Why do I enjoy writing about small business? Sportswriters get excited about last-minute heroics on the playing field. Political correspondents are drawn to the power politicians have to change our daily lives.
Me? I’m a huge fan of the unsung heroes in this land who have the guts to run a small business. When I look for heroes, I see entrepreneurs and small business owners who believe in an idea so passionately that they are willing to work incredibly long hours. They make enough money to support themselves and their family. They make enough more to pay the people they’ve hired. They convince bankers and venture capitalists and friends and family that their business is worth backing. They convince customers that their products or services are worth buying. They learn to hire people they can trust and inspire. They are the chief executive, the chief financial officer and the chief marketing person all rolled into one until the company gets big enough to hire people to do these jobs. They figure out how to keep customers and how to get new ones. They tirelessly believe in themselves and what they do.
That’s why I was thrilled when my editors at FOXNews.com asked me to write a column for the new small business section. Even though my only entrepreneurial experience was a 3-year stint as a freelance writer, what's more important is what I do have in my corner: I believe in entrepreneurs and small businesses just as passionately as they believe in themselves. I believe that they are the heart, soul and backbone of the U.S. economy. Statistics bear me out, but I’m not going to bore you with them right now. I see red whenever I consider how little either political party does to help small business, paying only lip service to its true contribution to our economy. Today, I want to talk about what makes entrepreneurs and small business owners the true Americans – the ones we all wish we could be, if only we had the guts.
My first job in high school was thanks to a small business owner. He was a dentist who supported himself and a staff of three. After I graduated from college, I had the rare good luck to end up working for a new, start-up magazine in Boston. Perhaps you’ve heard of it – Inc. magazine. I remember talking with people about it before the first issue came out in April 1979 only to hear them say, “Ink? Do you mean the printer’s ink?”
That’s right, back in the late 1970s, small business didn’t get much attention. In fact, that’s exactly why Bernie Goldhirsh, the publisher of Sail magazine, decided to start Inc. He had made a business out of his passion for sailing. And once Sail took off with subscribers, he kept reading all the business press to get ideas on how to handle his business and how to help it grow. But, as he told the story, the only business publications out there were all aimed at big business: Fortune magazine, Forbes magazine, the Wall Street Journal. He said it bugged him so much that he decided to start a magazine for small business owners who were facing the same problems he was. And he succeeded—when statistically only one out of every seven new magazines makes it.
So there I was, working first as a copy editor, then as a writer, interviewing entrepreneurs and small business owners who included the founders of Jelly Belly, the company famous for making President Ronald Reagan’s favorite jelly beans; a company in Milwaukee that painted fire engines by hand; a business in Rochester that had converted a historic building into its headquarters. I suggested that we do mini-profiles of some of the companies on the first Inc. 100 list, and then I wrote those profiles. In my four years, I learned quickly that entrepreneurs are completely engaged in their life work. They are self-reliant people who feel strongly about the “rightness” of what it is they do for a living. Whether they owned a trucking company or produced jellybeans – it didn’t matter. I heard the same passion and intensity whether I was speaking to laid-back Californians, slow-talking Texans or crisp-accented New Yorkers.
I was struck by the star power of each and every one of the people I met – and yet none of them was well known. They simply ran their businesses and made this nation better and stronger. People do this kind of work today with the same anonymity and the same sterling results. Even though many small businesses don’t make it to the big time – or don’t make it at all – for a certain kind of person, the passion to start a business remains.
The way I look at it, entrepreneurs put themselves on the line every day. They are courageous. They don’t hide behind anyone else. They make the decisions, and they either suffer the consequences or enjoy the rewards. They put it on the line, like defense attorneys who argue a death-penalty case before a judge and jury. They hold themselves responsible, like NFL cornerbacks who are the last defense against a long pass on the football field. They make the tough decisions, like field lieutenants on the ground in Iraq who make command decisions that might result in the loss of lives. It takes guts to run your own small business; and those of us who know we don’t have the guts to do it ourselves can still be grateful for and support those who do.
I’ve since gone on to work for other small businesses – in fact, I work for one now, a financial forecasting service founded in 1979, ElliottWave.com. I’ve also worked for medium-sized businesses, big businesses and a bureaucracy (the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), as well as serving as a newspaper business editor. I’ve seen a little bit of it all, and I still hold the greatest admiration for the entrepreneurs I’ve met and worked with. Welcome to my new column about small business, where, every other week, I will write about the challenges that entrepreneurs and small business owners face.
Susan C. Walker writes a personal finance and economics column for FOXNews.com as well as this small business column. She works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company, and has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She graduated from Stanford University.