Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lesser Boat (Tradecraft)

Lesser boat, or hinayana is a pejorative Sanskrit term in Buddhism, used to describe earlier traditions that lacked the sophistication of what you're doing now, sailing to enlightenment in your greater boat (mahayana). There's a lot more to it than that, but I wanted to use this lesser boat terminology in discussing small business.

As small business owners, we are distinctly different from entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs swing for the fences, introducing innovative business concepts, funded by other peoples money and often created by the best talent available, rather than their own hands. Most will fail spectacularly, their boat going down with millions of dollars of capital. When Americans talk about small businesses, they mean entrepreneurs, the greater boat. If you follow business programming, this is where the action is, while small business gets mentioned usually because it's just so surprising the lesser boat still exists. They regularly do health checks to see if the leaks have finally claimed the small business armada.

The smoke and mirrors of Amazon and the Wall Street money behind it seem intent on crushing small business in an attempt to grab Internet market share. So it's no wonder they're perplexed at our continued survival.

But should they be surprised? Small business is true capitalism. If you're a capitalist, this is where it's at, at least at the micro level. There are no government subsidies, bail outs, tax tricks or cronyism in small business. I am not going to buy up assets with other peoples money and depreciate them over time to give the impression of profitability so my investors can pump money into my business. When I run out of money, I've failed.

When a small business does fail, it's considered healthy for the ecosystem, as opposed to big business, where everyone wrings their hands and looks for solutions and morals to the story. A dead small business is a sick bison feeding the hungry wolf in a nature parable, while big business failure requires solutions, restructuring and fixes. Small businesses are often started with credit cards, home equity, and meager savings. It is true banks only loan you money when you don't need it. But lest you think this is truly the small boat, small business is also surprisingly sophisticated.

Small business leverages cutting edge technology. Facebook is my bitch, allowing marketing power never experienced in human history. Point of sale systems are leap frogging in sophistication from one version to the next, with web integration, custom ordering, and bells and whistles the big retailers have had for years. I can't keep up with it, while it was pretty stagnant just five years ago. We use and experiment with modern management techniques. We employ just-in-time inventory models and inventory metrics for maximum efficiency. We study how to improve and how others are succeeding in fiddly, corner case areas where big business and entrepreneurs fear to tread. We do this while placing orders for toilet paper and instructing staff how to put boxes on shelves. Small business gets so little respect, that even the designation "small business" is appropriated. the SBA considers small business to have up to 500 employees. 500!

I started this business because I wanted a simpler life, something easier to understand. I expected my game story to be like Oleson's Mercantile from Little House on the Prairie. I actually envisioned that quant store when I thought about it. I saw myself counting nails at Oleson's. Let me tell you though, this business can be just as complex and sophisticated as any business out there. This ain't the prairie, my friend.

And that's where we get into perception. It is perceived, by those who know us, that we are in fact Mr. Olesons in our mercantiles. That our small boat, is a hobby of a business, a simple place where we play games all day, rather than a sophisticated small enterprise.

I don't want to sound defensive, because I know I will to the uninitiated, but we are not entry level. We are not a place for your first job or for high school kids to get their feet wet in business. The staff is educated, sophisticated, and well trained, with jobs easily as complex as any entry level college graduate corporate position. My staff will crush it when they move on to their professions. I am not exaggerating. I'm also not saying we're special. This is true with all small businesses like ours. It's really damn hard. There is no net or societal support, in fact often the opposite, as we are not represented by a lobby or effective trade group. Want a tax hike? Tell small business to bend over. Don't get me started on the county agriculture department harassment. There is also no luck.

We're not swinging for the fences, so we're not entrepreneurs, but neither are we playing store. We won't have a shot at riches and fame like those clever MBAs (nor will we burn millions in a bon fire), but we're no less professional in our endeavors. We are all in the same boat. I suppose if I could impart one bit of understanding to our friends, family, community and the rest of the business world, it would be this.

Thankfully, I believe most of our customers understand this.



  2. Well said Gary. I imagined it more like the dead parrot shop:

  3. I want to hear about the county agriculture department harassment! Do they think RPGs are fruits?

  4. The counties were starved for cash, so the state passed a law a few years ago that allows counties to raise revenue by regulating barcode scanners. Now, a modern barcode scanner for a point of sale machine is a dumb piece of hardware. There is no scale, not a chance in hell of a mis scan, no calibration and no need for inspection or maintenance. It's a binary device. It works perfectly or it doesn't work at all.

    So the county department of agriculture goes around shaking down small businesses with point of sale machines, charging them hundreds of dollars a year for having a barcode scanner. They don't inspect it or even show up after they shake you down, they just fine the hell out of you if your extortion check is late. They can, quite frankly, die in a fire (it nearly happened two years ago).