Could you work for a small business? Depends how you define small

Most of the employment pundits put their money on small businesses and startups to hire our way out of the recession and the prophecy appears to be materializing. What does that mean for IT workers?

Most of the employment pundits put their money on small businesses and startups to hire our way out of the recession and the prophecy appears to be materializing.

It's still a bumpy road, but small businesses are growing again, slowly, but surely and large companies are not, at least not adequately.

If you need a job, or need to progress your career, your most likely bet right now might be on a small business. Which begs the question can I work at a small company? Or a startup? Dino Londis, of  Generation Y StartUp, asked the same this morning on the Dice Career blog: One Way to Judge Whether a Small Company is Right for You.

It seems he was really talking about startups, not small businesses and suggested that what you find in the workplace has less to do with the logo on the building than the make up of your team.

Change in IT is now happening as quickly as it was when data was being moved from mainframes to the Web. So the type of technology the company is using may be the best measure of its culture and your fit into it, regardless of size. An enterprise that's building custom iPad apps for its sales team is likely to be more progressive than the one planning a Windows 7 deployment. To adapt the older phrase, "Don't judge a company by its size."

But it still begs the question, can I work at a small company?

What is small?

It would help to define the terms. For one thing, startups are not the same thing as small businesses. They are exactly what they say they are -- starting businesses -- and that almost always means really, really small companies. Startups are so different from all businesses, they shouldn't be mixed into a discussion of small employers vs. large employers. They're too different from both.

When most people hear the word small business they conjure the image of four staffers huddled in a cramped office w/ mismatched furniture and office equipment drawing a few hundred thousand in revenue (think Michael Scott Paper Company). Few would consider a a 400-employee operation with $5.5 million in sales a small business? The Small-Business Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those who report small businesses are hiring, consider such a company a small business.

The SBA defines small businesses by industry, but typically draw the line at fewer than 500 employees and less than $7 million in annual revenue. (500 to 1,000  employees is a mid-size business and more than 1,000 employees is a large business.) The four huddled staffers is typically referred to separately as a different category - Small-Office/Home-Office (SoHo).

Could you work there?

Could you work at a 400-employee company doing $5.5 million in revenue? Probably. Once you consider that large businesses are siloed by division, function and work site, few feel larger than that anyway. The organizational chart of such a business most likely mimics that of larger companies. Some small companies go to great pains to operate like the big business they expect to become.

Most operate very differently than larger companies. At a 400-person company you are more likely to know every employee and companies that size run flatter than -- you are more likely to be closer to decisions, decisions makers and responsibility. Your contact with the operation is greater, your insulation from failure is not.

When you go further down the numbers chart to 200-, 100-, 50- and 10-employee businesses, the differences grow exponentially.

Londis is right: Some small businesses of a decent size, do operate much the same as big business and some large employers operate teams and business units that will feel like small business. But those will be exceptions to the rule.

In any case, it's wise to explore every opportunity before making a judgment.

If you're judging a company by its size, at least be sure you have your definition of a small business correct.

Related Content: