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Deborah Sweeney, CEO of, says, 'I believe it's not the skill set you have per se but the attitude you have.'

Steven Senne/The Associated Press

As Deborah Sweeney placed her order in the drive-thru of a Starbucks near her home, she was impressed by the barista’s attitude and attention to detail. At Ms. Sweeney’s next visit, the staffer remembered her name.

Ms. Sweeney, chief executive of, was so amazed that she hired the young woman, first as a receptionist and then in customer service for the Calabasas, Calif.-based online business consultancy.

“She ended up being a rock star,” says Ms. Sweeney, who sensed that the barista “could manage an environment where there’s a lot coming at you and be able to stay responsive and keep a good attitude.”

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Small-business owners looking for new staffers in a tight job market have to be creative to compete with big companies that can offer higher salaries and better benefits. Some owners are giving up on online job boards and recruiters and relying on happenstance and good instincts to find good candidates. They’re doing more networking, and some of it, such as Ms. Sweeney’s strategy, is off the beaten track and serendipitous. With the U.S. national unemployment rate at 3.7 per cent, qualified candidates are hard to come by.

Ms. Sweeney has hired two other baristas for her company, and her operations manager found several other staffers during visits to yogurt stores.

“You can meet someone once and just say goodbye – or you see a pattern of great behaviour,” Ms. Sweeney says.

Rachel Charlupski looks for candidates for her babysitting service “everywhere.” And she found one during the holidays last December, at a car-rental counter. She was impressed with the employee who dealt with an irate, ranting customer with calm and poise.

“She was so extremely professional that I said to her once he left, ‘I need you to work for me. The phone calls we get aren’t half as bad as that was, but if you can handle someone at that level, you can work for us,’” recalls Ms. Charlupski, owner of The Babysitting Co.

With 3,000 babysitters in major cities as well as an administrative staff, Ms. Charlupski is always recruiting. Although a job candidate’s having experience with children is important, “equally important is good and positive demeanour, professional under pressure, energetic and helpful,” says Ms. Charlupski, who’s based in Miami. Clients who need help with their children are understandably emotional and under stress at times, and she watches staffers in restaurants and stores to see if they might be a good fit for her business.

Sometimes owners find hires through interactions with other business people, even customers. Carol Galle won’t actively recruit employees of the companies that are her clients, but if she’s approached by a staffer, she’s willing to say yes. Ms. Galle owns Special D Events and The Anniversary Co., two corporate-event-planning businesses in the Detroit area that work on long-term projects, giving her continuous contact with clients’ staffers.

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“The clients we work with get to know our staff, learn how we work and typically like what they see. By the end of the project, we know each other quite well and usually keep in touch,” Ms. Galle says. Six of her employees joined her companies after being clients.

Although Avi Sinai finds cold calls from salespeople annoying, he listens to their pitches – and sometimes finds a staffer.

“Sometimes, the person on the other line is good on the phone, persistent without being rude – just like the salesperson I am looking for,” says Mr. Sinai, owner of HM Capital, a real estate lender based in Los Angeles. And, if they follow up with another call or an e-mail, which is good practice for people in sales, Mr. Sinai is interested in them, even if he doesn’t care about what they’re trying to sell. He’s hired two sales staffers this year based on their calls to him.

Mr. Sinai finds this way of recruiting to be better than more traditional ways such as using online job sites. He has a staff of four, including the salespeople who cold-called him.

Networking with friends and business associates is a tried-and-true strategy for finding good candidates – owners routinely ask other, “Do you know anyone?” Joshua Stein, a commercial real estate lawyer in New York, uses the people in his network not for referrals, but to work for him. His recent hires include a former law-school student and a former associate at a big firm where Mr. Stein used to work. He prefers to hire in an organic way, when the time is right for his company and the person who wants to work for him.

“I’ve never gone out with the intent of hiring someone,” Mr. Stein says.

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Brian Conyer also networks and also uses one online tool, LinkedIn. His approach is more about relationship-building rather than recruiting for current openings. Mr. Conyer, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Giblib, a company that creates instructional videos for doctors, reaches out to people who might be a good fit, introducing himself and giving them a snapshot of the company. He’ll stay in touch, sending news about Giblib and engages prospects in an ongoing conversation.

“When I know they’re a good candidate, that’s when I pass their names along to my team. It’s been really effective,” Mr. Conyer says.

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