Purpose: This micro-level study unpacks the recruitment and retention of international professionals to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The study highlights the influence of the founders' international experience when applying organisational-level (meso) policies and practices. With their insider experience as skilled migrants, we share how the founders in each of the SMEs mobilised career capital into human resource management (HRM) strategies. Design/methodology/approach: Combining literature on SMEs and skilled migrants' careers, we draw upon intelligent career theory to illuminate the recruitment and retention of self-initiated expatriates and skilled migrants in SMEs. With three SME case studies as samples–one micro, one small and one medium-sized organisation in Ireland–we consider the influence of the founders' international experience in the design and application of formal and informal HRM strategies (at the organisational level) that are operationalised to recruit and retain international talent to/in these organisations. Findings: The HRM practices in the three SME cases in this paper, each run by migrant founders, vary from formalised (for our medium-sized organisation), semi-formalised (for our small-sized organisation) to ad hoc and tailor-made (for our micro-sized organisation). These particular SMEs were often more receptive to hiring other migrants. The important role of the three SME case studies' skilled migrant founders and their own international career experiences was apparent in the particular HRM approaches they adopted. The relevance of intelligent career theory when applying micro-level findings at the meso-organisational level is shown. Originality/value: The paper presents how the international experience of founder–managers, in turn, impacts on the HRM practices and policies that are implemented to recruit and retain international employees. The study highlights how both organisation size and founder-manager international experience influence the degree of customisation of HRM practices and policies in SMEs, specifically pertaining to the recruitment and retention of self-initiated expatriates and skilled migrant employees. The heterogeneity within the sub-categories encompassed under the umbrella label of SME is emphasised; validating our case study approach, where nuance and detail of the specific organisation can be shared.