This week, the nation and its institutions are celebrating small businesses. There’s a lot to celebrate: small business owners have added more than 12 million jobs to the economy over the last 5 years, helping to bring unemployment down to 4.5 percent from a high of 10 percent during the recession.
What’s curious about these numbers is that once you start looking for “small businesses” these days, they might seem hard to find. A “small business” is defined by the Small Business Administration as a private company with 500 or fewer employees. That covers everything from Facebook in its early days to a freelance graphic designer to your local baker.
But the internet’s Wild West has inspired a fascination with startup culture that is evident in the stream of coverage from mainstream and tech press (and the related skewering in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and elsewhere). Consequently, there’s a pop-culture-fed tendency to think of everyone from aspiring internet behemoths to breadmakers with a Twitter feed not as “small business owners,” but as “entrepreneurs” — or, possibly, “founders.” The cliches of modern entrepreneurism as a lifestyle choice rather than a business choice have inspired some heated criticism.
The Nostalgia for “Small Business”…
The term “small business owner” now evokes mom-and-pop grocery store owners and quaint craftsmen whittling oak in tiny workshops strewn with sawdust. It’s a favorite talking point among politicians on both sides of the aisle because it creates a fight-for-the-little-guy vibe that people can relate to; everyone has that favorite local coffee shop or boutique that they’re rooting for.
The nostalgia is pervasive, but the reality is that small brick-and-mortar operations are shuttering their doors at a rate that’s projected to increase by 25% since the 2008 recession, according to Matthew Carr, Emerging Trends Strategist of The Oxford Club. This decade around, it’s not the economy, but rather the shift in consumer behavior causing some closures.
… And the Reality
Before the dotcom era, most small business owners could operate within their local ecosystem and, if successful, enjoy a lifetime of customers. After that, they’d pass the business onto their children or sell it to another local and retire. Today, there isn’t a business that hasn’t been touched by the web. Small business owners in every field — from coffee makers to retailers — are scrambling to harness the internet’s power of scale and reach to grow their passions into companies. With the plethora of tools at their fingertips, entrepreneurs are building up their companies on their own terms, often successfully operating alone for years before scaling and hiring.
Despite the rhetorical shift, there are still small businesses. Lots of them — 28.8 million in the U.S., in fact. And the vast majority of those are run by a sole proprietor. In fact, three out of four small business owners are “solopreneurs,” which means they have to wear every hat in the company, from marketing and networking to sales and accounting — not to mention the actual execution of the services or product.
Perhaps “wearing many hats” downplays the sole proprietor’s journey. “Strapping on helmets” is more like it. And as more than half of solopreneurs start their businesses from home, they’re often juggling home life with their fledgling company’s needs.
Technology and the Future of Work
Running a small business does still conjure an image of the harried working mom cradling a cell phone and holding a baby to her ear. But technology is creating shortcuts that lead to an easier life. There’s no need to glorify being too busy and “doing it all” while forcing a smile. Solopreneurs may still have to hustle 18-hour days, but the focal point of that attention should be on the business’ core value proposition, rather than the myriad side to-do lists required to keep the business and entrepreneur thriving.
Instead of feeling guilty and multitasking — which is often just grazing over each task without efficient output — the real culture shift (way more important than what to call a small business) is that technology can take over the mandatory tasks that steal time from business owners’ work and personal lives.
Tools of the (New) Trade
Seed is (ahem) one example of tech that can save time and money. Here’s a list of some other topnotch tools that don’t require businesses to hire an accountant, notary, or private chef in order to balance their lives:
DocHub. Ever accepted a job without a contract because it was too complicated to execute at the outset and found yourself in an awkward situation weeks into an unpaid gig? It happens a lot. DocHub allows for simple contract creation and signage online so clients don’t need to have Adobe and can’t make excuses, which is a great way to weed out uncooperative customers. If they can’t work with DocHub, they might not be good candidates as clients.
Upwork. Use it to find highly rated freelancers for data entry, website updates, content writing, and even consulting on more high-level marketing strategies.
Buffer. Some businesses are entirely built on social media — no websites, just Instagram or Facebook pages. Others use social media to engage with customers or advertise products. Regardless of a founder’s goals, posting and reacting to posts can become a time vacuum if not managed properly. It’s best to schedule a handful of posts for the day or week during one session in a 3- to 4-hour block rather than breaking out the task throughout the day and finding oneself engrossed in a cousin’s friend’s pomeranian three hours later.
Trello. Here’s the part where businesses can easily manage and track freelancers to ensure that services are delivered on time. It’s one of the most intuitive project-management tools around, increasing accountability and outcomes from both internal employees and contractors.
Blue Apron. A (quality) food delivery app that can save businesspeople who work from home hours each day on dinner prep and ingredient sourcing. It may not be a direct business-related task, but it is a function of nourishing the entrepreneur, which is crucial to any business’ success.
Rinse. Laundry has this magical way of taking hours away from a founder. It’s not that the task itself is so cumbersome, but rather the interruptions caused by requisite 40-minute loading and unloading cycles that makes it difficult to reach that state of flow required to really focus and stay productive.
Whatever we call small businesses, they’re in a good position to thrive if they know how to find the tools and use them. Twenty-eight million is a good start.