Most entrepreneurial how-to literature focuses on helping small businesses become bigger. Sales growth, building infrastructure and assembling winning teams are all frequently discussed topics. In all of this, it is usually assumed that bigger = better. But is sheer size always good for business? After all, ever-escalating perks and profits can wipe out the discipline, resourcefulness and work ethic that help small companies grow in the first place. In effect, big businesses that aren't careful risk becoming victims of their size.
Here are some timeless lessons that big businesses can learns from small town values:
Talk To Your Neighbors
A common criticism of large businesses is that they gradually become aloof to their surroundings. Regardless of whether it's 100% true in every case, Wal-Mart is frequently accused of ignoring what its presence and practices do to local communities. Charles Fishman's book The Wal-Mart Effect supplies dozens of examples.
Rather than engaging in any kind of meaningful dialogue with local residents, the company simply sets up shop and carries on as usual. This leaves many in the area feeling as though they have been left out in the cold, taken for granted by a company interested solely in taking their money.
The best way to overcome this kind of resentment is by talking to your neighbors. Make it known in every community you operate in that the company encourages and values the concerns of nearby residents instead of brushing them off.
Talk To Your Customers
One of the things people love most about well-run small businesses are the personal connections they keep with customers. A local hardware store owner, for instance, typically knows his most loyal customers by name. A family-run coffee shop might remember what their 'regulars' order and begin preparing it as soon as their cars pull into the lot.
Sadly, these much-appreciated gestures are one of the first casualties when a small business grows into a large one. Left un-addressed, the disappearance of personal attention leads customers to feel alienated from the company they once loved doing business with.
The solution? Talk to your customers. Instead of just paying lip service to the abstract idea of customer engagement, solicit their feedback as a matter of explicit, regular policy - and honor their requests, when appropriate.
Relationship building is another widely adored small business trait which many larger companies seem to cast aside. In an August 2010 feature, Entrepreneur.com uses Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad as an object lesson in how bigger businesses can retain this focus.
As recently as 2000, the Twins were a dilapidated franchise and a financial disaster, coming dangerously close to being contracted out of Major League Baseball entirely. Since then, the franchise has come roaring back - largely on the strength of their open, accessible, friendly character:
Since they didn't have summer sunshine or their latest free-agent acquisitions to sell, the Twins made their players as accessible as possible. Emerging stars were asked to continue to participate in the caravan and other promotions. And the team did its best to keep the roster stable, letting fans develop favorites. 'When players come and go every year, it just becomes kind of a revolving door,' Pohlad says. 'We didn't want that.'
What the small-market Twins lacked in Yankee-esque financial clout and prime tourist appeal, they made up for by forging genuine relationships with Minnesotans. Today, they are one of MLB's most respected and successful organizations year in and year out.
Truly Monitor Your Costs
Early on, every dime at a company's disposal must be well-spent just to survive. But as a business grows, the 'pressure valve' of obsessively monitoring costs begins to ease. Growing profits diminish the incentive to demand results from expenditures. 'Expense accounts' are given to key employees. Before long, a previously successful business can start hemorrhaging cash with little or nothing to show for it.
The lesson here is that financial success is not something you are owed. It is the result of disciplined cost controls and a mentality that all expenses must produce returns. While this will undoubtedly be tougher to maintain at a 5,000 employee conglomerate than a five person restaurant, it is no less important and arguably far more so.
Small businesses are accountable out of necessity. Without billion-dollar reserves to fall back on, callously ignoring broken promises or shoddy performance is not an option. Attempting to operate in this manner leaves a business starved of customers and stripped of its reputation.
In the small business community, your word truly is your bond. Size, again, makes it both possible and tempting to retreat from such accountability. 'Who cares if we alienate these customers', a manager might think - 'when so many others are willing to take their place?'
However true this might be in any specific situation, it is a short-sighted and unsustainable way to run a business. Marketing consultant Perry Marshall writes that 'friends come and go, but enemies multiply.'
Hiding behind your desk when problems demand accountability means 'you only know how to replace angry customers with ignorant ones.' Getting out in front of problems even when you are not forced to, conversely, persuades people to trust that your company will do the right thing.