An Open Letter to Small Business Owners

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, count, and 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. (Click to tweet – thanks!)

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 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 lessons to be translated, learned, and repurposed for what we’re doing, too. 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.

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  1. PartyBizConnect says

    Well said. Too often we discount all the amazing work that small business does. Colleen Wainright’s 50 for 50. She raised money for a cause she loves. Her small business gave her the connections to make this possible. A lot of corporations don’t even give that much to charity. There is too many people to get on board with the cause.

    Staying small allows a business to do what is right for them and stay true to their core values.

  2. jenlouden says

    and far better to create what matters to you, and adds real value to others, with far less stress on the earth’s resources, than make/buy/participate in the story of BIG for big’s sake. This is a fantastic piece Charlie that excites me so much – I love the idea of small business being a huge part of the solution.

  3. c_castigliano says

    Thanks for showing us that “biggering” is not always “bettering.” Reminds me of Dr. Suess’ Lorax. The biggering mindset is a deep river of need that is never fulfilled, when actually getting that carrot of great wealth tends to isolate us. Small is faithful, small is wise, small is geniune.

  4. karriflatla says

    Timely post, Charlie 😉

    I agree that the message to “be bigger than ever!” is getting tired, trite, and for some, can be damaging when taken too far — both for the customer and the business owner (Exhibit A: the coaching industry).

    There’s a LOT of ego involved in the current conversation “out there” about Big Business but most skirts the real issues (finance, economics, legislation, the consumer culture, entitlement, how we vote, and ultimately how corruption can prosper within “Big” while free societies stand by and even sign up for more). People are pissed right now because greed, apathy and ego got the better of them. But it doesn’t mean Big is Bad.

    At the same time, the “romaticization” of small is a bit concerning. Small businesses employ — and turn over — a LOT of people. The failure rate is extremely high. And working oneself to the bone for very little pay isn’t the story we hear but it’s the story of many, many small businesses (maybe even most). It’s not sustainable for a lot of families and thus building something *scalable* to a degree makes more sense.

    So one isn’t better than another, yet I’ve noticed that it’s become fashionable to call down BIG (and protest it) which is disturbing. Big is fine. Small is fine. Big permits economies of scale that some kinds of progress require. It also permits inscrutable mechanisms for deception. Small permits a transactional intimacy that, we hope, facilitates honesty and accountability. Yet we know that this is a slippery argument at best.

    Thanks for posting Charlie. I hope the conversation grows around this one. I don’t think we’ve quite hit the nerve of the problem yet, but we’re getting there :)


    • worldmegan says

      Some really good points in here, and I want to add one: Big is fine, small is fine, and big for the sake of big — instead of for a well thought-out purpose, the need to be scalable in order to be sustainable, etc. — is not so fine. I wonder if a lot of the stuff we’re seeing protesting “big” is more about protesting “big for the sake of big”. Curious!

  5. Jenny Foss says

    Stay human. I like this sentence the best.

    This post should also serve as a reminder to some of the “big league bloggers who blog about blogging” that attempted make the “seven-figure, blast-off-or-perish” method of entrepreneurship an expected standard.

    Some people are more than content with being a smaller-scale, genuine, profitable craftsperson.

    Very well said, Charlie.

  6. Ben Breen says

    You make some great points there Charlie.

    For me, the starting point is ‘meaning’, and so scaling a business is not an end in itself. Few businesses even start out with that mindset, let alone keep it going. Which ironically is why so many of them fail: to either make money or to grow.

    If a business has a clear purpose (not growth for growth’s sake) for its owner, as well as for it’s customers, staff and partners then everything else should flow from there…including whether & by how much the business grows.

  7. says

    Great post!

    I’ve had a beef with the big push in biz and marketing circles to “leverage” everything. Sometimes, it seems to me that what gets lost is the very intimacy of delivery that makes something magical in the first place.

    Business is confounding at times because it asks you simultaneously to learn the rules, and break them, in order to succeed. I am still working on figuring out which to do when.

  8. Max Bumisanti says

    Like karriflats said, this was a timely post. Sometimes when you look at the size of your business, you start to compare your business and yourself to others. I think this is called business suicide ( ok a little melodramatic). I guess my point is don’t follow other peoples vision or ideal for your business. If staying small works for you…then your already ahead of the curve. So few people find what works for them

  9. says

    Jim Collins actually sites “growth for growth’s sake” as the beginning of the fall in his book “How the Mighty Fall”. There are businesses that are too small to be sustainable, and they must grow; but small businesses are more human, and people can find more meaning there. That’s why I choose to work with them!

    Thanks for putting that to words!

  10. says

    It’s ok to grow while continue to focus on people, but soonwe or later you could come to the point where that things doesn’t mix together and I could not find out why is it so?

  11. says

    Good post, Charlie. I personally believe that your comment about being the right size of small is most likely to lead to optimal happiness. I’ve worked in very large, large, mid-sized, and small organizations and there are obvious pro’s and con’s to working in all of these kinds of entities from a worker’s perspective. But from a business owner’s perspective, I’ve found that my clients (most of whom are entrepreneurs and business owners) are most likely to be happy with a medium-small business. It’s not so large that you have major office politics or heavy overhead; and it’s not so small that everything lands on you and you can’t take a vacation (or earn money while on that vacation).

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