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The beauty of being small

A little fish swimming in a big pond explains

It is hard to believe we live in a society that still promotes, “bigger is better”. Our world has changed quite a bit this past last year due to Covid restraints. Social issues dominate the news and political strife is at an all-time high. One even gets the sense that those spreading the gospel of this current social change believe they are ushering in a new and better, more enlightened society.

My question, if we are becoming so enlightened, why does greed and “bigger is better” still command the front page of the guidebook to better living? Bigger can be something good, but so can small. Having a bigger house, shop or bank account may make the holder feel better about themselves, but it in no way automatically makes you a better person. The problem with getting bigger is bigger is never enough. Like an addictive drug that pulls you into a world of self-destruction, holding on to the thinking that dominance in your industry (or niche) is the ultimate goal can not only lead to increased stress, but possibly may lead you down the wrong path. Let me explain.

Small is a choice

When ambition to dominate tops your list of goals, the reward is a combination of money, power and ego. There is nothing wrong with any of those things on their own, but if they are your primary focus, they will shred your common sense and create an imbalance in your life. Consider the legacy of Steve Jobs. The great visionary’s overall goal was to better society, but because he was so determined to be the dominate best in business, Steve the person was neglected. He was often considered abrasive, rude and self-destructive. In the words of his wife, Laurene Powell, “like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm.”

Now I am all for success and achieving great things. We should strive for nothing less, but longevity requires balance. And let us set the record straight: we are talking about motive here, not action. Consider two shop owners with the exact same goal of creating a dominate business in their community both in profit and quality of product. That is the action part of the goal. The motive aspect, however, can create a different set of variables that affect how the action is carried out. So now let us assume that these two individuals have different motives in achieving the desired result. Motive, as the word is defined, is the reason for doing something. And a key component of this definition is the fact that motives are not always obvious but often contain a hidden agenda.

On the outside both owners want to have the same reward. But in our example, Owner A wants to grow the business by hiring the best employees (training and paying them accordingly), develop trusting relationships with suppliers (paying on time, loyalty), and beating the pavement of marketing by passionately selling what it really believes in. Owner 2 wants to hire cheap, beat suppliers down and upsell a marginal product because the average person cannot recognize quality even if it bit them on the nose. The exact same principle holds true when comparing bigger businesses to smaller; judging a business (or person) on the outside only tells part of the story. Sometimes it’s the hidden things, or motives that reveal the real treasure.

Does size matter?

Most of us reading this article work for or operate a small business. If so, you are well aware of the biases you face because your business isn’t as big as a competitor’s. Whether you are the big fish or a small one, how you perceive your company is all that really matters.

For instance, I am cognizant of the fact that I have a small company. The thing that makes it even smaller is the fact that I am a small fish swimming in a large pond. I could choose to be bigger if I moved to a small pond, but I get enjoyment out of swimming with the big fish. It is said that perception is reality. If you must be bigger just to feel relevant, than maybe you need to change the way you perceive your business.

The perception I have of my company’s image is not affected by the size of the company or the pond we are swimming in. For instance, I have worked with a leading design firm for many years. I have a great relationship with the principle and am in consideration for various sized jobs. The principle is aware of the size of my company but has yet to really understand that size does not always matter. Even after we completed a multi-floor job for a high-rise condo, the question still arose on later smaller jobs if we could handle the size of project being presented. I had to laugh when I heard them describe my company to a fellow colleague as, “a small, one-man contractor type guy”. Small, yes. One-man, no. Contractor-type guy? Well, I guess so, maybe, but that kind of statement is more about putting too much value on the size of a company.

Size is really about perception. If it is not a big deal to you, it will not become a big deal to a client.

Small is good

Longevity in the craft business requires stamina and tenacity. It is tough to survive and make a profit in a world where mass producers can hit a price point that a small shop could not even buy materials for. The beauty of this monster of size disparity is to our advantage.

Think of big government. How long does it take to enact a new law, or for that matter, get a stimulus or unemployment check? Now consider small business. You can often shift directions with one decision, and your quality both in product and service are capable of being far better than the red tape of a big box manufacturer. Some big businesses do things very well. The thing is you do not have to be big to do things well. The unfortunate thing is our society puffs up anything that’s big as being better.

The business world wants to “Super-Size” everything. Have you ever lost a job because you were told you did not have the size to best serve the client? Most small businesses know their limits and don’t even bid on projects unless they know they can handle the workload. Size does not matter when you understand how consumers view small business. You cannot change perceived broad-brush impressions, but you can affect the impression of the client that chooses to work with you.

Think about what it is that you are good at. Can a bigger business do it better, or simply different? Your product has a name and a face. How does that translate? Handcrafted work holds more value over time and will become an heirloom for years to come. Even when comparing a quality big business product to a craftsperson’s work, it can only be described as, “sturdy” or “long-lasting”. It will never be called a Rembrandt or Picasso.

That is reserved for the small, one-man contractor-type guy. 

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.

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