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8 steps to getting hired by a small business

Last week I described how to hire the best small business employees. But what if you're a person who wants to get hired by a small business? How can you best show a small business owner you have the qualities they need?

First things first: While some small business owners do come from a corporate background, many are lifelong entrepreneurs, so traditional job hunting techniques often don't work. The average small business owner sees reading resumes and interviewing candidates as a necessary evil. Some even see it as a process to avoid at all costs -- after all, the thinking goes, "I don't have time for this... I have a business to run."

That perspective makes getting hired a lot harder if you take a conventional approach, but also a lot more effective when you put in the time and effort to really set yourself apart:

1. Determine who you want to work for. Sounds obvious, right? Not really; many job seekers play the numbers game, sending as many resumes and responding to as many job postings as possible. That approach is less likely to work on a small business owner, mainly because it requires them to sift through dozens of potential candidates to find the right one. Your goal is to show a small business owner that you're the right candidate, and that means you have to do the work. Put in the time to determine a few companies you definitely want to work for, and then...

2. Truly know the company. Say I'm a small business owner and you say, "I really want to work for you." Great, but what I hear is, "I really want you to pay me." You don't know if you want to work for me unless you know a lot about my business; that's the difference between just wanting a job and wanting a role in a specific company. Talk to friends, relatives, customers -- anyone you can find. Know as much as you can. You may decide the company isn't right for you after all, and that's okay -- it's a lot better to know that up front. If the company is right for you, it's easy to leverage what you learn and...

3. Decide what you can offer immediately. Most small business owners hate to train new employees; it takes time, money, effort... ugh. The ideal new hire can hit the ground running, at least in part. While you don't need to know everything, it helps if we can see an immediate return on the investment we make in you. Identify one or two things you can do, starting day one.

4. Create a show and tell. Now that you know what you can offer, consider putting it in writing or on display. Say you're a web designer; do a mockup of a new site design for that business. If you want a sales position, put together a plan for how you'll target a different market, or a different customer base, or how you'll use different strategies the business is currently not using. You know the company and know what you can offer immediately, so be prepared to show it. Your initiative will be impressive and you'll go a long way toward overcoming any doubts about whether you're just all talk.

5. Look for a referral. Business is all about relationships, and that's especially true for small business owners. We've all made terrible hiring decisions, so a referral from someone we trust is like gold. You may have to dig deep into your network, but the effort is worth it -- and in the process you'll strengthen your network.

6. Knock on the door. You don't have to wait for an opening to be posted; after all, you've identified ways you can help the business immediately. Show up, ask to speak to the owner, and pitch away. Just make sure you get right to the benefits. For example, you could say, as a job seeker did to a friend of mine, "I've checked out your website, and forgive me for saying this but it could be a lot better. I graduate soon and would love to work for you. Here is a list of the changes I would make in the first three months, including how those changes would improve conversions and SEO results. And here's a mockup I created of a new site design." Trust me -- no small business owner will toss you out. At the very least they'll listen, because you're talking about improving their business.

7. Don't be afraid to take charge of the interview. Many small business owners have terrible interview skills; as a friend of mine says, "I run a business. I don't work in HR." While you shouldn't be pushy, don't be passive either. Be direct and to the point. Explain what you can do. Describe your background. Talk about how the owner will benefit from hiring you. Show you know that working for a small business is different and you're excited by the challenge. Selling yourself should be easy, especially since you know so much about the company and how you can make an immediate impact. Never be afraid to run the interview.

8. Ask for the job. Yes, ask. Good salespeople always try to close a deal. Business owners also know how to close... and most don't mind being closed. A decision put off until tomorrow is a decision that gets added to the to-do pile; who wants more on their plate? Ask for the job. If you've set yourself apart and impressed the owner, she might just take you up on your offer.  What do you have to lose?


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