Tiny Business Is Serious Business

There are 'small' businesses. Then there are 'tiny' ones, concerned about the personal and social impact they make.

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By Sharon Rowe

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Our cultural myths drive us to build, perform and scale; but they drop us like a hot potato when we fail. When we win, everyone's a fan. When we fail, things get awfully quiet.

The media contributes to this culture, focusing on the big wins and the big fails: Big disrupters like Uber get lots of attention; so do the too-big-to-fail corporations, like Wells Fargo, which take up a lot of our precious shared mental space and from time to time knock against the walls in their halls of shame.

Related: How to Market Your Sustainable Business

The rest of us, in the middle, are regularly distracted by these "go big or go bust" myths. But, still, we go about quietly running our own businesses.

Then there is a subset in this verdant middle space -- a vibrant population of what I call "tiny" businessses: laser-focused, mission-based enterprises that are about profit but also about meeting personal, lifestyle and social-impact goals.

Those involved in a "tiny" businesses are quietly changing the norm. They are where the magic is happening, where new ideas get a chance to take root and create new markets. This is the space where Etsy was born, where business has begun to look at radically clean supply chains, where farm-to-table restaurants have blossomed in cities and suburbs. And, speaking of food, this is the space where business owners actually eat dinner with their families at night and enjoy vacations

This middle space is also where where my own company, Eco-Bags Products, has found an audience and where more than 100,000 people recently attended the industry trade show, Expo West. "Tiny" business embraces social entrepreneurship as a platform to change our relationship to work, causing outsiders to sometimes see us as, well, weird: How can business do good and do well at the same time?

Related: 10 Customer Types You Should Avoid to Build a Sustainable Business

I wrote The Magic of Tiny Business because while "tiny" is serious business, it starts with entrepreneurs who for personal reasons are pioneering new markets and changing how business is done. Green Retirement, founded by Timothy and Rose Yee, is a good example. The couple had long-standing careers in finance when their teenage son began to challenge how they were managing their client portfolios. How could they, as parents concerned with the environment, be pumping money into fossil fuel funds?

He called on them to align their business focus with their own personal values. That's how Green Retirement became a "tiny" company and made a mighty splash in financial circles with its Fossil Free 401(K) plans -- for clients who specifically want to be fossil-free.

Then there's Sandra Harris at EcoLunchBox, who was concerned about the negative health effects of plastics leaching into foods. She wanted a better solution for her kids but couldn't find it, so she started a company to make what she needed: metal lunchboxes with silicon tops.

Along the way, she paid close attention to who was making her products; she considered the social and environmental conditions involved in creating a better lunchbox. She also wanted her business to work with her personal life, making sure it didn't eat into her family time.

The "tiny" business philosophy she embraced was to take good care of herself and her family, to be in a healthier position to build her business. Today, EcoLunchBox is an example of a tiny business, with a mighty impact, healthy profits and a happy founder.

Profit with your promise: Exactly what do you need to create a tiny business?

Most important is the personal need to create the change you want to see in the world. Today, entrepreneurs like Caroline Duell of All Good Products have started and built niche empires with organic, clean ingredients. Adding fillers or non-organic products is considered anathema even if such moves widen the profit margin. An example? In the resort industry, Tara Spa has been quietly transforming environments for years.

Entrepreneurs like these know that to create a "tiny" business, they first have to ask these questions:

  • Does my business solve a problem that's important to me?
  • Am I home for meals with family and friends, at minimum, 80 percent of the time?
  • Is my supply chain clean and transparent?
  • Am I recognized as a thought leader, business leader or change agent?
  • Do I take time for my personal health and well-being?

Tiny business is where the transformative powers of business lie. We hear about small business being an engine of the economy. And according to the Small Business Association, small businesses make up 99.7 percent of U.S firms and two out every three jobs in the United States. The designation of "small" however, communicates only the size of a company. "Tiny" is a subset of "small," where businesses understand the power of what they sell as a platform to create the change they want to see in the world.

Given the rise of the "tiny" and mission-based business movements, larger brands are watching, sometimes enviously.

Some of those big brands buy niche companies, allowing the brand to reach tiny-business customers while the back of the house does business as usual. Seth Goldman of Honest Tea did a deal with Coca-Cola to scale his brand. Most of us in the social business world held our breath to see if Coca-Cola would change Goldman's ingredients or mission. But in fact the timing was right, and Honest Tea grew exponentially, meeting the built-up demand for a less sweetened, mass-marketed tea drink.

While many people in business know Goldman's story, the story of Danone (known for its yogurt) and its push for healthy is just being noticed. It's the story of what happens when an international brand decides to embrace healthy food and a "tiny" business concept overall, with a triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. It's even set out to become a B corporation, a certification for companies committed to solving social and environmental problems.

"Tiny" is also the story of an individual entrepreneur like Rona Berg, editor-in-chief of Organic Spa magazine and a beauty expert since the '90s, when she was the deputy lifestyle and beauty columnist for the New York Times. Since that time, she's been leading the charge for clean beauty.

"Tiny," then, is a mindset. A business can have a mighty impact, staying "tiny" or choosing to scale if and when the time is right. Profit, of course, is required for any business to thrive; but when the business is managed right, doing good and doing well complement each other.

Related: 8 Tiny Changes to Make Your Life 10 Times More Enjoyable

In that sense, the owners running tiny businesses can sincerely answer "yes" to the question: Does your work life, work for you? Perhaps you want to answer that question, too.

Sharon Rowe

Founder and CEO, Eco-Bags Products; Author

Sharon Rowe is the author of The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don’t Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living, and the CEO and Founder of Eco-Bags Products. The “Original Reusable Bag Company, Ecobags brand, has been recognized as a category leader since 1989. The company is known for its commitment to outstanding quality, socially responsible supply chain and innovation; and for “cleaning up the planet one bag at a time."

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