Maybe you’re employee #4 at a brand-spankin’-new startup. Or you’ve launched your own thing, made a couple hires (go you!), and are looking to gently coax the most productivity out of your team. Even if you can count the number of employees at your company on one hand, small teams can be mighty.
The small-team dynamic is singular. You’re agile and energized. Communication flows easily. Ideas blossom, are seen to fruition, and are celebrated (or mourned if they fail, which—let’s be real—can happen!). You feel true ownership in the company and its outcome. Not to mention that coworkers frequently become as close as family, easily trading sibling-esque banter that can make work feel like play.
But certain things that fly at big companies (like flying under the radar), are a no-go on small teams. Employees’ contributions are obvious, which means pulling your weight and then some, and also learning skills that don’t always align with your background or, frankly, job description (not necessarily a bad thing!).
One woman who knows this better than most is Alice Rossiter, the Boston-based 27-year-old founder of Alice’s Table, a new company that throws chic events in cool venues around the country, and also teaches people how to host their own workshops so they can launch a creative career or side hustle. (And you know we love a side hustle.) They just graduated from Techstars, have thrown events in half of the states in the U.S., have onboarded nearly 100 event Execs, and frequently collaborate with companies like Good Housekeeping and Country Living. And they have 6 employees. So we reached out to pick her brain for some advice on how to achieve small-team success.
What are the benefits of a small team?
With a small team communicate is much easier. We’re all on the same page about projects. In fact we all sit in the same room! We all rely on each other’s work so much that each person feels accountable to get their job done. Also a small team is great for building strong relationships.
What are some ways an employee on a small team can excel?
Being a team player is key! There are always projects that don’t clearly fall in anyone’s lap so over-performers pick up those balls and run with them. It’s also important for you to be constantly learning. You might not come in knowing anything about Facebook ads, for example, but if your company decides to give them a go, you’ll be willing to figure them out and try to make them as successful as possible.
How has your team stepped up in the past?
On a small team it’s inevitable that unexpected tasks will come up. For us it happens every week—that’s the nature of an event-focused business! My team has gone above and beyond countless times, from working through customer-care complications on the weekend, to rushing to an event after work to take photos for an exciting press opportunity that we would have otherwise missed. We’ve had to problem-solve flower deliveries going missing in the middle of the country and hurricanes canceling our flower orders. Above all, working for a small company takes agility and passion.
What’s your take on work quality vs. speed?
We all have endless task lists—even more so on a small team—so time-management is extremely important. I can be a master procrastinator, so I feel the pain! I encourage my team to set aside time each day to work on tasks that are easy to complete, in addition to dedicating blocks of time to bigger think projects. When you strategically plan out your work, it automatically sets a time limit and typically that focus produces a higher quality result. The best small-team employees don’t labor indefinitely on a single task—they just can’t! There’s not enough time! You have to make sure that ‘great’ doesn’t get in the way of ‘done.’
What’s more important: Talent or motivation?
Motivation, always! The number one skill I always look for is work ethic; someone willing to go the extra mile to find the right answer. Anyone can learn a skill if they have the drive! When I started dreaming about Alice’s Table, I didn’t know much about flowers and now I can whip up a professional arrangement in under five minutes! I am a true believe that grit is the key to success.
Would you recommend that employees learn other parts of the business?
Completely! When I launched Alice’s Table I was CEO (of myself), chief bucket washer, trash collector, customer-care agent—you name it! Understanding each team member’s role (and how your roles intersect) usually unlocks ideas for ways you can help each other out.
Should employees push for regular brainstorming sessions?
“I’ve always had the mindset that many heads are better than one. We all bring different perspectives to the table, and those contributions help keep our ideas fresh and propel our business forward. We have multiple strategy sessions as a team each week.”
What is the one skill you’d recommend all small-team employees possess?
“Everyone needs Excel skills! Tracking your data is key and as a small business you usually can’t afford all the fancy tools, but Excel always does the trick!”
On the other hand, what’s one thing that someone on a small team should never do?
Never be afraid to ask questions. For example, we just closed our first round of fundraising. I encouraged everyone to ask questions because it was important to me that everyone on my team knew what was going on, and why we were making certain decisions as a company. We would never grow if we never asked questions, even the silly ones.
How do soft skills come into play?
As a team of six, we work extremely closely—five feet apart to be exact! Strong communication and interpersonal skills allow our team to challenge each other, but also to take time to celebrate our successes!
Startups are often encouraged to fail fast and pivot, since they usually don’t have the resources to keep a failing idea afloat. When should someone be able to realize that a certain strategy might not be working?
I always tell my team, ‘If something seems to be heading south, speak up!’ We’re all about process-building, but if a process isn’t working and is causing more mental exhaustion than progress, it’s either time to revisit, or move on all together. Since we’re constantly growing and trying out new systems, I try to remain flexible when setting timelines. Our team checks in weekly on a variety of projects to make sure we feel confident in the direction they’re heading. Identifying a roadblock is the most important step to fixing the issue and pushing the business forward!
How do the best small-team members handle failure?
Failures feel like sh*t—it’s just a fact of life. Every startup has good days and bad days (or, as we like to say, good hours and bad hours). On a small team we thrive off of each other’s energy, so, even when faced with a loss, it’s important to keep our heads up, reflect, and move forward. I’m also working harder to celebrate our victories (big and small), because taking time to enjoy the wins puts the hard times into perspective. Plus, we all need to pop a little bubbly now and again!