There is Nothing Small about Working at a Small Company

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After working in-house at a large brand for almost nine years, I decided it was time to try a small agency. This agency had under 70 people versus the thousands at Converse/Nike. My nearly four-year experience working at this small agency taught me valuable lessons, and presented refreshing opportunities. If you are looking to improve your intrapreneur skills or understand a business better, going into a smaller company or agency could be the right move.

What we’ll cover:

Making this decision wasn’t easy. As my friends went on to become directors or work at well-known companies, I went to a small agency. Gone was the flashy brand and important title. It was humbling, and a feeling I will never forget. However, going to a small company was a conscious choice. It provided the opportunity to work with dozens of brands as a consultant, and make an impact on the company itself.

Every person has their own career narrative. You need to have confidence in your narrative, and drive it as well. Career choices are not just about moving up, but gathering the skills and experiences you find necessary. Working at a smaller company made me a better en/intrapeneur, something I value highly. These are qualities I can take to a larger company, or use as a freelancer or business owner. Those en/intrapeneur learnings include both a business and personal angle, explored below.

You are the business

When working at a smaller company, your actions directly affect the business. Your performance on a pitch, or ability to deliver on a key project can make-or-break a client relationship. That client can be key, especially in a small agency where one account can mean survival or succumb. Unlike larger companies, your sense of responsibility is heightened. This can feel terrifying at times, but in another sense, there is an aspect of welcomed reality attached. I enjoyed knowing my actions had a direct correlation to business growth.

A small company feels like a family of even smaller businesses. Individual teams had to discover their own methods to succeed with different client types. For anyone thinking to go freelance at some point, but only has large company or brand experience, this can actually be a good stepping stone.

With responsibility comes access. Your proximity to the company’s core means you can learn a lot about its inner works. As there are less layers, being able to understand a business is possible. In office times, just walk down the hall and ask one of the C-suite.

Make an impact, but with patience

When working in a large brand, it felt like I could affect my small area and little more. This is not the case at a small agency. At a small company, you have the chance to impact the process, even as a non-director. If you can identify a project, garner enough support and find the time, then it’s possible. Many times, your efforts can be a relief for managers or directors that have a lot on their agenda, and not enough time to think about further improvements. However, like any company, such changes can take time.

Identifying an area to improve can be exciting. You feel like it needs to happen ‘now’, and everyone would immediately agree. Unfortunately wherever you are, this is not the case. There might be other priorities or perspectives. In easy terms - people need to warm up to your idea. This means informing over pushing, patience over, well, more pushing. I learned this while working for both small and large companies. When going into a small agency, I thought less company hierarchy and more accessible executives would make it easier. This did help, but a human’s need to process and place your project was still there.

Power of your mood

Perhaps this is a lesson from all work environments, but as small companies are dynamic, it was even more visible. The mood I brought to work directly affected my team members. Even if I did not interact with them, they could sense what I was going through. At times it was so subtle or subconscious, I could not even detect my own mood. This meant emotion management became even more important within a smaller company.

This can also be flipped. I found myself affected by other’s moods, and this would impact my productivity. Now, there are some aspects of this that are solvable, and others beyond your reach. My awareness helped to better structure my environment or understand interactions. It also enabled me to help others who were stressed from another’s moods. A younger designer or strategist could take a negative review, as an example, very personally. Having someone to contextualise their experience can help them process such interactions.

As I started working remotely, it became even more important to exaggerate a positive, optimistic perspective. This came through emojis or gifs, which might seem ridiculous to some, but it helped others sense what I was feeling in a digestible way. For whatever reason, a sad or happy emoji was easier to understand than someone directly writing those feelings.

Top talent can be anywhere

Many would assume that the best-of-the-best are at well-known or large companies. But this is not the case. My co-workers at this small agency were some of the most talented and humble individuals I worked with during my twelve-year career. They were as talented as my colleagues at Converse/Nike, however chose to take a different path. Working at a small company challenged my idea of both achievement and work lifestyle. For some, a smaller company environment is a better personality fit. Others, like myself, saw it as a prime opportunity for learning quickly and transitioning into another field. There are many reasons to work for a company, but ensure it’s your reason and not someone else’s.

Let’s summarise

  • Working at a small company enabled me to get the skills I desired
  • There is a sense of responisbility and impact when working at a small company
  • Changing the company is possible, however it takes time for others to see your viewpoint
  • The mood I brought to work directly affected my team members and vice versa
  • Great talent is everywhere, and working at a smaller company can be a better fit for some