Rating: 4 out of 5.

You might remember a post called Keep Dreaming, in which I wrote about the difference between greatness and being a Name.  Small Giants, for all that it is a book about entrepreneurship, is really talking about the same idea: that success and greatness are as much matters of definition as they are of achievement, and that greatness and success do not lie only in what could be considered standard or popular definitions of the concepts.

In that respect, I think the book is valuable.  It provides insightful case studies of a collection of small businesses in diverse fields, which fit the criteria of being “small giants” – players in an industry that are small by traditional measures, but have an outsized impact on their respective fields.  The businesses range from restaurants to records storage, and in size from one or two employees to over a thousand.  All are privately held, and are visions of entrepreneurial success, despite, or perhaps because, they chose not to cash out, go public, or pursue growth at all costs.

There is definitely something to be said for the importance of a company’s goals.  If your business goals are all related to financials, or perhaps number of employees, or similar metrics, then you might do very well at achieving those objectives in the short term, but “maximizing profits” is not a salable product or service (well, it sort of is, if you look at how the stock market and dividends work, but that’s a different conversation).  A few years ago, I worked on a satellite program that contracted with a startup company that was trying to offer “satellite communications as a service.”  The concept was great – instead of our organization having to spend the time, money, and technical expertise necessary to build and maintain antenna sites at locations around the world, we could just pay for time on this company’s antennas.  At first, the service was great, too.  We were among their very first customers, helping them test the concept and their systems, and they were eager to give us the best experience possible.

As their business matured, however, over the course of about a year and a half, they became less and less responsive, and while we never got proof, we had a sound hypothesis for what changed.  During that time, the concept of commercial satellite communications as a service exploded, and Amazon started their own version, investing in and buying out some of the small businesses that had started the idea.  Our guess is that the company’s owners became more interested in making their company look attractive as an acquisition for a larger player like Amazon than they were in providing us with a great way to talk to our satellite.

Now, this is nothing against Amazon, or the company’s owners’ goals for their company, or acquisitions, mergers, and profits – far from it.  Instead, this vignette is to emphasize the point of Small Giants: companies that focus on providing the best possible value to their customers can do great things in their fields and for their employees and owners, without needing to be stock market behemoths.  It is also an affirmation of the value of taking a long view – so many of the decisions that people make and disagree about can be traced to over what time frame the decider made their analysis.

Even more than the success stories the author included in Small Giants, I appreciated the fumbles and failures.  One of my major complaints when I read The Heart Led Leader was that it showed only affirmative examples.  Of course all of those people believed in heart led leadership – it had put them at the top of their professions, built them meaningful careers, and, on a simpler level, worked for them.  All of the companies cited in Small Giants were successful at some point, but they also all faced challenged, stumbles, and falls, in some cases permanent ones.  Several of the companies included in the first edition went out of business, were forced to sell, or were forced to make major changes to their operating structures before the second edition, and those stories, including the unhappy endings, were included in the second edition.  That inclusion is powerful to me, an important note that even if you’re doing all of these things right that make you great, it can still all go wrong.  No strategy is perfect or can account for every circumstance, and far from undermining the author’s points, including these examples made the whole book, for me, more credible and realistic.

This book did suffer a little from the flaw of so much nonfiction: that pesky tendency to become repetitive.  Because of the way the book was structures, though, it wasn’t as obvious, or at least not as obtrusive.  Rather than the whole second half of the book being repetitive, I found that the last third of each chapter was where the repetition would occur, and then a new chapter would start with new information and new content.

According to Small Giants, some two thirds of the American economy is composed of small, privately held businesses of one form or another.  They form the backbone of the economy, and of the societies in which they reside.  Yes, we all interact with the public giants: the Amazons, Facebooks, and so forth – the companies with high stock market valuations that we hear about in the news all the time.  Yet smaller companies, with a lower profile, are the ones that are probably employing us, doing our home remodels, helping us move, and keeping our communities running.  After you read Small Giants, you’ll probably start noticing just how many of them there are around you.

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