TPA5032 – Small Business, Big Impact: The Power Of The Collective

The U.S. Small Business Administration defines a small business as “an organization with fewer than 500 employees.” The majority of small businesses employ fewer than 100 employees. One and two-person companies make up most small businesses in America. So it’s a very broad definition of “small business.” There’s an enormous difference in running a one-man freelancing operation versus a global 475-person organization yet both would technically be called “small business” based on the SBA’s definition. 

My personal definition is, in some ways, even looser. In other ways, more narrow. I focus on the just a few simple things that I have found more practical for my work in serving CEO’s and business owners. One, it’s got little to do with revenues and head counts. They’re important and there is a correlation between those things and the things I quantify most. How close is the CEO or owner to the generation of revenue? I don’t mean they actually do the selling, but they may help every now and again. How close is the CEO or owner to the actual work of the company? If the company manufactures a product or delivers a service, how involved is the CEO or owner? I consider a business small based mostly on those factors, not on the amount of revenues or the number of employees. My interest is in serving companies that have relatively flat org charts. 

Yes, companies with big revenues tend to have more employees and with that – more layers of management/leadership. However, in the digital age, that’s not necessarily so. For the past couple of decades, a single employee has been armed with sufficient technology to do the work of many. 

According to the SBA 99.7% of American companies are technically “small businesses.” Companies with fewer than 20 employees comprised 89.4% of all businesses. By every standard or measurement, small business dominates the business landscape. It’s been projected that by 2020 about 50% of the workforce will be freelancers. Dan Pink wrote of this in his 2001 book, Free Agent Nation: How Americans New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live

Small businesses may not get the headlines, but they have an enormous impact, both economically and practically. They represent individual and collective power, contribution and potential. This is evidenced by the fact that companies with fewer than 49 employees have been responsible for most of the employment growth, adding 44% of all new jobs

Small businesses have long learned the power of the collective. Their size has often compelled them to join forces in buying groups, marketing organization, and other cooperative organization so they can leverage their collective size and power. For example, the Nationwide Marketing Group is in the consumer electronics/home furnishings/major appliances retailing space. Here’s what they say about themselves on their website:

“Nationwide Marketing Group works beside thousands of appliance, furniture, electronics, specialty electronics, custom installation and rent to own dealers helping them grow their businesses and their bottom lines. With some 5,300 members, operating approximately 14,000 storefronts with estimated sales of $18.5 billion, Nationwide is North America’s largest buying and marketing organization. Industry veterans, heading Nationwide’s seven regional divisions, work to provide independent dealers with personalized service and local programming in every market they serve.”

No single member of that organization can possibly be as powerful as they can be together. By working together they’re able to leverage not only their buying power but their knowledge base. Like an antelope attempting to survive alone on the Serengeti, these retailers (5,300 of them) have learned their survival and “thrival” is enhanced by joining forces. Small doesn’t have to mean vulnerable to the market or competition. Nor does it have to mean weak. 

The sheer number of small businesses displays the passion, determination, and dedication of American business owners to solve problems, serve markets and make a difference where they operate. However, like a single ember left apart from the whole of the fire, small businesses can easily weaken and die. The passion can be extinguished. The practical reality of maintaining market viability can be tough. Even if your revenues are measured in the millions. Or tens of millions. About 30% of them will celebrate their 10th anniversary. 

I’m optimistic. Mostly, because I’m practical. And experienced at operating small businesses. I know the pain, the struggle and the euphoria of being tough to compete against. And mostly the joy of knowing the market (our customers) is enhanced by our presence. The question we can ask about our own lives applies to our small businesses, “Would they miss us if we were gone?” If they would, then you’re having a positive impact. 

How can that impact be bigger?

Small businesses individually have a big impact on their employees, customers, suppliers and the market. It may feel insignificant sometimes, but it’s not. The ripple effects are widespread and lasting. But it can be improved. There’s a bigger power source to tap into. Like the example of the retail marketing group, Nationwide, small business owners can join forces and find themselves experiencing the collective power that dwarfs anything they’ve ever known. 

Your parents knew the value and truth of the collective. That’s why they’d ask you where you going, and who with. Where you went was something they cared about, but maybe more importantly, they wanted to know who you’d be with. What is the collective going to be? 

Mom and dad didn’t want us going anywhere with the wrong people. They knew the power of influence. And they knew that the people we surrounded ourselves with could make a big difference in the outcome. The wrong kids would get us in trouble. The right kids could provide the right drivers, motivations, and outcomes. “Birds of a feather flock together,” and all that. Our folks wanted us to be part of a collective that would give us the best opportunity for success. And safety. 

Nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing. 

It’s like that popular book years ago by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. You likely learned life’s many important (and critical) lessons before you started first grade. The power of the collective is one of them. If our childhood playmates were important to our development (and they were), then why do we live as CEO’s and business owners unconcerned about the power of the collective in our lives? Have we forgotten what we learned in kindergarten? Has our life grown so hectic and complex that we’re neglecting the fundamental, but powerful resources that can help propel us forward?

Together We’re More Powerful Than We Are Alone

We take a bit of money and store it away into some investment account. By putting more money together with other money – even a small amount, over time that money enjoys the magic of compounding interest. Compounding isn’t limited to interest and money though. The power of the collective grows and is magnified over time. Hopefully, you experience that in your marriage and friendships. 

The power of the collective is all around us. When birds migrate we see it. When animals herd (or flock) together we see it. When individual players join a team we see it. When a singer/songwriter joins with other musicians we see it and hear it. When small businesses join forces we see it. Going it alone isn’t as efficient or effective as going it with somebody else, or a group. 

CEO’s and owners sometimes tend to think these things are true everywhere except in their careers. Maybe you think you must go it alone. WRONG.

So many misconceptions provoke faulty thinking. Those of us with that “captain” gene – the drive to lead and be in charge – are driven to think for ourselves. We are where we are because we’re basically unemployable, unable to work for others. That can drive us to an unnecessary loneliness. 

Consider that marketing group, Nationwide. Each dealer makes their own purchases. What may be a great buy for one dealer may be idle inventory for another. Just because you’re in the group doesn’t mean anybody is telling you what to buy (or do). The group simply provides you opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. The ability to make purchases that are more cost-effective so profits can be increased. Buy it. Don’t buy it. It’s up to you. 

We learned this playing in the neighborhood. And on the school playground. 

Playmates and friends influenced us, but we made our own choices. “No, I don’t feel like playing baseball. Let’s do something else.” 

But we did learn something very important. Our contribution to the group and the group’s contribution to our life made all the difference. Sometimes it was obvious that the group wanted to play baseball. That made us want to play baseball. Because we knew the group needed us. And we knew that when the group played football, something we loved more than baseball, then we’d want the group to join us. You can’t really play baseball or football alone. Not if you want to really play and compete. Not if you want to have fun.

Play. Compete. Have fun.

You want that in your career and in your small business. We all want that. 

For years I’ve boiled down business activities into 3 things: 1) getting new customers, 2) serving existing customers better and 3) not going crazy in the process. By being part of a collective we can enhance all three of these. Truth is, by being in a collective we can reach brand new heights of success in all 3 areas. Otherwise, it’s very difficult. Not impossible, but far tougher than necessary. 

Examples Are Everywhere. Why Ignore Them?

All around us are examples of the power of the collective. We’ve witnessed it in our own lives. Yet, for some reason (many actually, although none are truly valid), we can refuse to deploy this most basic of powerful resources in our careers and lives. That seems even more ridiculous when you consider your role as the CEO or owner – to manage the wise deployment of resources in order to grow your business. 

Are you wisely deploying your resources? Not if you’re refusing to let others help you. Not if you’re refusing to surround yourself with other CEO’s and owners who can (and will happily) help you grow your company, your leadership, and your life. It’s time. Past time. Growth, improvement, and transformation won’t happen by accident. Nor will they come to those who halt or delay. The rewards go to the bold, courageous doers. 

Be well. Do better!

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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

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