In America, nearly everyone, from politicians to entrepreneurship-crazed young people, say they love small businesses. But the truth is, the reasons for that love can't be purely economic. As James Surowiecki has pointed out in The New Yorker, "the perspective of the economy as a whole, small companies are not the real drivers of growth," concluding "small businesses are, on the whole, less productive than big businesses." If you're skeptical, The Economist agrees.
But despite the numbers, we continue to feel a soft spot in our hearts for the scrappy start-up and the mom-and-pop shop, and hardly get that warm fuzzy feeling for big box retailers and conglomerates. The reason is clear: Small businesses are dynamic and they're human-scale, and most of us like our institutions to reflect the same values of authenticity, humanity, creativity, and service that we value in individuals.
Luckily for us, at least a couple of experts feels more and more businesses, whatever their size, are going to have to move toward these small business values. Barry Moltz and Becky McCray have written a book entitled Small Town Rules that argues firms of all sizes, even larger ones, increasingly need to operate with the values we associate with small businesses.
When every customer can now talk directly to each other, it's like a small town. When people listen more to what your customers say about your company than your advertising, it's like a small town... When the individual human voice is valued over corporate mission statements, it's like a small town. When everyone online is trying to band together in small communities, it's like a small town. When everyone wants to buy their products locally, it's like a small town.
Bigger businesses or badly run small ones need to ditch the blank face of the characterless institution and learn how to put their most human foot forward in response, they say. So if your business is growing and you're worried about losing those qualities that make small-town-type firms so beloved, how can you hold on to them? Over on American Express's OPEN Forum, Matthew E. May has helpfully boiled down some of the key tips of Moltz and McCray's book. Among them:
Spend creative brainpower before spending dollars. Spending brainpower before spending dollars requires creativity. Businesses that get creative can develop an experience that will draw customers to them, and many times even act as an unexpected source of supplies and income.
Treat customers like community. Treating customers like community includes responding to their needs, even if the need is an entire underserved small town market, or for something less than you're giving that market right now. Take software, for example: all your great online support and documentation may not be as helpful as a simple phone call to walk a customer through the basics.
Be proud of being small. Being big is no longer an automatic advantage when winning customers. The preference for small businesses is most evident in the food industry, which provides the best example of the power of this rule.
Build your local connections. The local movement is much more than "shop local." Consumers now prefer local products across all categories. Local can mean a wide range of local connections. Brands can be creative in finding and strengthening their local appeal.
Do you agree with the underlying principle that increasingly companies of all sizes need to display small town values to succeed?