I like small businesses. I like shopping at small businesses, I like supporting small businesses, and my late father owned a small business that I worked in for many years.
Yet small businesses, or rather small business owners, have a way of grinding my gears. Loud complaints about the primacy of Amazon or credit card fees have always sounded disingenuous to me. Not that I don’t understand them. Competing with larger companies is difficult, and doing business can be expensive. But sometimes these complaints veer into “woe is me” territory when voiced by business owners who are honestly just bad business owners.
Summarizing all these thoughts was hard for me for a long time, mostly because of my own biases. Then, awhile back, I listened to episode 111 of Citations Needed.
The hosts of this podcast are very left-leaning, and not everyone reading this will agree with them. However, they make a few points that I think most people will agree with. That is, that much of the rhetoric surrounding small businesses, especially in politics, takes advantage of the fact that the public has a very different idea of what constitutes a small business. Furthermore, this rhetoric assumes that small businesses have a right to exist.
Do not get me wrong. I love walking down mainstreet and see healthy, vibrant, local shops and restaurants, but they are not good businesses simply because they are small. A small business can be just as bad for its employees and for its community as the big corporate chain that just moved in.
So, let’s keep in mind a few things.
- Small businesses are not an inherent good.
- Owning a small business does not automatically make the owner a skilled businessperson.
- A small business does not inherently benefit its community.
Which leads quite nicely into what a small business should aim to do.
- Fill some need in the community.
- Provide opportunities for members of the community.
- Contribute to the betterment of the community.
Business owners can be hardworking, yes, but they can also be entitled. Everyone likes the idea of supporting a small business and for good reason. It’s not some huge faceless entity with its headquarters on the other side of the country, it’s a small shop just down the street. But that does not mean that it deserves to exist.
For me, there are basically two reasons that I would judge as small business to be a bad business.
The first is one that does not fill a gap in its community. If a town has six dress shops does it need a seventh? What makes them superior to the previous six? Competition is a good thing, but if rows of cookie cutter businesses take up space that could be put to better use by better businesses.
The second is one where the owner does not properly credit, support, and compensate their employees. Money at small businesses is tight, often they cannot pay their employees as much or offer as many benefits, but they should offer something. Many businesses owners work hard, but few of them would be able to keep their businesses afloat were it not for their employees. If they cannot offer pay to their employees they should offer something. Community, mentorship, cammeraderie, flexibility. A business owner and employee should have a symbiotic relationship. They don’t both need to get the same thing, but they both need to get something.
The problem in both of these cases, are the owners who feel entitled. They feel entitled to have employees, they feel entitled to be business owners. They wrap their dreams on entrepreneurship so tightly around their identities that they fail to see that it’s their dream. Their employees don’t want to work misserable hours for misserable pay so that the business will succeed in ten years. Their employees need to eat.
Many new businesses go out of business quickly, many bad businesses stay in business longer than they deserve. Only businesses whose owners understand and value their place in the community deserve to stay in business. Rather than begging you not to support Amazon and other online retailers, small business should offer something more than online retailers. A book store should also be a gathering place. An art shop a place to get advice. A music store a place to explore new skills and talents.
Not all business live up to these standards. Too many expect the community to subsidize the egos of their owners. Inevitably, they blame Amazon and minimum wage and rent and taxes and credit cards fees when instead they should blame themselves.
But the fact is, business owners and employees and communities exist in a symbiotic relationship. A business is not just a chance to make money, it’s a chance to make a difference and contribute to the community.