Small Business Trends

Employee Autonomy: How Your Small Business Can Win the Talent War

Published by in Small Business Trends

The tech talent war is top-of-mind for small- and midsize-business (SMB) owners.

When Capterra surveyed 699 of them in 2017, 39% cited “hiring the right talent” as their key concern (learn more about our methodology here).

It’s tough to find and hire top talent right now, and it’s going to get only harder in the future.

Employee Autonomy: How Your Small Business Can Win the Talent War

Why will the war for talent worsen?

Today’s wave of disruptive technologies—including artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, and the internet of things (IoT)—will create a wave of new jobs. Analysts predict that the IoT alone will yield 4.5 million new jobs within the next five years.

Meanwhile, many economists say that AI could have the same impact on job growth as electricity did. As a result, demand for AI engineers comes from sectors beyond tech, including retail and manufacturing.

Consumer demand for emerging tech far outpaces the number of people who can build it; Element AI estimates that just 22,000 people worldwide are qualified to do advanced AI research. So, it’s not unheard of for those brilliant few to earn salaries into the millions.

If you’re like most SMBs, you can’t match money like that. But here’s the good news: You might not have to.

The role of employee autonomy

Engineers care more about the problems they’ll solve than salary and benefits. And it’s not just technical talent: Last year, 86% of respondents to a LinkedIn survey said they would consider taking a pay cut to work for a company whose mission and values aligned with their own.

When it comes to values, research shows that one trumps all: Employee autonomy.

According to Peter Martel of Harvard Business School, businesses with highly engaged teams increased profitability by 21% and output quality by 40%.

Further research from Harvard found that 96% of U.S. professionals say they need flexibility from work, but just 47% say that they have it.

If you’re a small-business owner, you can’t match Google’s salaries and stock options. But you can emphasize the autonomy you’ll offer—and attract candidates that want it.

case study banner

Dary Merckens knows the value of employee autonomy. After four years building products for, the Georgia Tech grad joined Gunner Technology—founded by his friend and former colleague Cody Swann—within the company’s first year.

Today, Merckens works as the company’s CTO, managing the 13 members of Gunner’s technical team (they have a total 19 employees).

Merckens tells Capterra that it’s hard not to miss the benefits of working for a big brand, such as catered meals and company clout. But he stresses that employee autonomy in the right small-business culture outweighs them all.

Autonomy is far and away the dominant factor in job satisfaction for me,” Merckens says. “I live simply and way below my means. I’ve never been a stickler for salary and benefits. They’re certainly nice, but freedom is paramount in this world.”

To help you recruit the right talent for your own small business, we asked Merckens for his tips to position your role as the right fit for top talent that wants employee autonomy.

Through his responses, you’ll learn:

  • The real reason some employees want to work for big brands
  • When to take a risk on hiring creative people for technical roles
  • What will persuade top talent to take a chance on your small business
  • How to give employees autonomy over benefits as you scale
  • Why tech advancements, including AI and the IoT, might benefit your business
  • How to hire talent with a “stakeholder” mindset
  • Why employee autonomy helps retain top talent

Q | What was Gunner’s biggest hiring challenge when the company first started? How (if at all) has this challenge evolved throughout Gunner’s growth?

A | Honestly, we were lucky that hiring wasn’t more of a challenge for us. But the biggest hiring challenge is convincing hires that Gunner is going to be around. It’s a huge risk working for a small company versus working for an established one.

People are more confident working for a Google or a Microsoft because there’s added security. But if you have a track record of success and growth and can show potential hires your plan for future success, it really isn’t that tough to get people hyped to work for your company.

Q | It’s often said that the most talented employees aren’t looking for work. How has Gunner successfully recruited talent?

A | As a small business, you have to get really good at seeing potential. It’s almost like “Moneyball.” All of those players that the Oakland A’s realized were incredibly undervalued were insanely talented but most were looking for work. You have to do the same thing with your company.

For example, we’re always interested in candidates who have worked on a long-term project, even if it’s completely unrelated to technology. If someone wrote a symphony in college and got a recording made and figured out a way to get it performed live at a concert hall … that kind of dedication, creativity, and hard work will probably translate to a technical position.

Maybe they’ve never worked in tech before, so it’s a big risk to bring them on board, but you can be reasonably confident that they’ll be incredibly talented.

Q | Which benefits of working for a small business have you found resonate the most with candidates for roles at Gunner?

A | Cody and I worked on a number of really cool projects in the early days as lead programmers. Once we had a bunch of cool projects under our belt, it was much easier to pitch Gunner Technology as an awesome place to work.

“Look at all the fun stuff you’ll be able to build” is a great way to be able to sell your company to potential employees.

Q | Have you evolved Gunner’s benefits and culture based on feedback from job candidates? If so, how?

A | We’re always striving to make Gunner’s culture the best that it can be. That sounds like a platitude, but it’s the truth. One thing we’ve done based on feedback from a number of clients is adding additional benefits like gym memberships and travel compensation.

Those kinds of things are obviously the “nice to have” but not “necessary to have” features I was talking about [previously], but some people really do like having those benefits available and it makes people more eager to join the company.

Q | Over the next five years, consumer demand for new technologies such as AI and the IoT will far outpace the supply of people with the skills to research and build these systems. What’s the main thing small businesses can do to compete with Top five tech firms for the talent they need to grow?

A | Honestly, I’m not sure I buy the premise. I really don’t think demand will outpace resources. That’s often said, but I don’t think it’s going to prove to be the case.

One major reason is that AI itself is going to free up a ton of technological resources through automation, artificial designs, and code generation. Those resources are going to retrain in fields like AI and IoT, so there will soon be a wealth of resources to meet the demand.

So I don’t think small businesses need to worry, honestly. The talent will be there. Your company obviously needs to stay on top of trends in the industry, but I wouldn’t worry about hiring.

Q | If you could give small-business owners one piece of advice for how to recruit talent, what would it be?

A | Emphasize the self-driven nature of your company. If you’re [an] SMB owner like me or Cody, the talent you’re going to hire is going to be largely individuals who want really high ceilings. Otherwise, they’d go work at a big company where the upside is minimal but the security is high.

You have a major advantage as an SMB owner being able to pitch your company as a place where someone with enough energy and talent can thrive as opposed to getting overwhelmed with corporate bureaucracy.

We’ve had developers become shareholders and move into management positions. We’ve spun off subsidiaries that are part-owned by employees. The SMB is just infinitely more exciting to work in.

Q | And once that top talent’s in the door, what’s the most crucial thing that small businesses must do to retain their employees?

A | Just make your company a great place to work. Easier said than done, right? But it’s how you retain employees. And I think you do that by creating an empowering culture.

Give people freedom to succeed. Hire self-driven people who will jump at every opportunity and push themselves and others to accomplish more.

If you let your employees know how crucial they are to the company’s success and celebrate their efforts appropriately, they’ll understand how valued they are and they won’t want to leave.

You just need to make your company a place where everyone wants to succeed, everyone can succeed, and everyone actually does succeed. That’s pretty abstract, I know, but there’s really no magic secret there—if there was, everyone would do it.

It just takes a ton of trial and error and a whole bunch of luck.


Between April 19 and May 15, 2017, we surveyed 699 SMB leaders of U.S.-based, for-profit businesses with up to 499 employees and less than $100 million USD in annual revenue. We required respondents to either be decision-makers or have significant influence on business decisions. A team of Gartner Digital Markets analysts developed this survey, which was then reviewed by Gartner’s Research Data Analytics team.

Looking for Talent Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Talent Management software solutions.

About the Author

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo leads business intelligence research at Capterra, which matches software shoppers with the right tools and technologies to grow their businesses. As an analyst, Lauren’s areas of interest include speech and natural language tools, data mining techniques, predictive analytics, and building a business case for data science. She has presented her research on bias in AI at Princeton and Columbia Universities, Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, and Google DevFest DC, among others. She is also a member of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Distinguished Speakers Program.


No comments yet. Be the first!

Comment on this article:

Comment Guidelines:
All comments are moderated before publication and must meet our guidelines. Comments must be substantive, professional, and avoid self promotion. Moderators use discretion when approving comments.

For example, comments may not:
• Contain personal information like phone numbers or email addresses
• Be self-promotional or link to other websites
• Contain hateful or disparaging language
• Use fake names or spam content
Your privacy is important to us. Check out our Privacy Policy.