Much has been written about the difficulties of starting a business. When you're talking about entrepreneurial challenges, the startup phase gets all the attention. But there's something a lot harder than starting a business: staying in business.
We've all read statistics that say nearly every new company fails. The odds are heavily stacked against you, even if you make it a few years. And yet in every corner of the country are mom-and-pop shops, family restaurants, and unmarked brick factories that have been plugging along for decades. To me, they are the real heroes.
At Basecamp, we've been in business for 15 years, and we hope to last decades more. Lately, that's gotten me thinking about whom I should look to for inspiration and insight, whom I should be modeling my own company after: the 26-year-old founder who's already on his second startup or the woman who's been running the same enterprise for 37 years?
The answer is clear to me, so I recently decided to actively seek out private companies that have been in business at least 25 years and see what we could learn from them. We're going to share their stories on a new website we launched (funded by Basecamp) called The Distance. Some of the companies we'll be writing about have been around for 100 years or more. Some are still run by the original founder. Some are run by a longtime employee or a third-generation family member. We have no plan for selling ads or making a lot of money from The Distance, only gathering wisdom.
We hired a great journalist with a knack for telling personal stories, and every month, at thedistance.com, we'll be publishing an in-depth article about one of these businesses. Doing just one article a month means we can focus on doing it well before we do more. (That's one of the first lessons from the old-timers: Focus!)
To be honest, I don't know yet what other kinds of wisdom we'll uncover as we go forward with this new venture; that's the point. But let me share a few insights from our first featured company, the Horween Leather Company in Chicago. A fifth-generation business founded in 1905, Horween makes leather the old-fashioned way. As the last remaining tannery in Chicago, the company has stood strong and learned how to survive-and thrive-in a challenging environment.
One of the lessons of Horween's story is about finding a way to adapt to changing conditions while remaining true to one's core. As global leather production has moved to Asia and Latin America and gotten cheaper, Horween hasn't changed its painstaking Old World methods. Rather than try to compete on price, it has gone upmarket and cultivated relationships with luxury clients and quality-focused stalwarts like the sporting-goods company Wilson, for which it supplies leather for NFL footballs. It's a savvy way to manage a risky situation, and I wouldn't necessarily expect advice on that topic from a century-old tannery. More important, I never would have gotten the advice had we not simply started asking questions.
Which brings me to my real point: How many of those stories and pearls of wisdom are hiding in plain sight around the corner from where you live or work? More than you can imagine, I'd bet. Longtime business owners in the unlikeliest industries have seen it all. Don't you want to know what they know? Sometimes, all you have to do is knock on the door or walk in the shop and chat up the owners. They're often thrilled to share their stories.
Let's work together on uncovering more of them. If you happen to know of a great local company that's privately owned, been in business for at least 25 years, and is run by someone special, we'd love to tell its story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.