Small businesses will save the world. And create a new one.
Updated: Nov 12
There’s an ingrained tendency in us humans to believe that things are getting worse. It started in the Garden of Eden with the snake, the apple and original sin. Ever since, we have been cast out in the wilderness, far away from God, condemned to a mortal life which ends in depravity, misery and – inevitably – death.
Carbon cynics might point to this instinct as the impetus behind the relentless doom-mongering of the environmental movement and its thrilling Millenarian theories. We are the authors of our own doom! The end is nigh! Repent! But thankfully that’s not the subject of this column.
But as with most Zombie movie narratives, in every human society there is a borderline lunatic who has an in-built resistance to the doom-fungus. That person is the entrepreneur. This hero or heroine is willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of their idea.
With a mood that swings from imposter syndrome to messiah complex, the entrepreneur wades through blood every day to realise his dream. Luke Johnson has a quote from Theodore Roosevelt framed in his downstairs loo: “It is not the critic who counts…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again… who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Why should we tolerate these impresario-madmen? Surely the ‘cold and timid souls’ in the big corporations, with their customer research departments and marketeers spending a day workshopping an Insta-post, have all the answers?
The riposte is that if your principle aim is to avoid making a mistake and getting fired, you will never change the world. Or save it. The one who will is the girl or guy who sees the boarded-up restaurant unit on a failing High Street and has a vision of a new world where a business thrives, and starts a change that ultimately results in the regeneration of the neighbourhood with immeasurable benefits for society. Amazingly, it costs the government nothing. In fact, quite the reverse – Tim Martin, who actually did exactly this and now has going on for 1,000 pubs – claimed this year that JD Wetherspoon pays £1 in every £1,000 of all tax collected by the government.
The risks are of course eye-popping, with 60% of restaurants failing in their first year and only one in five making it to their fifth anniversary. But the trade-off is worth it if you have the bug. As the great Rory Sutherland says in his book Alchemy, “It is, after all, a distinguishing feature of entrepreneurs that, since they don’t have to defend their reasoning, they are free to experiment with solutions that are off-limits to others within a corporate or institutional setting.”
In other words, and we are back to religion, the entrepreneur is a minor God in the universe of his or her own making. Especially in the early days, every initiative or decision ultimately comes back to them for the yay or nay. I am sure we have all been in meetings with founders who are presented with an opportunity. “No,” they say, “I don’t like it.” No other explanation. It’s infuriating. The arrogance! But that’s the trade-off for the risk. The reward is supreme agency. And believe me, it is addictive.
It is a truism that a recession is a great time to start a business. But think about it. If you are counting every penny you will look to relax and recover from the week in a venue where everyone has been inspired by that founder, which is doing something new, different and a bit mad, and which all your friends are talking about. Not the concept-by-numbers with the unfeasibly large advertising budget. That’s not to mention the ready availability of fitted property at lower rates, the easing of the labour market and so on which are the happy corollary (for new businesses) of a slow-down.
I hope there is a part of us which knows not to believe the media and the doom-sayers. Although the road is rough and sometimes perilous, it is leading to a better place, always. And to a significant degree that is down to entrepreneurial madness. Always has been, and always will be.