Today’s guest post comes from fellow Kickstarter Scott Ballum. His project also concerns small businesses, the topic of my next book. Scott runs Sheepless, a media collaborative and a creative platform of and for artists, entrepreneurs, foodies, and environmentalists. It is a champion the Community Makers: small businesses who make our communities more sustainable, more accessible, more creative, and more fun. Sheepless engages with a growing interest in cultivating local economies, understanding where goods come from, and nourishing our natural resources.
With that, the floor is Scott’s.
I had a brief conversation recently with a bookseller from Maryland, who told me that her accountant said they were “just on the verge” of really making a profit, of really being successful. And he’s been saying that for ten years. “How much longer do we have to wait for ‘the verge’!?” she lamented. “Retirement?”
Her anxiety is not uncommon. Most small business owners have some version of that story, at least at some point in their career. But if she’s been getting the same story from her accountant for ten years, it’s time to change things up. Entrepreneurs can be so focused on the big, expensive, long-term goals that they don’t see
- the short- and medium-term possibilities
- the chances to change course towards one that might have a different outcome
It’s easy to miss the little opportunities along the way, the very ones offering direction and feedback, when we keep our eyes strained on the edge of the horizon, looking for the end of the rainbow.
Many small businesses that I’ve spoken with hold tight to the vision they have of
- what a bookstore looks like and acts like
- how one succeeds through troubled times
- the right kinds of associations that a restaurant joins
- how it should market itself
- how it reaches out to the neighborhood
But I also know that they’re missing out on something. Why? Because I see the shopkeepers that throw the expectations and the traditions out the window. They don’t try to adhere to the guidelines. Instead, they are open to the opportunities and possibilities that are unique to their street, neighborhood, or clientele. These are entrepreneurs who manage to make it over the hump, because they are either too young or too stubborn to accept the possibility of hovering in limbo until retirement.
Pencils and Initial Restrictions
I’m not suggesting anyone be foolish, and ignore the basic tenets of business. But we can also do more than that. I actually went to art school before I started working with independent businesses, so I know a little about changing course. My freshman year art teacher wouldn’t give us anything other than a pencil to work with for the first few months of class. We spent weeks on form, line, shape, shade, composition, balance: the traditions of drawing. The upstart young artists that we were, many of us were irritated that we had to be so conservative. Why couldn’t we splash color and break the canvas and create tension? When we finally moved on to other media, however, his methods became clear as our focus, control, and deliberateness carried through. “Learn the rules,” he implored, “Then, and only then, break them.”
Yes, learn accounting and marketing. Know your industry standards, health codes, and tax codes. Have a goal in mind. But then be willing and ready to accept that how you get there might change. Embrace new directions, new ideas, and breaking that canvas.