If you have dreams of starting your own creative business , don’t worry that you’re not big enough. As you’ll soon find out from Dave Baldwin’s review of Small Giants by Bo Burlingham, you’ll see that bigger isn’t always better. You can retain control of your vision and not get absorbed into a huge corporate machine. Enjoy another of Dave Baldwin’s contributions to Write from the Inside Out’s blog!
Small Giants by Bo Burlingham is a hidden gem of a book that I wish I’d read much sooner. I expect to re-read this one a few times. Burlingham displays unique insight into the narrow nexus where creativity intersects with business. This is a book for people who love creating art, and who see business as a way of helping their art connect with its intended audience more powerfully.
Burlingham discusses 14 case studies of small companies who deliberately decided to abandon the path of mass-production for the sake of staying focused on what they could do best. The owners of these businesses were all offered highly-lucrative opportunities to expand rapidly, but they all decided to walk away. More remarkably, they continued to grow profits, but did so in their own way, true to their core values. This level of uncompromising authenticity allowed them to cultivate a loyal following in their communities.
For all creative professionals who haven’t yet found their profit engines, the message is clear. Yes, there is hope—and no, you don’t have to follow the established rules. These businesses didn’t, and you don’t have to, either.
Burlingham’s methodology is similar to Good to Great, one of my all-time favorite business books. Whereas Good to Great focuses on larger enterprise-scale companies, Small Giants uses examples of smaller locally-based businesses. Unlike the Good to Great companies, the business owners in Small Giants were privately-held, allowing for a greater degree of freedom with regard to strategic decision-making. You can read about all fourteen companies on Burlingham’s website.
Putting values above short-term gains was the central unifying element of these businesses. They seem to view business as a work of art, which I couldn’t help but respect. A great example of this was Ani DiFranco, founder of Buffalo-based Righteous Babe Records. DiFranco turned down offers from big recording labels in favor of staying independent. She also made the deliberate choice to keep her company in her hometown, even though she could have found more immediate and lucrative opportunities by relocating to a more central metropolis. This type of artistic rebelliousness seemed to run common throughout the book.
Community loyalty was also a key factor that separated the “small giants” from more typical companies. Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson walked away at the last minute from a $120M deal to sell his company. His decision to kill the deal was partly based on the fact that the new owners were going to move corporate headquarters out of the company’s home town. The owners of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan declined an opportunity to franchise their business nationally, in large part because they wanted to stay in the Ann Arbor area. Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Hospitality Group, refused to open a restaurant in any location he couldn’t walk to. They all remembered their origins, even when uprooting would have yielded a greater payout.
Another highly-respectable element of the “small giants” was unwillingness to sacrifice quality for quantity. Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing, turned down what would have been the largest order in his company’s history, partly due to concerns about scaling up production too quickly. He also decided to cancel his initial public offering (IPO) when he realized that he had no interest in building a big company. Zingerman’s Deli was partly motivated by the same factor when they walked away from franchise offers. They were concerned that building a nationwide delivery system would force them to focus on efficiency rather than making a one-of-a-kind sandwich. None of these companies were interested in mass-production.
Perhaps best of all, Burlingham’s case study businesses placed utmost importance on creating a unique company culture. Special effects studio Hammerhead Productions, for example, chose to forgo fast growth for the sake of preserving their work environment, where people were free to choose their own work style. Fritz Maytag took pride in knowing every Anchor Brewing employee on a first-name basis. All of the business owners placed a higher priority on people than growth.
These entrepreneurs were cut from a different cloth than most; they didn’t follow the conventional wisdom that dictates “go where the money is.” Instead of seeking out new opportunity, they created opportunity right where they were. They didn’t accept the idea that bigger is automatically better. They decided what was important to them and inspired the people around them to help make it a reality.
Personally, I felt a sense of relief as I read Burlingham’s accounts. I have had the desire to start my own business for several years, and throughout that time, I’ve considered a lot of different ideas. I had always taken for granted that any business needs to be scalable. Every time I ever looked at any business idea, I’d always start by asking myself, “How would I scale this?” That question was one of my most frequent sources of discouragement. I’ve now realized that I don’t have to be limited by it.
If you want to start your own business, but you feel inadequate to the task, Small Giants might be just what the doctor ordered. Burlingham shows that business is not just for the money-driven. There is room in the business world for artists, for community leaders, for people with a heart, and for people who just want to make a difference in one small corner of the world.