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Golden Age

When it comes to birthdays and anniversaries, 50 is a big number (the difference being most people eagerly anticipate their 50th anniversaries and dread their 50th birthdays). But both occasions are meant to be celebrated, so let's all wish the SBA a happy 50th anniversary.

Yes, despite what some may believe, entrepreneurship was not born in the go-go '90s--the SBA has actually been helping small businesses become big businesses since President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched it in July 1953 to "aid, counsel, assist and protect, insofar as possible, the interests of small-business concerns." Over the years, companies like FedEx and Apple Computer have received some sort of SBA assistance. Despite this, the federal agency has sometimes had to fight for its life, with various politicians trying to "starve" it--via devastating budget cuts--out of existence. But like the small businesses it is mandated to help, the SBA hung tough and survived.

After 50 years, most Americans--as well as people around the world--have certainly changed their views of small business. Most of us know the drill by now: Nearly every U.S. business (about 99 percent) is a small business. You employ more than half of all Americans and contribute more than 50 percent of the U.S. GDP. You are the job creators (the entrepreneurs of the '90s created the overwhelming majority of new jobs in that decade) and the innovators. And while recessions may slow you down a bit, they don't stop you. They can't stop you, because as the song goes in the Tony Award-winning smash Hairspray: "You can't stop an avalanche as it races down the hill."

One of the joys of my job is, I get to see this entrepreneurial juggernaut in motion. I recently came back from eBay Live!, where more than 10,000 eBay sellers converged to meet, mingle and learn. Now, many people probably dismiss eBay sellers as hobbyists or owners of very tiny businesses. And surely, many are. But thousands came to seminars to find out how to improve their operations, write a business plan and find sources for new products. There are many eBay entrepreneurs (and the numbers are increasing daily) who are not only operating real businesses, but have also grown them into million-dollar enterprises. (You can meet a few of them or find out how to become one of them in "Let the Bidding Begin.")

Companies like eBay have redefined retail. If you are a retailer, you are obviously aware that your competition has increased at least a thousandfold as consumers can now choose to shop online as well as in your store. How can you compete? Of course, you can join them and add an online store to your brick-and-mortar shop. But you also need to learn how to make more customers come into your stores. A good place to start doing that is with our "Talking Shop" feature, where branding expert and Entrepreneur contributor Elizabeth Goodgold got megasuccessful retailers like Anthropologie, Build-A-Bear Workshop, ESPN Zone, Hot Topic and Starbucks to share some of their success secrets.

Small business sure has come a long way since the SBA was formed, and yes, to use the cliché, we have a long way yet to go. Some of you are still confronting the same challenges that small- and midsized business owners faced 50 years ago, while others are confronting a whole new set of issues. When you first opened your doors, you knew it wouldn't be easy, but my guess is, you'd all say it's been worth it.

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This article was originally published in the September 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Golden Age.

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