Small Businesses

Every new business is somebody’s dream. Somebody’s hope for a better life. Somebody’s worry.

A would-be entrepreneur starts with a question: how can I serve people better than they are now being served – with higher quality, lower prices, greater convenience, something they want?

And its doppelganger: what if I am wrong? How much will I lose – in terms of time, money, heartache and effort – if I’m wrong about what others will want or I can produce?

For most of those who take the risk, everything depends on getting the answers to those questions right – his (or her) livelihood, his family’s well-being, their standing – and likely presence – within their community, their prospects. Everything. After failure: the abyss.

Every time I see a small business fail – a restaurant, maybe, or a store or a car dealership (we tend to not see the failure of non-consumer-facing businesses; they happen all the time, of course, and with the same devastating effects – we just don’t usually notice, except maybe by somebody leaving town) – I think of the sorrows that its owner probably experienced, realizing he couldn’t make his idea work. The agonizing about when to pull the plug. The ramifications.

That business had been a living thing to its owner – it demanded work and other resources, sure, but it also provided sustenance, indeed it may have done so for years until somebody else offered a better product or the market moved on. For its owner at least, and sometimes long-serving employees, a business failure is a death in the family.

And to the entrepreneur, its demise is also a marked personal diminishment. Oh it might have looked like a simple bet – he would invest this much time, money and effort, and out would come valuable products! – but when somebody starts a business, not only does he pour his heart and soul into the effort, the world sees the new company as an extension, or really an enlargement, of him. Balloons do pop, though, leaving only trash behind.

Failure is a very real possibility, it’s just not an option.

Entrepreneurs know all that and go ahead anyway, though, either because of their own cocksure confidence or out of necessity. Either way: when somebody starts a new business, he doesn’t own it, it owns him. He’ll be lashed to the wheel until he finds clear sailing, which might never appear or, if it does, prove to be a painfully, tantalizingly brief interlude between storms.

In the case of the business I started in 1993 on a 50/50 basis with a partner and no capital to speak of, it took twenty months to find favorable winds. Those twenty months were by far the most exciting, terrifying and ultimately educational period of my business life. To write that our little vessel very nearly sank is true enough, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t convey either the oh-so-tactile reality, or the implications, of the experience.

I have written elsewhere of our near-shipwreck, the time at which the Beloved Spouse, manager of the family’s finances, shed silent tears over our apparently imminent personal insolvency. As it turned out, though, we didn’t sail through the rocks, we sailed right over them, with crashes and the splintering of wood below. We repaired the holes later.

That experience gave me a profound sense of empathy for those whose boats don’t make it through the rocks and a lasting gratitude to the specific people who helped us over them. Small businesses are all about people.

Small businesses, or rather, the people behind them, make our world better through innumerable incremental improvements in the products and services we buy every day. We – the market – demand as much, and we get it, so we should delight in their successes and honor their efforts and their courage, even when they fail.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to Small Businesses

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    A refreshing read . . . and a nice respite from all the political noise.

    Thank you, Mark!

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