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Moving to a Smaller Firm – Getting Ready for Success


A frequent conversation I have with fellow candidates is the desire to seek employment in a smaller firm due to expected greater, ability to influence the outcome and generally less office politics.  (Bonus: If you are in a start-up, you can add the expectations to wear jeans and use an Mac vs. a pc).

Having myself worked in a 60,000 employee firm, 120 person firm, and a 4 person firm, there is truth in that you have more influence on the outcome in a smaller firm.  This is just one element to consider in your decision.

Before pursuing a smaller company, give some consideration on the type of company that fits you.  A colleague of mine drew up this grid and while it makes some generalizations, it’s a good starting place to think about what type of company fits you. 

To help you get prepared for possible networking/interviews, here’s a few of lessons to keep in mind that will help in what questions to ask and how to answer questions.

One: You have to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.   My colleagues learned what I was good at and what I was not in quick fashion, and I did the same with them.  The sign of a good team is that you figure out how to compensate for one another.

Two: You do not have a big team to back you up.  As CFO, I have gone from designing our chart of accounts to pitching for $2 million of investment in the same afternoon.  I’ve also designed pages on our website and developed our initial social media strategy.  You just need to be ready to work above, at, below and alongside your title.

Three: You need to think like an owner.  In a small firm, business gets down to the bare essentials: Client needs, sales levels, spending and available cash/capital.  You have to watch each like a hawk and understand what drives each one.  

Four: The good news: A small team that talks often.  The bad news: You talk often.  You need to keep up your outside network to make sure you get an unbiased opinion of your strategy, etc.

Five: Personalities play a bigger role.  One of benefits of a big company is you can always find indirect ways to work with the PITAs (Pain in the ….) so you can accomplish your work with less hassle. It’s one-on-one in a smaller firm; you need to learn how to manage dealing the PITAs on a daily basis (chances are they are not going to change).  The management team’s personalities influence the culture, so make sure you feel comfortable with their style.

Six: Tighter focus. Dreams are interesting, but what you can accomplish is relevant.  Smaller companies succeed because of their ability to deliver a narrow band of service or products.  You simply need to balance your dreams of potential clients, products, etc. with available capital and talent to pursue.  Everyone can see the growth, but what small firms need are people willing to grind it out to give them the chance to pursue.

If you start looking at a smaller firm, sit down with a few colleagues who have made the transition to get their insights and use your network to learn what you can about the key team members.  

Good luck today.

Mark Richards


Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, |

Seven: The grass may not be greener. Many owners (assuming you are not an equal owner) have problems releasing authority, delegating, and listening to your sage advice.

Topic Expert
Keith Perry
Title: Consulting CFO and Business Operations A..
Company: Growth Accelerator
(Consulting CFO and Business Operations Advisor, Growth Accelerator) |

Eight: There may be no going back. Success in a smaller company may mean staying small, exiting through an M&A rather than a $B IPO, etc. This means the teams you've run may be in the single-digits. I've gotten substantial direct feedback recently from larger companies specifically avoiding finance/accounting people who don't have recent large-company experience. It may just be a random filter used to shrink the large pools of candidates, but it is a word of caution.

Topic Expert
Mark Richards
Title: VP of Finance & Operations
Company: RBA Consulting
(VP of Finance & Operations, RBA Consulting) |

#7 - So true.

Wayne raises an excellent point - the CEO not ready to share decision making is usually the downfall of many first time CFOs in small/mid-size firms.

Topic Expert
Mark Richards
Title: VP of Finance & Operations
Company: RBA Consulting
(VP of Finance & Operations, RBA Consulting) |

#8 - Another valid issue to consider.

Many people within large firms may lack the perspective of a what a small company can offer because they have not worked in the environment, so the value of your experience just does not translate. Here's a Proformative post that covers pitching your start-up experience to a non-startup audience.

The on-going depth of specialization, complication and change of the technical needs of a large firm can be underestimated, a small firm has it's challenges but no on this scale - especially if starting adding global reach.