The secrets of businesses that go the Extra Mile

A solid playlist, a tank full of gas, and hair flying in the wind. From the Golden State to the Sunshine State, we hit the road to uncover the top small businesses that go above and beyond for their teams and communities. The kicker? When it came to the secrets to their success, each company kept bringing up the same things, despite being separated by industries, size, and state lines. All those repeat answers didn’t make us cringe. It revealed something incredible — these secrets must actually work.

In this series, we’ll show you these companies’ secrets in all their glory, along with actionable things you can do today to follow in their footsteps (or tire marks, train tracks, plane lines… you get the idea).

When you’re a tiny company, hopscotching through the hiring hoops can be an annoying game to play. It’s basically like the business version of an endless round of twenty questions. You’re too strapped to spend time on all that soul-searching and interviewing, but you also need to spend time on that if you want to bring on the best people for the job. Others feel the pinch too — SCORE found that 42 percent of small businesses say hiring is their biggest obstacle to overcome.

So how can you make it easier to find the best talent out there? Here are the top secrets a few small businesses swear by to make the hiring world a whole lot less tiring.

Always look for your “sharks”

Subculture Corsets — a specialty retail store in Jacksonville, Florida — rakes in a not-so-tiny $1 million per year in sales. One of their secrets to success? They’re always on the hunt for amazing salespeople — or “sharks,” as owner Tom Hand describes his team. “My wife, myself, our daughters — we go out and handpick them from restaurants, the theatre business, or other retail establishments in the area.” Tom and his family use this always-on method because it ups the odds of identifying the right people for Subculture. “We call them ‘sharks’ because they have to have a certain drive and motivation, and that’s what we look for.”

Subculture Corsets & Clothing

Tom and his family are onto something. LinkedIn found that there are three times as many passive job seekers than active ones these days. When you need someone right away, it can be a huge boon to already have a great candidate swimming in your back pocket.

But maybe you don’t need a pool full of sharks to boost your success. Especially if you run, say, a preschool. Twenty-six hundred miles away in San Luis Obispo, California, someone else is always on the lookout for stellar people. Kim Love, owner of Bright Life Playschool, actively seeks teachers who jive with her educational philosophy. If candidates don’t, that’s okay, because then it’s easy to make a call quickly. “It doesn’t matter whether they have a master’s degree in early childhood education,” she explains. “If they don’t have the warmth and ability to connect with each child, it won’t work.”

Keep an eye out for the right traits

Before you have your feelers out, you need to know what to look for. According to LinkedIn, 80 percent of small businesses are able to hire successful folks by weighing a person’s potential along with more traditional factors, like whether they have the right work experience.

For many companies, interviewing for culture fit is an important part of the interview process. Perks is a software company in Little Rock that was recently named one of the “Best Places to Work” in Arkansas. The team identifies a few key traits all candidates must have to ensure that they’re the best fit. According to Finance Director Tracy Cooper, Perks employees are open-minded, hardworking, fun, and people who don’t “take themselves too seriously.” Therefore, the company tries to uncover those qualities through the interview process by asking questions about what people care about, not just if they can do the work or not.

The top-rated Yelp business in Phoenix, Arizona just so happens to be a pest control company called Insectek Pest Solutions. At Insectek, owners Ben and Jenny McAvoy use a similar philosophy during their interview process. They aim to find folks who take pride in their work, “and take it personally if they don’t.” Ben explains that while interviewing people, he “drills down on their attention to detail,” which he believes “goes hand-in-hand with personal integrity.” Insectek service professionals enter people’s homes on a daily basis, so those qualities are essential. “In an industry where a crucial part of the service is to make customers feel safe and secure in allowing what’s otherwise a stranger into their homes, integrity and pride go a long way.”

Insectek Pest Solutions van

Sample interview questions

Once you understand the qualities of star employees, get creative with questions that will help you find even more incredible people for your team:

InnovativeThis one is courtesy of Peter Thiel: Tell me about something you believe in that most people don’t.
Self-awareWhat’s one way people often misunderstand you? Why?
AutonomousGive me an example of when something went wrong at work and how you made it right.
PassionateWhat was the best job you ever had? Why did you love it so much?

Don’t stop once the offer’s signed

After someone’s offer letter is signed and stored, keep up the same excitement you had when you first met them. This can translate into a variety of tactics, from establishing a meaningful onboarding process to providing an enriching array of learning opportunities. Research backs up this approach too. UrbanBound found that employees who go through longer onboarding programs are up to speed 34 percent faster than those who go through shorter (or non-existent) programs. That means folks can jump right into their roles four months quicker than the average non-onboarded person.

At Paws and Stripes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, CEO Lindsey Stanek sees those first rosy weeks when an employee starts as a chance to form new relationships. And the more casual, the better. “With new hires, I’ll have lunch with them to get to know them. It’s not coordinated quality time. It’s more or less stopping and talking to them, asking how their weekend was.” She also makes sure to take a pulse on the team as a whole, sometimes spending the first half of a meeting to see how people in the group are doing. “I just check in and make sure they’re getting the support they need.”

Paws and Stripes welcome wall

Kristi Aragon of Two Knives Catering stresses the importance of providing people with educational opportunities right when they become a part of the team, whether through online classes or real-life experiences. Her employees recently attended a two-week workshop at the San Francisco Baking Institute to bake their hearts out and bare their hearts to each other. Says Kristi, “All I want is to give my employees just as many opportunities to learn as I’ve had.”

Ben from Insectek echoes Kristi’s philosophy. He believes in learning about the team’s life goals as soon as he meets them. Then, he does what he can to support them in that, no matter if it’s with his company or not. “We hire great people,” says Ben. “And what great people do is get better, and then they move on to bigger and better things.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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