• ESAE

Empowering SMEs Through a Brussels-Based Association: Turning Weakness into Strength

Sebastiano Toffaletti, Secretary General, at our members, the European DIGITAL SME Alliance, tells the story of how his association has grown, setting the narrative right and recruiting the right talent.


Among thousands of lobbying organizations and associations in Brussels, only a handful focus exclusively on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Professional lobbyists often claim to defend the cause of SMEs or start-ups because this argument alone yields support, or at least sympathy, from policymakers.


Running an association that only represents small and medium-sized enterprises is a difficult task. SMEs are many and everywhere; they represent 99% of all businesses in the EU, or approximately 24 million. While altogether they are certainly a good pot of money for professional lobbyists, the economics of selling representation services are not that simple. Firstly, most SMEs do not perceive a need to be represented or even the possibility for them to influence EU legislation. Secondly, SMEs are a very diverse group, so it is hard to address them with a single selling proposition.


Even if an SME association manages to secure the budget, the recruitment of a skilled team is a challenge. You indeed compete against the other private employers on the market: the lobbyists of Big Tech or associations representing big companies. That can only raise your bar because these companies and associations can offer competitive salaries, benefits, and visibility. The more EU legislators target a certain type of company, such as Big Tech to take one recent example, the more you can expect those companies to invest in attracting the best people.


DIGITAL SME’S SUCCESS STORY

At the European DIGITAL SME Alliance, we have managed to do it right and today the association represents over 45,000 SMEs in Europe through over 30 regional and national member associations. We engage with over 450 experts through 10 working groups, and have been involved in over 100 projects. The organization has grown exponentially in every aspect - from membership to staff, from policy impact to projects acquisition. Today, DIGITAL SME has become the largest European network of small and medium sized ICT companies, without receiving any funding from big enterprises or other private investors outside the SME community.


A key to this success has been to set the right narrative. Europe’s digital SMEs do not want to be seen just as users of Big Tech digital solutions, but rather as innovators and digital champions themselves. DIGITAL SME has leveraged the self-confidence of entrepreneurs to shape a positive message that European tech companies, especially SMEs and start-ups, are drivers of innovation and digitalization.


BUILDING THE DREAM TEAM

To succeed in our ambitious goals, we needed to build a team of professionals that could make things happen. Leveraging the positive narrative of SMEs as champions of Europe’s digitalization has been key not just outside but also inside our organization. On one hand, it served well to acquire new members and to enhance the association’s visibility towards policymakers. On the other, the same narrative was important to attract the best talents, the professionals who are not just after a good salary but who also want to work for a positive mission.


While we were still a “one-man show” half a decade ago, the DIGITAL SME team is now made up of 15 professionals. It is a very diverse group with varied backgrounds and 10 different nationalities, but all share a commitment to make SMEs the front runners of Europe’s digital innovation. A significant part of this growth has happened during the pandemic. Remote recruitment and onboarding can be challenging, but also effective – although we were all quite relieved to be back to the current hybrid set-up!


One of the main issues we faced when onboarding staff remotely was the different perceptions of company culture and employee engagement. Despite providing regular occasions for meeting and discussing hot topics online (as well as company policies, HR procedures, etc.), the feeling that colleagues were less accessible(and therefore less connected) was a hard one to fight. It took an intentional effort to schedule team and one-to-one meetings on a daily or weekly basis to build an open and welcoming environment while trying to avoid the infamous “Zoom fatigue”.


One additional step we took was to organize little social outings (in compliance with current sanitary restrictions), such as team walks in the park, to discuss current projects or simply exchange life updates.


Of course, it was a learning experience for all of us and we are still on a path to improve, but it translated into a good retention rate, considering the overall challenging period!


We have now established a hybrid set-up where all team members are free to organize their time between the office and home depending on their tasks and personal preferences. The most common pattern is 3 days in the office / 2 days at home, except for newcomers, who are asked to spend more time in the office for the first 6 months of their assignment. This is not a way of controlling them, but simply to ensure optimal exchange of information and learning opportunities.


Of course, when you are a small, non-profit association working in the digital field in a market as competitive as Brussels, snatching (and retaining!) the right talent from the Big Tech competition is not an easy task. Having built an inclusive, supportive, and result-oriented company culture sets DIGITAL SME aside and allows professionals from different backgrounds and walks of life to find purpose and fulfilment in their daily work. We believe that we are at our best when we do a job we fully enjoy, therefore we encourage and support our staff to become real experts in their field and build on their talents, even when they fall outside of the scope of their initial job description.


One of our leading principles is “hire the attitude and train the skill”, which proved to be an efficient way to gather a team of motivated self-starters. The fact that we have a strong community of experts and SME members, who invest their time and share their knowledge for our common cause and choose to support our team on top of their “day jobs”, is an additional motivator for most of all of us.


THE LONG WAY AHEAD

There is no doubt that we have come a long way since the association started 14 years ago, but there is still so much work to be done. Running an SME association and doing it right is a challenge and – at the same time - a unique experience which requires the right mix of ingredients to be successful – a strong ethic, team, and network.


This article was originally published by our partners at BoardRoom Magazine.