A rabbit was being chased by a hungry fox. Running for his life, he hopped over a turtle as he made haste across a small stream. Tucking himself safely inside his shell — not wanting to become collateral damage in the rabbit’s emergency — the turtle inquired about his anxious neighbor’s prospects, “Hey, Mr. Rabbit. You gonna make it?” To which Mr. Rabbit replied over his shoulder, “I GOTTA make it.”
When small business owners wake up in the morning, they often feel like Mr. Rabbit. But why are so many operating so close to the edge of survival? Why is every challenge or opportunity so momentous? Why are their circumstances so much more dramatic than for their Big Business cousins? The answer is found in the law of numbers. Let’s look at just three key examples:
Big businesses have lots of customers, so losing one is usually not a big percentage of their customer universe. A small business’s customer universe looks more like a list, on which each name represents a much larger percentage of the total. Losing a sale or customer takes a bigger mathematical bite out of the future viability of any small business.
When an employee leaves a big business, there are probably three replacements ready to be promoted off the bench to that single assignment. But even if there is a bench on a small business team, it isn’t deep. And since there are more jobs to do in a small business than people to do them, every employee is a key employee who’s difficult to replace.
Big businesses are blessed with multiple capital options, including the equity and debt (bonds) markets. A small business is the stepchild of the capital markets – sometimes more like an orphan. Other than bank loans and whatever retained earnings that can be held onto after taxes, the best way to describe other capital acquisition options is found in the names of the twin brothers of desperation, Slim and None. And even when outside capital is found, it often comes at a prohibitive premium.
With the law of numbers and perilous percentages against them, translating into limited options, small business owners survive by calling on a special kind of “I GOTTA make it” resolve. But, alas, resolve alone isn’t enough. To overcome the reality of their numbers and operate with less desperation they have to combine their grit with a focus on operating fundamentals that address the exposures. For instance:
- Customers: Know what each expects from you and deliver that within an inch of their lives. This is part of your special sauce and one of your advantages over a big business.
- Employees: Hire only those who could one day be promotable off of your bench.
- Capital: Build and maintain good relationships with at least two banks, and retain earnings like your business’ life depends on it. It does.
During The Second Punic War (218 BC), Hannibal crossed the Alps with 35,000 men and a squadron of elephants. When snow blocked their progress, scouts reported the way forward was impossible. Sensing disaster in the eyes of his men, and realizing that this was a test of his leadership, the great Carthaginian general is said to have uttered those words that small business owners say to themselves, and their people, every day: “We must either find a way – or make one.”
Write this on a rock … Like rabbits and generals, small business owners GOTTA make it with a combination of grit and fundamentals.