The Top 5 Things Small Businesses are looking for in Interviews

Andy Lockley

With SMEs making up a large percentage of the companies we work with in the digital space candidates will very likely find themselves interviewing with small businesses. The nature of the smaller business means that certain skills will be more valued than others; the ability to effectively translate these in interview can be the difference between being offered a job and the search continuing. Andy Lockley, Digital Marketing Manager at offers his advice on impressing in your interview.
Working for a small business is one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding career decisions that one can make. The fast pace of smaller businesses mean that decisions can be taken at lightning speed with very little bureaucracy when compared to larger counterparts. In career development terms, one year at a dynamic small business can be the equivalent to two or three in a larger business.
It takes a special kind of person to thrive in a small business environment, and employers have only a very small window on you as a candidate to determine whether you’re going to fit into their team. As someone who’s been on both sides of the Michael Page coin, having been placed in my first Cloggs role by Michael Page and subsequently built my digital marketing team with the help of Michael Page, here’s a rundown of the five key things small businesses are looking for:

1. Evidence of self-learning

One of the hallmarks of a small business is restricted headcount, which means that there isn’t always an expert to turn to for every problem you may have. The speed that a lot of small businesses operate at also means that if there is a subject matter expert for your issue, it may be that getting hold of them is akin to getting an audience with the Pope.
In many cases, the quickest way to deal with your issues is to deal with the problem yourself, even if it means learning skills in an area that doesn’t fit your job description. One of the best ways you can get your point across is on your CV. Lines such as; “successfully covered graphic designers’ maternity leave despite no formal training in graphic design” or “self-learned basic HTML coding to improve the look and feel of on site content” can really help you stand out. This can also extend to hobbies; anyone who’s put in the time to teach themselves an instrument or built their own website or blog is exhibiting signs of being an excellent self-starter.

2. Cultural fit

When working with a small team, it’s important that the personalities mesh. Staff of small businesses spend so much time together that relationships can go from strangers to like family within a month or two. When interviewing, it can be difficult to see what’s behind the professional interview mask that we all put on when under the pressure of the situation. Once I’m done with questions about background and technical proficiency in the role, I like to spend more time than most asking about hobbies and interests. A few quick fire questions about how a candidate spends their free time, their favourite TV shows, favourite music, books and favourite websites gives me a great feel for a person and whether they’ll fit into the team and culture. My advice here would be to be yourself and answer these sort of questions truthfully. There’s no point saying you’re a fan of Mozart when you prefer to kick back and watch the Kardashians, as you’ll most likely end up in a team that doesn’t fit your personality.  

3. Ambition

Ambition is very difficult to ascertain from a standard CV and interview process, as anyone can respond positively to questions about ambition when questioned directly. The trick I’ve found is that eschewing the clichéd “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” question and instead leaving it for the candidate to bring up themselves is a much better barometer of ambition. In an ambitious candidate, where the role can lead them should be the first question out of their mouth when asked: “Have you any questions about the role?” Bring up the future of the role yourself and your potential employer will have no doubt that you’re in it for the long haul.

4. Dealing with adversity

When working within the walls of a small business, a lot of meetings end up being between the same small groups of colleagues. One of the downsides of this is that it leaves little scope for ‘difficult’ people. When you’re looking at hiring people, I like to throw in a question about how they’ve dealt with adversity in the past. A good answer would be that they sell their point with passion and eloquence and if they don’t get their way, they accept compromises with grace. There’s little room for inflexible people in a small businesses, as with such a small headcount, keeping everyone on the same hymn sheet is essential. Have examples to hand of how you’ve diffused difficult situations before and how you’ve managed to foster compromises, as this is a real sign of emotional maturity. If you’re relatively new to a career, can you relate this to a University project or resolving a family conflict?

5. Things not to say

As an employer, I’m constantly on guard for anything that gives me a sign that someone won’t fit in to my organisation. I find open ended questions such as “Tell me about your last role” normally provide ample scope to understand someone’s mind set. Anyone who’s overwhelmingly negative about a former employer sets off alarm bells. Have a highly practiced reason for why you’re leaving your current employer, and run it past friends and family to check it doesn’t sound too negative. 
Another thing I’ve found is that there are two ways employees react to increased responsibilities; “Great, more work to do” and “What an interesting development opportunity, they obviously trust me”; use every tool you have to get across that you’re the latter kind of person.
Overall, making a hiring mistake can be very costly especially for a small business where budgets are notoriously tight. If you want to work for a small company, it’s the candidates that are driven, versatile and don’t mind getting their hands dirty who tend to prosper, and hopefully I’ve given you enough tips to go and grasp the opportunity and make the most of your career.
For a discussion about job opportunities in the Digital sector contact Andrew Carr, Managing Consultant at Michael Page Digital.
Andrew Carr
T: +44 121 634 6947