The other day I saw a photo someone took of a chalkboard outside some local store. It said something like, “If everyone spent just $100 at a local mom and pop store, it’d pump an extra $3 million into the economy and away from Wal-Mart.” The thinking behind it is much too simple. “Hey, if every known American, children and the disabled alike, all spent $100, we’d have $3 million dollars and screw Wal-Mart.” Except this doesn’t magically pump money into the economy. It was already in the economy. It was just going into someone else’s register and not yours.
I get the sentiment. But what I don’t get is this idea that small business is always better, because I assure you it is not. I say this because I run a small business and most of the time I just suck.
This weekend my hard drive I have plugged into my router got surged by a lightning strike that struck nearby. The board in the drive even charred. So here’s a device I paid a couple hundred dollars for that no longer works because it couldn’t withstand the shock, the electrical grid isn’t built to handle something like lightning or squirrels (which are the number one cause of outages in America. It’s not terrorists we have to worry about.), and in the process of trying to find someone to recover the drive (the disk is likely fine), it was nothing but a comedy of errors.
First, a shocking number of “tech” and “computer guy” websites royally suck. No pricing, no information about the person, nothing but forms that don’t work and websites that don’t load. This is small business for the masses and outside of restaurants, a lot of the reason why people don’t shop at these places. If the invisible hand sorts out the good from the bad, it does it a lot slower with all the little businesses floating around.
In trying to find someone with more hardware lying around than me, I finally did find someone. Then I realized I can’t contact this person any way but by phone. Except it’s 10 am on a Saturday and I have a problem now. So on to the next guy, and I find a site I can least email. Which I do, and I hear back on Monday morning and schedule a time to drop off the drive.
In all this, had I needed to just go buy a drive I could have gone down the street to a dozen big retailers and got one. They would have been open and if not that, I could do what I did: order it on Amazon. I ordered a drive Saturday I morning and it was hear on Sunday for no extra charge.
I’m all for helping the little guys, but sometimes there’s value in being big. Amazon is great. Apple is great. The computer guy in Broad Ripple? Not necessarily so much.
I say this and I know my own shortcomings. I can’t find any good way to address them without killing myself. I can’t work all day every day. I can’t afford a big staff. I can’t even answer my phone all the time or email within seconds all the time because I’m deeply involved or entrenched in someone else’s problem.
But I think I’m on to something to make the experience better all around for everyone. Namely, I’m capping the number of clients we take on, ensuring the rates are suitable to sustain the business, and foregoing growth for the sake of growth in exchange for a little more service for the clients we have.
That really means we’re not taking on clients that do services or products we ourselves wouldn’t use. Or, doing work for people that we just don’t believe in or get excited about. The goal being to get excited about the clients we do have to always be able to answer things in a rush and get things done better and to a higher quality. I’ve done a lousy job lately at trusting my gut on who would be lousy to work for, and I’ve been bitten four times in the last six months. So no more of that. Even though I’m sure they think we suck at business, we just suck at their business because of a variety of factors.
Small business can be good at a lot of things, but they can suck at a lot. And big business can suck at a lot of things and be great at a lot of different things. Sam Walton said (I’m paraphrasing), “People say Wal-Mart hurts small business, like hardware stores. But anyone could walk into our stores and find any number of ways to beat us. Some things we’re just never going to stock, and some things our associates just aren’t going to be able to advise about.”