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Startup Perks Wal-Mart and Amazon Can Never Offer

Big-name companies can offer perks like treadmill workstations and foosball tables, but there are certain startup perks they can never give employees.
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Wal-Mart is trying to change its culture in order to compete with its latest and most dangerous rival ever, Amazon. Its  biggest challenge, it seems, is to bring in the right kind of people, particularly technologists and engineers, to help support big data, online and mobile objectives.  The New York Times ran a story about the mega-retailer's efforts including "recruiting billboards on Highway 101; workplace perks like treadmill workstations and foosball tables; and conference rooms named after celebrities like Rihanna and Justin Bieber " in its Bay Area office. 

It must be great to be Wal-Mart. Or Amazon. Or any big company. They can throw millions around, recruit the best and the brightest, advertise for people on billboards and don’t even get embarrassed by naming their conference rooms after pop stars. This may be their real world. But, as small-business owners, it's not ours.

In the entrepreneur's real world, we struggle to find, compensate and keep good people. All business owners are faced with this challenge. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? How do we even compete against big companies? Why wouldn’t any young person prefer to work for a big name like Wal-Mart or Amazon or Google? We certainly can't afford their perks and benefits.

But with all the cash and glory, something ultimately happens to most of the young talent who go to work at big companies. They leave. They start-up their own companies or join other startups. They move back home to work in their family business. The ones who stay, remaining for a decade or two, do so because they enjoy the stability, the corporate life and the extra money. I know a lot of these people. Without exception, every one of them wonders what it would be like to be an entrepreneur. Some have accepted that they’ll never be entrepreneurial. Others just don’t have the guts or financial resources to try. 

Sure, go ahead and work for Wal-Mart, or any big company. Take the paycheck. Enjoy the health plan. But if you do, get ready to sign over your soul, spend your young life in close cubicles and stuffy conference rooms -- hopefully not named after Justin Bieber -- working on the next big internal project with unreasonable self-imposed deadlines so your boss and his or her boss and their CEO will look great in front of the shareholders -- the ones, in the end, who really make the money. 

I'm not being facetious here. This is great experience. Everyone who wants to be in the business world should do it for a while. Because after a while, you’ll probably quit and wind up at a smaller company. Why?

A small business can’t offer the money, the benefits, glory and sex appeal of working for a big company. But a good small business can offer other, more important intangible things. More empathetic ownership (Do you know how much it costs a small business to lose a good employee?) A flexible, less bureaucratic place to work. More lifestyle balance. A family away from your family. The appeal of a team trying to change the world against the evil goliaths. A sense of independence. A shot at potentially hitting it big and getting a piece of that. Or, if you’re good and loyal and farsighted enough: potential ownership.

My real world is not treadmill stations, foosball tables and conference rooms named after Rihanna and Justin Bieber. It is a world of less pay, less benefits and less perks. Yet small businesses like mine still attract talent. Why? Because for many, the upsides of working for a small business are more real than what a big company can offer.