An Open Letter to Small Business Owners
Stay small. Stay focused. Stay agile. Stay human. What you do matters.
Thank you for being in business. Yes, it can be hard, but you also know how rewarding it can be.
There is a lot of pressure for you to be bigger, or act bigger, than you are. There are plenty of people who think you should be focused on selling your business, being acquired by another business, or building a business that scales to make room for loads of employees or investors.
Yet so much of that counsel never considers the fact that maybe you want to stay small. Or it considers staying small the inferior mindset of second-rate entrepreneurs or executives. It never questions the unconscious assumptions of the value of growth for growth’s sake or the virtues of running a people-focused small business. And it rarely looks at the societal and environmental consequences that lie in the wake of businesses with the manifest destiny to dominate markets by driving humans like cart-pulling oxen.
Business experts also like to point out that bigger businesses hire more employees, thus providing more jobs than a small business does. They look at the 5% of the businesses they can see and count and then generalize from there. They don’t see that small business owners hire their neighbors, provide human-friendly work environments by default, and contribute to their local communities. Small businesses provide the after-school and summer jobs to untrained kids that enable them to over-consume the products the big businesses are pushing. And because so much happens beneath the scale of zeroes that those experts consider worth remarking about — largely because you’ll never pay their consulting or research fees — your efforts don’t count.
Something is fundamentally wrong with our perspective when 1% of businesses are too big to fail and 90% of them are too small to matter.
There’s a discomfort that many of you are feeling about the pace of change and what it takes to keep up in today’s business world. Underneath that discomfort is the opportunity that will enable you to thrive. We live in an unprecedented time of convergence of accessible technology and a social shift away from the aberration in human development that is corporate capitalism. While people like to call this the New Economy, the reality is that it’s a return to the old village economy.
In that village, a baker bakes bread not just as product, but as food for his neighbors and community. The seamstress doesn’t have to work in a sweatshop to fill the aisles for Macy’s faceless customers. And, in this renaissance, creatives and changemakers no longer need patrons and institutions to simultaneously support and hinder their work.
There’s a time, place, and scale in which the corporate business model makes sense and it’s not going away anytime soon, as much as the entrepreneurial revolutionaries believe otherwise. It’s a power system that will endure precisely because it has the power to influence the broader elements of our society.
But there are many, many contexts in which keeping your business small is the smarter, more profitable, and more human option. Staying at the right size of small enables you to focus on your customers, clients, employees, and community; you don’t have to introduce the principles-changing element of faceless and profit-and-growth-minded investors. Many of us start businesses not because we want to sell, be acquired, or scale to a large corporation — we start businesses because we have some specific skill, expertise, or craft that we want to focus on. Michael Gerber be damned, we want to make the pies, not build a franchise around our pies.
I’ve had some challenging jobs in my time, but nothing has been harder than starting and running my own small business. It takes everything you’ve got and asks for more. The counter-intuitive truth is that it’s harder than working within the context of a larger organization precisely because you don’t have the access to the funds and MBAs, CPAs, and other professionals trained just to run your business. The few people in small business have to know more and do more with a lot less. (And to think I used to complain that my job as an Army logistics officer was akin to constantly trying to get 15 units of Stuff in a 10 unit bag — those were the easy days!)
Let’s get real about something else, though: there have been many, many gems cast aside when it comes to the art and science of business-building. Just because all of the rules of big business don’t work for you doesn’t mean that none of them do, yet so many of us have decided out of hand that there’s no sense in reading all that “irrelevant” stuff. Yes, I’m tired of reading about IBM, GE, Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Microsoft, and the rest, too — but there are also lessons to be translated, learned, and repurposed for what we’re doing. You can continue to recreate the wheel and learn the hard way, but is that the best use of your resources? You can be small, great, creative, fun, AND informed.
Stay small. Stay focused. Stay agile. Stay human. Keep learning the business of your craft and the craft of business. Yes, it’s hard, but you can do it. Better to play the harder game that’s right for you and win it than end up miserable because you won someone else’s game.
Thank you for being in business. What you do matters.
Charlie Gilkey is an author, business advisor, and podcaster who teaches people how to start finishing what matters most. Click here to get more tools that’ll help you be a productive, flourishing co-creator of a better tomorrow.