If having responsibility from the outset and the opportunity to get involved with key business decisions appeals to you, there are many benefits to working for a small business instead of a well-known brand

What is an SME?

Standing for 'small and medium-sized enterprise', an SME is a micro, small or medium-sized company with less than 10, 50 or 250 employees respectively. In the UK, SMEs account for 99% of all businesses, meaning they are a key driver for economic growth.

While graduate schemes with small companies are harder to come by, it's easy to overlook the exciting opportunities that these businesses have to offer.

'Students and graduates are often unaware of the job opportunities within smaller businesses,' explains Anna Byas, enterprise and SME development manager at the University of Bristol. 'There are so many SMEs out there offering fantastic, varied roles, most of whom students and graduates will never have heard of. They may be passing up on opportunities because they haven't come across a company before or because they just aren't aware these roles exist.'

Small businesses don't typically have the funds or resources to run high-profile recruitment campaigns or attend careers events, but you'll be doing your career a disservice if you only focus your efforts on large employers.

While large organisations may be able to offer higher salaries, there are still many reasons to find an internshipwork placement or graduate job with a small business.

For example, in a small business you'll enjoy early responsibility, gain experience working across several functions and have more opportunities to engage with senior colleagues. The chance to develop skills and knowledge while working for an SME or small business far outweigh the challenges you'll encounter.

What are the benefits of working for a small company?

Starting your career within a small business can be a positive move for graduates.

They're usually less bureaucratic and have little hierarchy meaning you can make a real impact from day one.

Anna agrees that 'a huge benefit to working for an SME is the opportunity to get exposure to lots of different areas of the business. Being hands-on in a small team helps you to gain confidence, skills and experience quickly, all of which are fundamental to your personal and professional growth.'

Getting stuck in and handling big projects will make you feel like you're making a genuine contribution to the business. Working within a small business, it's also easier to see how what you're doing is contributing to the company's success.

'You definitely can't hide when working for an SME, your contributions are more noticeable,' says Anna. 'This early responsibility can be a powerful driver for career development.'

Is working for a small business right for me?

SMEs are ideal for those with initiative who require little direction. You'll be thrown in at the deep end and might be expected to know things you don't, and for this reason you'll need to be an adept problem-solver and quick learner.

If you like the idea of working in a small team, having to be flexible and adaptable and being more visible in the workplace, then the SME route may be for you.

You'll also require resilience, initiative and the ability to self-motivate.

While there are lots of advantages to working for a small business, it's only fair to point out that there are also some drawbacks. For example, while it's likely you'll have more flexibility in your role at a small business, your growth may be limited.

Training opportunities may be restricted due to funding, opportunities for promotion may be slim - teams are usually small leading to bottleneck situations and starting salaries and employee benefits are often not as enticing as those at big organisations.

Often at a small business you'll be required to turn your hand to different functions as required. This can sometimes mean forfeiting specialising and working in a particular area of interest, as you're needed across the business.

Not having the opportunity to work within a larger team, with a variety of people is another potential pitfall. It's likely you'll also encounter these pros and cons if you go self-employed.

If you're still wondering whether working for an SME is right for you think about what you're looking for in a graduate role, and the environment in which you'd like to work. 'Start by thinking about what experience and skills you're looking to gain,' suggests Anna. 'Then think about what you value and what's important to you. Do your research. Ask yourself: does this organisation's values align closely to mine?'

Look at the company website and any social media pages, as well as any reviews from current or previous employees. Also consider whether you have the self-motivation and drive to create your own career development pathway, whether the business you are considering has a culture you would feel at home in and whether the vision, mission and objectives of the business aligns with your career aspirations.

'Be proactive and curious and above all keep an open mind. Bigger doesn't always mean better, as small businesses can offer big opportunities,' says Anna.

Should I consider working for a start-up?

A start-up business is a company that's in the initial stages of getting off the ground. Often started and funded by entrepreneurs who want to develop and sell a product or service, now's a good time to consider this form of employment.

The Centre for Entrepreneurs revealed that around 800,000 new start-ups were founded in 2022. This was a 16% increase on 2019, showing how those with sound business ideas haven't been put off by factors such as the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

Despite this positive outlook adopted by many entrepreneurs, there are pros and cons to working for businesses of this kind.

Firstly, getting involved in a business in these early stages could lead to a fair amount of responsibility; you could even create a role for yourself - one that fits your skillset. If the idea is solid, the business plan is good, and the funding source is secure, you could be set for a career climbing the ladder to the top of this growing business.

'Start-ups can be an exciting environment to work in but that's not to say they're without their challenges,' cautions Anna. It's important to acknowledge that the majority (around 60%) of start-ups fail within the first three years, which could lead you down the path of having to search for another job.

Consider how highly you value career stability. Is this more important than positively impacting the successful establishment of a business? If yes, then perhaps consider working for a well-established small business instead. If you think it's worth the risk, go for it. Even if your time at a start-up doesn't last, the skills and experience you gain will provide a great foundation to your career.

Read more about business innovation and the support available for start-ups at the University of Bristol.

How do I apply?

If you want to tap into this hidden jobs market, it's important to note that SMEs frequently fill vacancies through networking, word of mouth, applications on their own website, or through speculative applications.

When making a speculative application, research the companies that interest you to discover ways in which your skills and personality suits them. Your careers service can help with this.

Openings can also be found through your university. Most have contacts with smaller businesses that can offer short-term placements with a view to longer-term opportunities.

Read more about where to find help at university.

You'll find that social media is also a useful tool when uncovering vacancies, so do some research to discover if the small business you're interested in has a social media presence. Most will as it's a brilliant free marketing tool for their business. Connect with and follow their channels, but keep all interactions professional.

Once you've uncovered available jobs, it's likely you'll apply with a CV and cover letter. If your initial application is successful, you'll attend an interview. Anna reveals how 'Small businesses place a lot of value on personality and attitude when hiring. Given the significant impact hiring the wrong person can have on a small business, being authentic and honest at interview is really important. Speaking to businesses, we also hear that successful candidates are those who can demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to learn.'

Small, local or start-up businesses rarely have the budget to support things such as assessment centre days but you may still be asked to complete an interview test or exercise.

Find out more

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