Better Than Business As Usual: How Smaller Businesses Can Fix the World (and Still Turn a Profit)
I’ve been in business for myself a long time. But before I started my first business, I never imagined becoming an entrepreneur. It was a label that didn’t seem to fit me well. I associated “entrepreneur” with values I didn’t share, and behaviour I didn’t want to adopt.
Hustling for the sake of hustling, for example.
“Me first” self-promotion.
You know, the grossest, lowest common denominator, makes-your-skin-crawl kind of stuff.
It bothers me a lot that while there are lots (and lots and lots) of entrepreneurs doing things differently, the top ten lists for business books and podcasts are mostly unfettered, greed- and scarcity-driven bullshit all the way down.
Bothers is putting it mildly. It makes me rage. In a don’t-get-me-started-or-we’ll-be-here-all-day kind of way.
Because here’s the thing: business doesn’t have to be like that.
We don’t have to take those approaches to build successful businesses. You don’t have to prey on people’s insecurities to sell them things. You don’t have to pretend you know everything to be taken seriously. You don’t have to throw people under the bus to get ahead.
You don’t need to exploit or harm anyone (including yourself) to make your business thrive.
You know this, because the moment you think about the places and people you love to spend your money with — your favourite restaurants, service providers, grocers, artists, and so on — certain feelings come to mind: fair exchange, respect and care for customers and colleagues, devotion to quality, contribution to community. Those businesses (to borrow a favourite turn of phrase from Tim O’Reilly) contribute more value than they capture, in tangible and intangible ways.
However, there’s a whole industry, and broader cultural forces, working to make you believe that making your business successful is inevitably in tension with, you know, wacky shit like cooperation, respectful relationships, having healthy lives outside of work, shared status and power, and generally leaving the world a better place than you found it.
And so we continue to accept as a given that businesses should extract more value than they create, which quite literally impoverishes the world — while the rest of us entrepreneurs feel like weirdos for doing things differently.
But you’re not interested in building yet another extraction-oriented business, are you?
Nah. Because you know there’s another way. Or in fact, many other ways.
Let’s talk possibility models for small biz
There are many, many other possibility models for businesses that generate healthy financial returns and contribute in other ways.
Every day, I talk to people who started their businesses because they care about craft, contribution, autonomy, purpose, and people. They weigh these five factors alongside every business decision they make, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Every time they take pains to ensure their work is of the highest quality, make the people they work with feel valued, or share knowledge with their peers, they are choosing to do business in a way that isn’t solely about maximizing profits.
And while money is absolutely a critical piece of the puzzle, these entrepreneurs’ financial ambitions aren’t unchecked: they want enough to live a comfortable life, look after their loved ones, hire the people they want to work with at good wages, and give back to the communities where they live.
This isn’t a radical thing, really — it’s not new, or “innovative,” or “social enterprise,” or whatever other buzzword you want to throw at it. These are the things that have always driven people to launch businesses, long before capitalism or globalization became things. And they continue to fuel small businesses everywhere.
But in their way, these qualities are radical, because they fly in the face of cultural messages that screech, “More! Bigger! Scale! Status!”
And because, honestly? If all businesses were focused on those five factors, our economies and our world would look very, very different.
So let’s talk about them.
Change these five things, and we change the (business) world
I think it’s fascinating that while the vast majority of entrepreneurs I’ve met, from biotech CEOs and marketing consultants to interior designers and farmers, are as clear as day that their businesses serve a purpose beyond accumulating personal wealth, the dominant narrative about business focuses on things that are diametrically opposed to the five factors I listed above.
- Craft vs Monopoly: Where most of us want to build a legacy that lives beyond us and that others can build upon, the dominant narrative tells us we ought to build monopolies and wipe out the competition.
- Contribution vs Extraction: Where most of us want to find ways to contribute more value than we capture, the dominant narrative says business is about extracting value from our customers, and from the supply chain.
- Autonomy vs Power-Over: Where most of us want the freedom to make our own choices, and for others to enjoy the same, the dominant narrative says business is about status and dominance, and maintaining status quo power relationships.
- Purpose vs Unfettered Growth: Where most of us want meaningful growth, the dominant narrative says business success looks like unlimited, accelerated scale.
- People vs Wealth Concentration: Where most of us want to give back to our communities, and do business in ways that benefit all the stakeholders we’re connected to, the dominant narrative tells us that business is about maximizing shareholder returns, and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.
As I’ve been collecting my thoughts on this subject, several things have dawned on me.
First, these five factors have real and crucial consequences for small businesses. While most small business owners care about craft, contribution, autonomy, purpose, and people, the businesses that are focused on monopoly, extraction, power-over, unfettered growth, and wealth concentration are making life hard for the rest of us. Just look at what Amazon did to independent booksellers (and now the rest of retail), or how Monsanto has bullied farmers.
Second, there are micro and macro levels to each of these five factors. Or to put it another way, there’s a “feel-good” factor to each — in much the same way it feels great to buy your eggs from someone you know takes good care of their hens— but there are also real rewards to be reaped from them. These include both benefits to your business, like higher customer retention and profit margins, as well as collective ones, like better economic opportunities for all and ecological sustainability. (Unfettered growth, for example, is incompatible with keeping the Earth a safe place to live. And yet we persist in using it as a primary measure of economic health.)
Third, and perhaps most nerve-wracking for me to say aloud, because it feels so radical: the way most of us small business owners do business is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism as it’s currently practiced, or what I’ve started calling unfettered capitalism. Because that dominant narrative I keep talking about? And those five oppositional points to the things we care about? They are quite literally part of the definition of capitalism.
More on that another time, though, because that’s a whole can of worms, and then some.
A brief sidebar about B corps, etc.
I know I’m not the first to write about this, by the way. There are the B Corp people, the BALLE folks, the Zebras, the green economy people and so on and so forth. I love them and what they’re doing, and yet for various reasons I’ve never felt quite like my own businesses fit squarely in those categories.
For instance, my first business was a straight-up, for-profit, privately held web design studio, but we had a values-driven approach and worked almost exclusively with nonprofit organizations. Were we a social enterprise? Nope. Did we pursue B Corp certification? Again, no. We weren’t a Zebra, because we weren’t a startup per se. We definitely weren’t “green,” because how do you make a web design studio green? (OK, eco-friendly server farms, sure, but we didn’t sell hosting.) And our clients were global, so focusing on local economies didn’t seem like an obvious fit, even though we were very active in our local community.
But to be honest, I‘ve just never been much for joining things. My companies have both been small, and designed to stay that way, and certification processes tended not to rise up high enough on my priority list unless they were legally required.
What’s always mattered to me far more than a piece of paper, or a logo I can put on my website, is learning, and sharing knowledge. And I think we all have a lot to learn from each other about this stuff — way beyond the conversations that are happening among the folx who find these various identities and umbrellas meaningful.
So, back to my point:
Now, almost twenty years after launching my first business, I remain obsessed with the question of how small businesses can redefine — and are redefining — business as usual. And I don’t just mean businesses like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, fascinating as those companies are.
I’m interested in small businesses in particular: in part because 89% (or 98%, depending on how you crunch the numbers) of businesses in the US have fewer than 20 employees, but also because to use a well-worn metaphor, it is easier to change the course of a small boat than of a huge vessel. Small organizations are typically more agile and open to doing things differently than large ones.
I think small-scale entrepreneurs are leading the way on redefining business, but because of our size, we don’t hear enough about the awesome stuff we’re doing.
I want to hear about…
- Solopreneurs who are testing out more inclusive pricing models;
- Creators who are designing businesses around their craft, and finding innovative ways to finance their art;
- Service providers who have put cooperation at the centre of their model;
- Co-ops and collectives that are wrestling with the nitty-gritty of inclusion, equality, and shared power;
- Product designers that have gone beyond the “buy one, give one” model to build deeper collaborations and mutuality with their suppliers and stakeholders;
- Entrepreneurs who are redefining growth and scale to take “enough-ness” into account;
- Business owners who have built things slooooooooowly rather than, y’know, moving fast and breaking things;
- People working to create value at every step of the supply chain;
- Leaders who are working on being more transparent, values-driven, and accountable in the workplace;
- Companies that are leading the way on people-first workplaces and figuring out better approaches to diversity and inclusion, physical and psychological wellbeing, etc.; and
- Different ways to measure success and contribution.
And that’s just for starters.
What I would really love is to hear what you get excited about when you think about the way you’re doing business. And I want to hear your rants: the stuff about the business world that makes you squirrelly, and drives you to do things differently.
Oh, and I want to hear who else you think of as entrepreneurial possibility models.
Are you in? Let’s talk.
I’m all about curiosity and asking good questions, so if this has sparked something for you, I’d love to hear about it.
Here are three possibilities:
- Treat this as a curiosity experiment. Ask yourself the questions above (what excites you about how you’re doing business; your rant about the business world; and your fave possibility models) — and if you want to share your answers with me, drop me a line. (I’m lb at laurenbacon dot com.)
- Talk to me 1:1. I’m setting aside several hours a week to have one-on-one conversations with business owners who are curious about the questions I’ve raised here. No sales pitch, no cost, no agenda — just a 30-minute phone/video chat to hear what’s on your mind, share ideas, and perhaps even address a challenge or two in your business.
- Record an interview. Maybe you’ve got a business model you want to share with others, or an idea you want to spread — something you want to explore out loud, and that could benefit other businesses. Hit me up and let’s find a time to record something for my podcast (launching later this year).
I’m indebted to the work, writing, and possibility models put forward by Tim O’Reilly, Otto Scharmer, Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz & Aniyia Williams (and in particular, “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break”), CV Harquail, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Bryce Roberts, Sarah Bray, and Andréa Ranae Johnson — and to Channing Rodman and Lauren Sinreich for helping me clarify my ideas.