Every time you see a small business, someone made a brave decision

I saw this board outside a cafe in the high street of my town and loved it.

I took a photo and then went into the cafe. I’d never been in before but I had a chat with Emma, the proprietor (who was also the barista, waitress, cleaner, CEO and pretty much everything whilst her staff were furloughed).

Most normal employees don’t realise how hard people with their own business work. Emma told me she’d spent the last 5 years living and breathing the business until it had been frozen by events earlier this year.

Good things take years to build but can be destroyed in an instant. Breaking things is quick and easy. In contrast, the work to create something good is often slow, laborious and painstaking.

What could I do to help? Well, not much but something. I ripped up the first cliche rule of personal finance bloggers and I bought a large latte.

Part of being a grown up is making peace with the reality that our power to change the world is limited. In an age of virtue-signalling and posturing on social media, spending with a small business that you respect is one small way of putting your money where your mouth is.

Every time you see a business, someone somewhere once made a brave decision. They took a risk, overcame fear and took action.

There are the people who complain on the internet and never do anything useful. And then there are the people that work hard, build businesses and quietly get on with it.

Pros respect other pros and small businesspeople respect other small businesspeople because they know how tough the game is.

Small business is personal. People in big organisations can often hide behind committees and procedures. But small business owners, founders and entrepreneurs can’t hide: they have skin in the game.

I love the vision of financial independence laid out here by the director of Playing with FIRE: what if you could set free the talents of thousands of smart, talented, hard-working people? What if they no longer sat in corporate meetings but were free to work for a charity or for a start-up, write that classic novel, or open the perfect cafe, bike shop or yoga studio?

It’s good to know you have enough to never work again when you have invested net worth of 25x your annual spending. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop work or even that it’s a good idea. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure it’s healthy to wait until achieving the magic 25x before making change in your life and walking away from a job if it’s eating away at you.

One of my life-changing books is What Shall I Do With My Life? a collection of true stories about real people who followed their heart and made big, brave changes in their life.  Most of them did this with little or no financial security.  The Escape Artist was not brave enough to do this and so waited to get to financial independence before pulling the trigger.  But I admire those with more courage than me.

In The Correct Way To Start A Business we talked about how to get started without debt and risking a lot of money. By using The Lean Start Up methodology you can drastically reduce the capital requirements of a new business and improve the odds of survival. And if you do it right, you should be able to close it down without losing much money even if it doesn’t work out.

So you can start most businesses without risking much of your freedom fund. But its always going to feel scary to leave the harbour of employment and take your chances on the high seas of entrepreneurship. As someone smart once said: the most addictive things in this world are heroin, sugar and a monthly salary.

I know from personal experience that even just writing an obscure blog and putting your name to it feels scary. To put yourself out there, market your business in a noisy world and ask people to hand you money takes courage. People with limiting beliefs (i.e. just about all of us) can find a million reasons to tell ourselves why this would never work for us.

I used to think that entrepreneurship was only for scientists and techie people that had invented a new widget or wonder-drug. But I’ve come to realise is that entrepreneurship is a learnable skill that all us can get better at. Not all of us can be Elon Musk – talent is very unevenly distributed – but just about everyone has it in them to run a cafe, market stall or business on Ebay.

Frugality and entrepreneurship get written about by different tribes and so often seem to exist in different worlds. Yet they’re two sides of the same coin. The more frugal you are, the more you can save. The more you can save, the easier it is to build a fund that will feed you whilst you change career, go self-employed or start a business. The lower your burn rate, the longer your runway. If you can live on £12k a year, a £60k pot funds a 5 year runway.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to quit their day job to start a business without savings. Better to keep the day job while you get that small business / side-hustle up and running and only quit once the concept is proven and earning enough to sustain you.

Although The Escape Artist has been known to rail against shopping as a leisure activity, I’m not anti-business or even anti-shops per se. What I am against is driving to soulless, out of town shopping centres to buy plastic crap that we don’t need shipped from some awful factory in China.

The Prison Camp has a certain brutal efficiency but it lacks soul. Individuality and artisan passion tends to get squeezed out by scale and uniformity. Very occasionally you get a large company run by some crazy guy who is so insanely dedicated that the company retains the ethos, the passion and the ethics of the founder. Apparently Steve Jobs would get worked up about the aesthetics of the internal circuit boards…stuff that the customers could not even see. Steve Jobs did not give the customers what they wanted, he gave them something better than they wanted.

The artisan producer gives their craft their very best. Not just because that’s good for the customer and good for business. But because the artisan can not operate any other way: only the best is good enough. Because they are independent, they never compromise their quality or their ethics. This is what Nassim Taleb calls Soul In The Game.

Small is beautiful and not all businesses should be scaled up even if the demand exists. For example, lets say I could patent my magic formula for financial coaching and hire a bunch of compliant juniors to deliver it while I was at the beach. Even if that business model worked, I wouldn’t do it because my financial coaching is an artisanal business.

Big business tends to get disconnected from the vision of the founder. And, as everyone who has ever sat waiting in the queue to talk to a disgruntled worker in a call centre somewhere, a huge disconnect can open up between big business and the customers.

In the same way, big government tends to get disconnected from the voters and their concerns. Large charities tend to become bureaucratic and get disconnected from their causes as they get big. The answer is more localism: more decisions made by people and politicians who know their own lives and their own circumstances and those of the communities around them.

Free market capitalism is an amazing force for good and startups and small businesses are its purest form. If you are engaged in a legal business where people are voluntarily paying you money, you’re almost certainly adding value to others and making the world a better place.

Contrary to popular belief, the profit motive tends to make people more polite, more willing to negotiate / compromise and more focussed on customer service. How many times have you been oppressed by a local shop keeper or cafe owner? How often have they stolen from you or exerted undue power over you? It just doesn’t happen.

In my utopia there would be large scale home delivery complemented by vibrant quirky independent book stores, coffee shops, bars, craft workshops and gyms. People would shop at farmers markets, fairs and festivals. Stuff would be made closer to the customer by a mixture of robots and 3D printers (for the mass produced necessities of life) and by local artisan craftspeople (for the fun stuff).

As I’ve said before, context is everything. If you are young and / or in debt, you are under no obligation to buy expensive lattes from your local business. If that’s your situation, you should switch to Monk Mode. First things first: get your own house in order. Apply own oxygen mask before helping others.

But for those of us further down The Path, maybe we should support our local businesses?


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10 comments

  1. Damoto · · Reply

    Your utopia sounds a bit like the Lanes in Brighton! Having worked in the corporate world and now set up a couple of small businesses I understand the dedication and effort required, and it can be a lot more authentic with your effort put into creating value for your customers rather than playing internal politics. I would certainly endorse supporting small businesses, an example of one that is getting most things right is Alpkit. This was demonstrated by their recent crowdfunding launch which reached £1.5M (against a £750K target) in 50 minutes.

  2. a large latte?! Oh, you’ve changed… 😉

  3. just another brilliant blog post, Barney

  4. John of Hampton · · Reply

    I really enjoyed this because it endorses my position. Since lockdown began, I have gone out of my way to support local businesses: the corner shop, slightly more expensive than the supermarket but never running out of toilet rolls or eggs; the fish and chip shop that immediately went over to home delivery; and the independent wine merchant that closed its shop and also converted to home delivery. These businesses deserve our support, and they will have mine from now on. The privilege of financial independence is being able pay a little bit more to protect them and help keep them going.

  5. Thought provoking because as much as I have missed cafes I have never wanted to go back to chain coffee.
    Independent anything has a tough job without the economies of scale and tax dodging the big boy is have.
    Building something of value and meaning is what we should all be doing.

  6. Having left the corporate world just under a year ago to start my own business I really appreciate your perspective on this. Thank you.

  7. Great point.
    The ‘Nextdoor’ app is really useful to find out about things locally, especially businesses that don’t have a shop front to notice them.

  8. “Large charities tend to become bureaucratic and get disconnected from their causes as they get big.”

    Great Post TEA, this really rang true. I worked in the biggest charities in the country and could tell you some tales….

  9. A entirely different latte factor!

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