Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham
The title of this great book for entrepreneurs, Small Giants, quickly reveals its theme. In its essence, this is a book about challenging the conventional wisdom that we, as company builders, must always pursue maximum scale and growth. This book causes us to step back and remember to focus on greatness, not just bigness.
At its foundation, Small Giants is also about entrepreneurial freedom. In other words, it dives deep into the choices we all face as entrepreneurs, particularly as to the question of growth and expansion. The book uses the stories of “Small Giants” – businesses that decided to prioritize greatness over size – to remind us that giving up the independence that comes from growth should, at a minimum, be a conscious and deliberate decision that we make.
Protecting Your Entrepreneurial Freedom
Small Giants teaches us that the keys to maintaining the freedom to direct the path of our businesses are a great product, a great service and great finances. We must protect these three. Like a great oak with a vast system of roots, each of those three key criteria, of course, have underlying life sources on which they depend. For example, a great product and great service depend on a motivated and committed team dedicated to the culture of excellence you must foster in your business (read the story of Cliff Bar in the book). And great finances can depend on your ability to make hard decisions about your business that sometimes jeopardize the future of people and their livelihoods. You must protect product, service and finances.
Losing control in these areas is akin to slowly letting slip away the control over our businesses that we all so strongly fight to maintain. Bad finances, as an example, can mean the need to bring in outside investors or take on debt. As outsiders enter the picture, our independence can become subject to a higher power that we must now answer to and appease. Slippage in product and service can hurt morale among your team, how you are viewed in your community and, of course, your reputation with your customer base. Concessions and the loss of control over your business often have to be made to win back these critical audiences.
Read the book so that you know how to fight for this freedom. The direction that you take your business and when should be your choice, not one dictated by outside circumstances.
Exercising Your Entrepreneurial Freedom
The pressure to grow. That is the question at the heart of this book. This pressure comes, as you will see, not just from the glaringly obvious choices of, say, go public or stay private or bring in venture capital investors. And how you deal with this question at all stages of the lifecycle of your business could strongly dictate how well you can protect product, business and finances and thus your entrepreneurial freedom.
Common Growth Dilemmas
The book does an amazing job of teaching through story. Do any of the scenarios below sound familiar to you or have you confronted them in your businesses? Read the book to see how others in your exact position have balanced all the weighty considerations that arise from the fact patterns below.
- You cannot meet demand for your product while still maintaining your same standards of quality control. What do you do? The story of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco.
- Your company is at the brink launching an IPO, going public, and the market expects a tripling in valuation. Do you go public or stay private? The story of Cliff Bar.
- You have built an incredible first location for your business and now face the heat of the “franchise question”. Are you willing to trust that others will get it right and protect the reputation of what you have built? The story of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- You have won the race and now are in a position to acquire competitors. Should you do it? Will these outsiders integrate well into the mojo you have built?
- You are now a target of venture capital investors. Should you let them invest in your company and what are the most likely consequences of that?
- You´ve created the leading product in your market. Should you expand to new business lines and products or stick with what you know?
- You built the highest-ranked restaurant in New York City and are getting pressure to duplicate the concept or create another in other markets. Will it work in those other markets as well? Are you jeopardizing your ability to maintain excellence? The story of New York´s Union Square Hospitality Group.
Other Key Lessons
As with many of the book reviews that I write, I love to share with you quotes from the book I am covering that I found particularly powerful. You will find more, but here are some of my favorites:
“Foremost, companies must develop and maintain soul, or “mojo.” What is business mojo? It really is the vibrant, almost alive and intimate relationship that a business has with its city and town, its customers and suppliers and its employees and team members that can only take form as a result of passion about the subject matter of the business from the leaders of that business.”
“Go to market with a value proposition and explain your case. This starts as a monologue then turns into a dialogue. A business is like a baseball glove. It doesn’t just break itself in. You have to use it.”
“Reputation is all you have, and word travels fast.”
“When you are out of cash, the greatest culture in the world won’t help you.”
“Every business must have its “terroir´” (French).
“Nobody checks hours, we check productivity.”
“Building a business is, like art, an act of creativity.”
A Final Note
Never give up control of where you want your business to go. That means being deliberate in your decisions. Learn from Small Giants and its entrepreneurs so that the decisions that you make at all the critical junctures that your businesses will inevitably face are intentional and your own.