Before I started my first business in 1974, I went looking for all the information I could find. I haunted my local library trying to find something that could help me start the kind of business I envisioned: small, at home, creative. The scant offerings on starting a business all assumed that the reader intended to have employees, pension plans, real estate and so forth. I wanted to market ideas; the books assumed I’d be manufacturing a product for wide distribution.
I attended a Start Your Own Business seminar hosted by the SBA. That was more discouraging than illuminating. I began to wonder if I was setting myself up for a huge disappointment since my vision didn’t seem to align with anyone’s notion of what it meant to be an entrepreneur.
Eight years earlier, unbeknownst to me at the time, Paul Hawken was opening one of the country’s first natural food stores in Boston. A dozen years later, he started Smith & Hawken, a mail order business to offer tools and garden ornamentation.
Both of those operations were more conventional than mine, but he shared my confusion.
He still feels that way. I read a recent interview with Hawken and was both surprised and relieved to see he shared my experience. He said, “When I started the natural food business in Boston, my business knowledge was scant. I did the best I could and began reading everything I could lay my hands on. I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. It confused me. I read the major business magazines. Their Fortune 500 world seemed irrelevant. I sneaked into classes at the Harvard Business School. Their case studies were lunar in their usefulness to my enterprise. The more I searched, the more confused I became. The more exposure I gained to the ‘official’ world of business, the more I began to doubt that I was in business at all. I seemed to be doing something entirely different. I get that same feeling today when I read most of the standard business literature believe that most people in new businesses, and some in not-so-new businesses, have the same problem. They don’t feel connected to the conventional wisdom..as if a small business is just a flake chipped off the larger corporate world.”
I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted a link on Twitter to a round up of marketing books. I clicked on the link and as i scrolled through the list had that old feeling. “These books don’t have much bearing on the kind of business that I run.” While the books might have been a good fit for a large, conventional business, the ideas didn’t really transfer.
Since this new breed of entrepreneur has come on the scene, it’s been obvious that our notion of building a business is noticeably different than that of a corporate empire builder. Fortunately, there’s a growing array of tools to help us out. We may have to work a little harder to discover them, however.
Making your way through that gigantic information hardware store can be confusing. It may involve some experimenting in order to get the right tools you need to build the business of your dreams. Make an effort to connect with others who are running solo or tiny businesses. Audition organizations to see where you feel a connection before you commit. Learn to synthesize good ideas and ignore those that don’t work for you.
When building a business or a life or a family or an adventure, you want the best tools you can find. As Abraham Maslow warned, “When the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, you tend to see life as a nail.”
After all, you wouldn’t use a toothbrush to build a house. You can’t build a business with the wrong tools, either.