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How do you compete when you can't pay the highest salaries?

Dominic Jackman founded Escape The City to help people find fulfilling work outside traditional corporations. Here, he explains how small businesses can hire top-tier people, even when they're unable to pay a top-tier salary.

Realistically, most small businesses can’t offer the top-level salaries that big corporations can. That’s an uncomfortable reality to accept, and it leads to a worrying question:

“Is my business missing out on the best hires because we can’t offer top-tier salaries?”

Luckily, salaries aren’t everything. There are multiple reasons people choose to work somewhere  – and in some of them, smaller businesses actually have a huge advantage.

Don’t waste time fretting about salaries. Instead, focus on putting effort into optimising the areas where you have an advantage over larger corporations, and you’ll see the best returns.

There are three key areas where small businesses have the edge over large corporations: impact, learning and autonomy. Committing to these within your business will help build your culture and improve employee retention – but crucially, they will give you something that helps you stand out to candidates during the hiring process.


In a massive, faceless corporation, the work you do can feel like it’s just being fed into a gigantic machine.

This is not the most enjoyable way to work. Regardless of what your bank balance looks like at the end of the month, most of us like to feel that the work we do is having some sort of effect on something.

This is where you have an advantage. In a small team, the effect of every person’s input is impossible to miss. Exceptional work – even from junior employees – will have a measurable effect on the health of the business.

Some of this happens naturally – just by dint of how small teams work. But you can help it along, and make sure no employee feels like they’re ever doing meaningless work, by:

  • Regularly celebrating individual wins
  • Making sure everyone knows when someone’s hard work had a significant impact on the business
  • Focusing on cross-company communication – to avoid teams getting siloed off and not finding out about the work being done in other functions

How do I communicate this to potential employees? During the hiring process, don’t just tell candidates what their role will be: tell them what impact their role will have on the company and its goals.


Small businesses can offer a very steep learning curve. Small teams don’t have the manpower to have people specialised and experienced with every problem they’re going to encounter – so you’ll end up tackling problems you know very little about, and learning on-the-go.

This is a hugely compelling prospect, especially for people who are early on in their careers. It’s also a smart move on their part: sacrificing a salary for the chance to accelerate the development of various skills has a good chance of paying off down the road.

Once again, this happens naturally in small companies, but there are ways you can help it along:

  • Consider implementing a personal learning allowance. Even if money is tight, a small allowance to be spent on learning materials (such as courses, books or seminars) is a great way of showing your team that you’re invested in their development. Most people won't feel a huge difference if their salary goes up by a couple of hundred pounds a year... but being told you have access to a £200 learning budget seems both generous and tangibly valuable.
  • Make personal development a key, structured part of your business. A quick, easy way to do this is to use PDPs – you can read about these here.
  • Actively make time for learning in everyone’s calendar. Some business owners can be reluctant to do anything which eats into their employees’ “work time”. This is generally short-sighted: scheduling learning days, lunches, knowledge-sharing sessions teaches your team that you’re invested in their progress – and leads to team members who feel like their job is pushing them forwards.
  • Be flexible. If someone wants to learn something which isn’t directly related to their job, be supportive. Does someone in your sales team want to learn to code? Sure, it probably shouldn’t be their top priority, but there’s no reason you can’t support them along the way.

How do I communicate this to potential employees? This one is comparatively simple. You should be talking about your commitment to developing your team everywhere: on the job advert, in interviews, and on the offer letter. Be both specific (make sure every concrete thing you do – like learning budgets –  is described) and general (stress that the business has a strong culture of personal development).


Big businesses have a lot of managers. Some people thrive in an environment where they are heavily supervised… but a lot of people don’t. Especially when it tips over into micromanagement.

This really isn’t a risk in small businesses – often because there just aren’t enough people to produce the endless levels of management that larger companies have. Employees at smaller companies are much more likely to be handed a set of goals, and then left to their own devices to work out how to get there.

Bear in mind, however, that this sense of autonomy is fragile. Build the wrong culture, hire the wrong people, or just let yourself slip into being excessively controlling - and it will slip away.

This subject is huge, and there's much more to be said here – so if you're interested in finding out more, check out this post about how to transform your workplace with a culture of autonomy.

How do I communicate this to potential employees? Clearly outline the areas that potential employees will “own” during the hiring process. Stress that you’re looking for people who can work independently. Finally – if your team is still relatively small and works under one roof, bring candidates into the office. It’s one thing to talk about how you’re a small, motivated team – but if you’re able to show candidates that, you’ll make a far stronger impression.

If you really throw yourself into all three areas you’ll build a great working environment, find it much easier to keep employees from leaving for higher-paying corporate jobs, and be able to stand out from the crowd to potential hires.

However, the sad reality is that during a job search, prospective employees will take claims about culture with a hefty pinch of salt. They’ll be looking at dozens of businesses, all of which will wax lyrical about their “incredible culture”, and all the learning opportunities and independence they’ll give you – regardless of whether this is actually true. Salaries, meanwhile, are a concrete, easily-comparable number which businesses can’t really misrepresent. So while this stuff helps, to a skeptical candidate, it won’t truly win them over.

If you really want to compete with big corporates at this stage, you have to commit to one of the biggest advantages small companies have over big ones, and one of the most effective ways you can make a business stand out from the crowd:

Learn to communicate your journey

When it comes down to it, people work for money. But people work at a specific place because of the journey that business is on.

A person joining a small business is becoming part of a group of people on a journey. Small businesses usually have a singular goal, or a small group of goals, to be completed in a relatively compact time frame. That makes for an extremely compelling story, and one which people want to be a part of.

This is much, much harder in larger corporations - which usually have diverse, long-term goals. Perhaps they span several industries, or have numerous ongoing projects, all loosely aimed towards an “expand and generate profit” goal.

The journey they are on is vague, and – more often than not – unexciting.

If you successfully communicate this mission, you’ll be offering potential employees something unique and compelling, which it is almost impossible to offer at a larger business. You need to:

  • Have a clear mission statement that is brief, easy to understand and compelling
  • Ensure everyone in your business understands the mission
  • Embed that mission statement into as much of the business’ public-facing person as you can. Your marketing, website, logo, storefront – you name it – should all be built with this mission central in your mind.
  • Over time, the mission you are on might change. That’s fine. Just make sure you’re clear on what the new mission is – and that you’re doing all the previous things with this new mission.

If you do this, communicating the journey will become second-nature. You’ll have baked it into your language and the way the business operates – and prospective employees will recognise this.

Finally, if  you’re still not convinced, I’ll leave you with one last point: doing this costs basically nothing.