San Francisco Small Business Week came and went in May, but we carry on long after the most pricey city in the land pays homage to its 85,000 independents. The mom and pop shops. The consultants. The entrepreneurs (I refuse to legitimize solopreneurs). We’re growing like crazy, but still the outliers of the American worker.
SMBs appreciate the attention once a year, but here’s what you should know about us—from those curious to start their own business to others who cannot fathom how we slog through this life after year.
We work 24/7
I’m not a drama queen. Believe me, I know people with “regular day jobs” work their butts off too—it’s not a competition, but a very different life. You get a salary no matter what you do. Us? Nope. We only get paid when and how hard we work. And that’s not including the time we think about work on “off” hours. Waking up with a bright idea at 3am, worrying about the client who didn’t pay us, following up on the stale lead from last month. It’s very tough to go on vacation without having concerns. Anxiety-filled questions flood your head, like: will a client find someone new and completely forget me? Did the person I left in charge do a great job or make me look like a putz? And inevitably…Will I ever work again? (OK maybe I am a drama queen). My sister loves to reminds me of a visit years ago to Boston with the promise of helping her move out of her apartment. I spent 75 percent of the time with one ear to the phone with a client and the other taping boxes (did I mention what a great multi-tasker I am?).
Our Relationship Skills Are Constantly Challenged
Most of small biz owners do not have psychology degrees and must rely on our smarts—specifically social IQ—to deal with the cacophony of situations, thorny problems, and awkwardness that can occur on a daily basis. There is no playbook for dealing with a wide range of emotions and intelligence we encounter—whether clients or potential customers. We are pushed to rely on our best communication skills (when we don’t have them tee’d up), make instant decisions (which we may instantly regret) or screw something up wildly on the spot (see question above about future employment opportunities). And let’s face it, there are certain people that make working together more difficult than it needs to be. Think of it like communication kung-fu, but without the black belt. One of my first clients (through a friend, even more awkward) included a permanently-agitated, resentful employee who constantly tried to point out flaws, and went from passive to aggressive without the hyphen. I learned early on from this experience and others like it to try and put myself in that person’s shoes. Maybe the person was competitive, or worried I was angling for their job, or stressed about something at home, or maybe, just maybe, was just a certified jerk. I remained professional and reserved my self-control, which has served me well to deal with the next client problem child(s). Thankfully there haven’t been tons of these “learning opportunities.” And though I would like to think I get better at it every year, there is inevitably a new angle on it each time and I think about what I would do in the future. Speaking of which…
Small Biz Can Reinvent
Sure, the word “pivot” is cliché, along with “disruption” and the crop of other Silicon Valley tech-y jargon. No matter what you call it, change happens, whether you bring it on yourself or it comes hurling to your doorstep. From big decisions to small tweaks: the move from project fees to hourly rates, to add new products and services, to never taking a client to a restaurant again because the waiter was rude. For me, my Reinvention Moment was the day I broke up with Events. We were together for years, though admittedly had a love/hate relationship (mostly hate). I spent years laboriously tending to Events, yet wanted to leave more than a semiconductor show in Orange County. Do I ever miss the great money? Yep. The beauty when a perfectly orchestrated event goes off without a hitch? Uh-huh. But do I want the headaches, lugging crap around all the time, and the stress of planning and fussing over every detail. Heck no. And once I quit, I never looked back. I created my own change and freed up more time for writing projects, my first work love. Another great thing about having your own biz? If I ever wanted to get back together with Events—I could. (But we all know how round two usually goes).
There is No “Us” in Brand
Whether you have a teeny retail shop, a thriving online business, or sell hot dogs on the streets of New York City, you’re still the boss and Head Honcho of Everything. If an employee screws up your Twitter account, a customer gets ridiculously overcharged, or the hot dogs end up burnt— that comes back to you—it’s your baby, whether you like it in that moment or not. Now is not the time to hide behind excuses (nor tall employees). When something goes awry—as it often does—we own up to it and fix it. Small business takes this commitment very seriously. And if we don’t, things will go south in a hurry. SMB knows better than anyone, the one thing that is difficult—if not impossible to repair—is your reputation. Once you’re “damaged goods,” it’s near-impossible to get your coveted spot back. Think of vendors, stores and customer experiences you never want to revisit. For a famous brand, say Tylenol or Toyota, or celebrity like Martha Stewart, redemption is granted through time. Humans love that schadenfreude stuff. But these are on-of-a-kind and popular cultural brand icons we want to like (and purchase from). Those same rules don’t apply to small business. Once you screw up royally, it’s pretty much over and onto the next.
We’re a Different Breed
Not to be too black and white. Or Type A or B. But you’re a small business owner—or you’re not. I could rattle off the qualities that make it so, but that would be superficial. I never fashioned working away at my small business when I grew up, but I somehow caught the bug and here I am 17 years later. I think what separates a committed independent is best encapsulated in a conversation recently with a pilot friend of 25 years. He is passionate about flying for a major airline and can’t imagine doing anything else with his life—that’s why he gets up at the crack-ass of dawn, goes through constant sleep deprivation, and curbs his drinking long before the evening wears on. He asked me what job would get me up early and go to a corporate job. I sat there for a minute, paused, and said “nothing” (besides the fact that I despise getting up early). This is exactly where I want to be and in the life I want—like a Silicon valley innovation, it’s designed, produced, marketed, and constantly iterated. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.