Scale favors sameness. As companies get big, the stamps made by their founders and origin stories grow faint. Standardization promotes efficiency but bulldozes personality.
Small businesses, by contrast, remain themselves. They look and feel like their owners, who are there every day. Virtually all are family businesses to the extent that relatives and friends have been dragooned, at some point, into helping out. House of Pizza in one town resembles House of Pizza in a neighboring town only until you step inside and meet the people.
But small businesses do have things in common--particularly those that operate or interact in distinctive environments. Think of the vendors on a beach town boardwalk or in a Christmas-themed village or in a tiny rural community with two stoplights and one commercial street. Businesses that grow up in or are drawn to such places often have similar values and strategies. Observers of growth companies talk about innovation clusters. These are character clusters.
In honor of National Small Business Week (May 5-11), Inc. will publish--starting today and continuing through the month--a series of profiles of such clusters. In the coming weeks, you will meet, among others, veterans applying their Special Forces training to start companies around Fort Bragg, North Carolina; construction company owners who gather annually in Orlando for a heavy equipment auction, their industry's version of spring break; mom-and-pop proprietors of multi-generation family businesses operating in the glitzy shadow of Beverly Hills's Rodeo Drive; and the food merchants in one of America's oldest, largest public markets struggling to serve both boisterous conventioneers and money-conscious Philadelphia locals.
Small Business Week, put on every year by the U.S. Small Business Administration, is promoted as a time for people to shop local. Do so, by all means. But don't just give these companies your money. Give them your attention and respect as well. Their existence makes all our lives warmer and more interesting.