I personally would rather work in a small place that has its own weird little culture than have to pour myself into a mold and deal with missives from some mysterious Home Office far away. YMMV.
posted by mykescipark at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've worked at a small company, it was a startup. I did much more administrative work but also much less busy work. It was more relaxed on a pesrsonal level but more stressful on the workload level. Had more responsibility with clients but also with fixing an uncooperative printer :)
posted by manicure12 at 12:02 PM on October 20, 2012

I've worked (and work) at small companies and big. Some of the things I'd say are:

At small companies, you don't tend to have nearly as many meetings and they don't tend to be the sprawling sorts of affairs where most of your job actually winds up being going to the right meetings. Like I worked at a big company where my Mondays were entirely sitting in meetings playing on my Blackberry and doing no actual work, whereas if I spent an entire Monday not doing anything in a small company, they'd wonder what they were paying me for.

Likewise, planning doesn't tend to be a grandiose process that takes months and is ceremonially unveiled and then That Is The Plan, even though it's three months out of date. Place I do some work for now, our plans are out of date after a week, so we only spend a small amount of time making them.

And the emphasis tends to be more on "doing" than anything else, I've found. In my big company job, some of the stuff I had to do like send over a plan to a client involved literally 17 signoffs from people up to the CEO and sending one was considered a grand ceremonial thing akin to launching a battleship and took 2-3 months of planning and preparation and ego-stroking and still always came down to the wire because people dawdled and screwed around. And the final results didn't matter, oh no, I sent out stuff that had no understandable sentences, but that was perfectly alright as long as I got every signoff. In my current gig, the same thing takes a day and my boss doesn't want to see it or mess with it until it's done and ready to go to the client as a "last set of eyes" thing.

Small companies, unless they're super bro-jocky startups where everyone's putting in law school hours to impress each other, tend to be more relaxed on time off and vacation and stuff, I've found, because they're less worried about setting precedents and "well, if we let one person do it, we have to let the company do it..." Like the gig I work for now, we have no real sick leave policy, but that's because we can just send an email like "Yo, I'm sick!" and it's fine (rather than not having sick leave because you can't take off sick). The downside to that, of course, is I spent all of Thursday and half of Friday chugging through work on Dayquil and stubborn because I had to Do The Thing because no one else could, you know?

I've also found small companies are more open to--and you may have to--expanding your skillset. If I did anything outside my job description at my big company job, it was greeted with anger and suspicion because WHO was I trying to usurp? Who was I trying to kiss up to? Whereas my first job was at a small company where I was hired as a CS rep but wound up doing things like marketing and PR and working on other projects because I happened to be there and, well, Ghostride seems pretty smart and not too busy today, he can do it. The day the CEO poked his head out of the office, looked around, saw me at my desk, and said, "Hey, Ghostride, do you speak Farsi?" "No." "Hmmm. Do you think you could learn in a weekend?" "...I could try?" "Good enough!" wasn't unusual at all. (I still don't know why that came up but I was game to try). Likewise, I currently freelance for a small company and have wound up doing everything from what I was hired for to things like business development because, say, my boss lost his laptop and was out of town for three days, the other guys were on vacation...and it's not considered unreasonable to expect a bright person who's done this particular job for a while to answer a client email and gather the basic information we need to get started. Whereas if I'd worked at a big company and jumped on something like that, I'd have been murdered.

That's not to say it's always like that, mind. I've worked at small companies where it was obvious the boss started the company because he always wanted his own little fiefdom. I've worked at small companies where you either partied and hung out with everyone or you were an outcast and everyone was suspicious and mad because you had a life outside the company. I've worked at small companies where the boss just hired all his friends and nobody had any idea how to run an actual business. I've worked at small companies where our health insurance and benefits were always a gamble to use because it came down to whether the CFO remembered to pay Blue Cross that month.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:57 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's my experience: I got my first job at age 16 (started out part time and then went full-time a year later when I graduated from high school) at a large Fortune 500 company. Worked there for almost six years before the automotive industry tanked in 1981 and I got laid off. When my unemployment ran out 18 months later I scrambled for a job, any job, to pay the bills. I was lucky enough to find a very small company (four employees - the owner, one salesman, a bookkeeper, and me, the overall office person) that was looking for someone with Telex experience - a slowly dying art at that time, but one that I was well versed in. Plus, even though it was a tiny company, the owner had connections with a larger one that allowed us to ride on their Blue Cross policy. Nevertheless, for about the first month I experienced Culture Shock. We received checks in the mail from customers? I had to take them to the bank during my lunch hour?? ("So you add 15 minutes to your lunch break, no big deal" the owner told me.) When it came to things like purchasing office supplies, there was no calling a runner from the mail room like on my old job - I was expected to go out and get them.

However, after that first month I started to acclimate and appreciate the differences between a huge corporation and a tiny company....when I'd worked at Fortune 500, there was always someone looking over your shoulder, whether it was your own supervisor or some other executive with too much time on his hands. At Small Company, when the Boss was out of the office, the three of us employees were almost like a family and gleefully goofed off without anyone squealing on us (NOTE: We only goofed off after all work was done - we were very diligent about that, since Boss was gracious about giving each us semi-annual bonuses based on sales figures.) There were also no hard and fast rules about how much sick time you'd be paid for or personal days off, that sort of thing. Likewise, I learned to not complain about running personal errands for the Boss. I ended up staying there for 11 years, and while it was often stressful overall the rewards were great: Boss always remembered the birthday of each employee and would take the entire office staff out to lunch to an upscale restaurant in celebration. He also frequently took us out to the theater (often in conjunction with treating a customer) or a ball game. In short, there are many things that a small company can offer that a large corporation can't - no going through channels for this or that or formal performance reviews.... It was much more personal with the Boss recognizing "Hey, you've been working overtime for the past month to help get this order processed and shipped, here's a check for $100, please take your husband out to dinner on me" - type of thing.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:17 PM on October 20, 2012

thereemix: " I am worried about whether I'm going to get sick of everyone really quickly, whether it will suck not having a dedicated HR department, whether it will be the kind of environment where I will have to put in 18 hour days."
Yes, yes, and yes. I was recently let go from a place that had seven people and the owner in the office. (I don't count the owner in the seven people because he was there two hours tops on any particular day.) Even when I started there everyone seemed to resent everyone else. Not having any HR department means I had to go in early if I wanted to talk to the owner about anything, and even blatantly toxic workplace incidents were responded to not at all.
And any place that makes a point of telling you they respect a work-life balance means the balance will have three fingers on it (to torture the metaphor). When I started I was told I'm there for nine hours, including an hour lunch. Lunch was respected in the breach ("I don't want to interrupt your lunch but..."). My start time was 7am but if I got there after 6:50 I got the silent treatment for *days*. My first two months, I was rushed out the door at 4 promptly, but by the end it was frequently commented that I left awfully hastily at 4pm (I carpooled with my wife).
Other things to watch out for - small business owners get away with a lot of things; the HR rules really only apply to companies over 50 people. So owners will put political tracts in your paycheck. Or the rules for one person will not apply whatsoever to another. If you need to learn something, and only one other person in the office can help you, and he doesn't like you (today), you're screwed - and next time the topic comes up, you'll get "how in hell do you not know that by now?" Without a set review/ promotion system, there are no reviews, no promotions, and no raises. Without set policies or chain of command, you can be undercut or have your decisions countermanded with no recourse. Et c. My dad has worked for small companies his whole life and sometimes I think he's got Patty Hearst syndrome from all the abuse.
I pretty much don't give a second look to companies who aren't large enough to have an HR department.
posted by notsnot at 3:05 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

All of the above. Plus I've found pushback whenever I looked to outsource lesser skilled tasks or asked about having another staff member doing it. For example, I've been told I need to do my own photocopying, envelope stuffing and stamping, delivery of stuff to the post office, etc. In my opinion, it does not make sense to have someone making, say, $40-50 an hour doing this, if you have staff who make $15 to $20 an hour. It makes much more sense to have the higher paid staff focus on stuff that is highly skilled and difficult to outsource and to instead group these tasks for temps and admin workers. (Please note that I'm not talking about photocopying a few items for a meeting or putting stuff in a single envelope. I'm talking about the kinds of tasks that involve days or even weeks.) With smaller companies, I have found that people will become resentful and act as thought you think this work is beneath you. But it makes absolutely no economic sense to pay someone bigger money to do stuff that a temp could do, unless the higher paid person is just idle.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:11 PM on October 20, 2012

If you take the job, you will find out soon enough if this gig is for you. A great deal of it depends on your co-workers and the office culture. Trust is pretty important. Does the boss like to micro-manage? Does he let everybody manage their own affairs? What is his personality?

(My first job out of school was at a very small trade magazine, only 9 or 10 people. It was a super casual setting, and we put in some very late nights meeting our weekly deadline. But I was in my 20s, and it was in the music industry, so I was thrilled to be there. It helped that we had annual bonuses, health insurance, profit-sharing, and the husband and wife owners loved to have us over to their giant house on the lake nearby. They were very supportive when my mom was going through her bout with cancer and died, and gave all the time off I needed. After a couple gigs in larger corporate settings, I am back at a small company. I love the people I work with, but the top-down fear has been wearing me down. There is no transparency in our sales, and no performance bonuses. My immediate boss makes almost all his decisions based on avoiding getting yelled at by the owners, one of whom has a temper. There is a lot of mixed messages on "take initiative!"/"no, check with me on everything!" and it doesn't make us feel like we are trusted or valued.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:22 PM on October 20, 2012

You're just being silly, working for small companies isn't that different from working for big companies, except there's a lot less bullshit. If you thrive on bullshit, or love having layers of management -- maybe not for you ;) If you don't, you'll probably love it. There's more accountability, you get to wear more hats, and what you do matters a whole hell of a lot more. At small companies, I haven't had a dress code (eww), the CEO/owner has always been someone I could say "Hey Bill, you have a second?" to, and I've never had to fill out performance evaluation forms. Hours have varied, but they're never crazy -- I've worked both longer and shorter hours than at MegaCorp.

TLDR: Depends on the people, but it's probably fine, just different -- and maybe even better.

Street cred: I've worked at 5 companies with between 3 and 20 employees, and one with over 200,000 employees.
posted by wrok at 8:58 AM on October 21, 2012

I worked at a small company and I loved it. I think the biggest determiner of the experience will be the people you're working with/for, but here was my experience:

Everyone in the company was encouraged to come up with new ideas, which we/our bosses acted on. We changed an entire client service process in a day - we found a better method, my boss and I were in agreement, and we didn't have some department upstairs to approve anything. The complete and total lack of bureaucracy was awesome. Any meeting we had was highly useful, never boring, and to the point. I learned an INCREDIBLE amount because I needed to do a little bit of everything.

A few points that can go either way: Anything and everything you or anyone else did made an impact. Also, hiring just one new person changed the feel of the company (in that case, not a bad thing).

Something I didn't like was that the company didn't have the same kind of budget and deep pockets that a large corporation does, which means that it wasn't as stable - if sales weren't being made, we all got nervous. When we hired two new people, our boss was nervous about cash flow. Our wages were also limited unless you were making sales commissions. BUT it depends on the company...this isn't so much a matter of being small as still being in the process of figuring things out.
posted by Jade_bug at 1:22 PM on October 21, 2012

Update: the job didn't work out - it was a seriously toxic place and they were having huge financial problems, which they had concealed pretty well in the interview but came to light pretty quickly after I started there. Everyone who worked there bitched constantly about the boss and how awful he was. I bailed after a week - which I normally wouldn't do, but I seriously had a bad feeling about the place and thought I should trust my spidey sense. Since then I've talked to someone who worked for the company years ago who told me I did the right thing - it was so toxic there while she was there that a whole bunch of the employees defected en masse and started their own company. People weren't getting paid on time, paychecks were bouncing, etc etc. Bad.

Anyway, bummer because now I'm unemployed, but it does seem I've dodged a bullet.
posted by thereemix at 7:30 AM on December 31, 2012

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