Upon a recent arrival at Heathrow Airport, the immigration officer looked over my passport and asked what I did for a living. A reasonable question. But how would you answer? Maybe you’re a dentist, or you run a pizza shop. You can be an architect, or you're in the auto industry. Do you sell shoes?
Me? I’m in the technology business (I’m also a CPA, so sometimes I say that).
Would you ever reply that you’re a “small-business owner?” I doubt that you would. I don’t. And most of the business owners I meet, particularly my clients, wouldn’t call themselves that either.
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That’s because even though the media loves to call us “small-business owners,” big companies devote their marketing and PR efforts towards “small business,” politicians pander to the “small-business audience” and there are countless “small-business events” and organizations that serve the “small-business community,” no one I know who runs a business ever refers themselves as a “small-business owner.”
What does that even mean? The only people who call themselves that are the ones who have just quit their jobs, started up a business and are so proud that they love calling themselves a “small-business owner” -- or even worse, an “entrepreneur.” Don’t worry -- that wears thin after a few months of living life in the cold, hard world or the first customer doesn’t pay their bill, whichever comes first.
Because I run a small business and write about small business, people sometimes ask me: “So, how are things out there for small business?” That’s like asking “So, what’s it like to be a Californian?" or “What’s the best restaurant in Manhattan?”
Depending on who you ask, there are between 20 to 30 million small businesses in the U.S. alone. So how the hell do I know how they’re all doing? Like recommending a restaurant, you can’t just make a blanket statement about all small businesses. Depending on their industry, region, customers, management and technology, some do good, others do better, some fail. Referring to someone as a “small-business owner” is just too generic. A little ignorant, too.
Not only that, but calling me a small-business owner is kind of demeaning. When is “small” ever good in American society? We love big things. Super-sized meals. Giant stadiums. Grand ballrooms. Tall buildings. Large houses. Huge rock stars. When you call someone a “small” business owner you’re immediately saying, “Oh, he’s just the little guy. How adorable is that?”
Aren’t we a little more important than that? Do we have to be referred to as “small”? Even calling oneself a “business owner” sounds vague and a little sketchy. “Yeah, I’m a business owner, y’see? I do a little bit of dis and a little bit of dat. You know -- export and import kind of stuff, you get me?”
Don’t refer to yourself as a "small-business owner." Don’t let other people call you that either. You are something. You are making something. You are providing a service. You are solving a problem. You are fulfilling a need. Do you want “small-business owner” on your tombstone?
No, you want to be remembered for what you did. You were a great accountant. You ran a popular restaurant. You owned a successful manufacturing firm. You served the equipment parts industry for 40 years. Your company cleaned offices. Sure, these are all small businesses, but you don’t want to be known as a "small-business owner." You want to be known for what your small business did to make the world a little better.
So the next time you’re at a party, networking event or conference and someone asks you what you do, don’t ever say you’re a “small-business owner.” Say what you do.