In Praise of Small Success

Everyone these days is chasing after the billion-dollar idea. We look at the giants in the technology industry – Google, Yahoo, eBay, even Microsoft – and see companies that only a few years ago (or a couple decades ago in Microsoft’s case) were tiny startups struggling to get by. When they hit, they hit big, and made their owners more money than anyone on Earth had ever dreamed of having.

Good for them. But their success has radically distorted the way most people look at their own lives, businesses, and prospects. The Google model of success is great – hooray them! – but frankly, it’s a little irrelevant.

Most of us won’t have a billion-dollar idea. And even if we do, we’ll have it at the wrong time without the resources to make it a billion-dollar company. And you know what? That’s fine.

Oh, business books don’t think so. Peruse the shelves of your local bookstore’s business section and you’ll see book after book analysing, studying, describing, and generally fawning over the huge success stories. They all claim the same thing: follow the example of Apple, Starbucks, GM, Warren Buffett, or whomever and you, too, can be successful. Don’t follow their example, and you’re… well, doomed to failure.

What a crock.

First of all, visit a thrift store sometime and have a look at all the business books of yesteryear, and all the companies they held up as success stories. Compaq, Enron, Digital Equipment, Chrysler, AOL. Models to follow?

But more importantly, it’s a false vision of success. Few companies ever operate at the scale the business gurus plot “success” at. And few of us need the kind of validation that building a billion-dollar business – or even a million-dollar business – provides.

I’m speaking out in praise of small success. The band that sells 50,000 copies of its album. The local dry cleaner who runs 6 branches citywide. The family with the chain of fast-food franchises. The couple that runs a popular pre-school and daycare. The painter voted Best Local Artist three years in a row by the city’s alternative weekly paper. The independent spirit who runs the city’s alternative weekly paper. The high school band teacher whose students win music scholarships year after year.

I know it’s not flashy. But it’s good, damn good.

1000 True Fans and the Stallman Model

My thinking here derives from two sources. The first is Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1000 true fans. Kelly’s suggestion is simple: to survive as an artist doesn’t necessarily require a major label distribution deal, a wealthy patron, a contract with a multi-national publishing house, or an appearance on Oprah. All it takes is the cultivation – by whatever means necessary and possible – of 1000 loyal, devoted fans. People who will buy your books, records, t-shirts, paintings, or whatever else; who will travel hundreds of miles and line up for hours or days to see you speak, play, or perform; people who will spread the word, give your products (whatever hey are) as gifts, and talk you up to local business owners, media outlets, and other artists.

If a thousand true fans are willing to spend just $100 a year on whatever it is that you do, that’s a healthy $100,000 a year income. Just from that core – others might well buy an album here and there, ask a library to carry your book, or purchase a print of your painting. But that core of true fan support is what sustains the artist, year in and year out.

Richard Stallman advocates something similar in his crusade for free (as in freedom) software. Again and again he’s asked how people can make money if they don’t charge for their software, and again and again he responds: by providing services related to their software. Support. Training, Customization. Made-to-order programs.

Doing the right thing, Stallman admits, is not the fast-track to riches. Instead, he says, it’s a way for people who love coding to bring in a healthy income year in and year out. Coding for the software equivalent of 1000 true fans.

Making a Living vs. Making a Killing

What both Kelly and Stallman are advocating is making a living – a good, solid, stable living – doing something you love. It’s a living built on community-mindedness, social spirit, and a solid relationship with the people who buy or use your work. Yes, it means giving up the ability to “monetize” every interaction between a potential customer and whatever it is you make. But in return you gain the ability to focus on the thing you love, and the value it brings to other people’s lives, instead of the bottom line.

Most of the business books on the shelves, and most of the businesses functioning  in our contemporary society, don’t have that luxury. They’re not focused on making a living but on making a killing – bringing in the big bucks, milking whatever they’ve got for whatever it’s worth, and making sure that not a single person derives value from their products without first ponying up some cash.

Of course, this hasn’t been without its successes. I’m not going to say there is no use for the kinds of innovations that some corporations have brought about – although it’s notable that very few corporations last more than a couple decades, and even fewer stay at the forefront of their field for even half that long. Microsoft is positively ancient by the standard of market leadership time (and there are plenty of folks who see their crown slipping); Apple is getting pretty ripe as well (they’ve been at the top of their game for about a decade now, in a rare corporate second  chance). Far more often the leaders of the pack give way to upstarts – remember Altavista?

More importantly, the “making a killing” approach really is killing. Big corporations, especially publicly held ones, can’t afford community-mindedness, unless it yields a positive return for their public relations department. They can’t afford to build personal relationships with the people who buy, use, and live by their products – especially when, as so often happens, they are hiding information about health, environmental, and other risks from their customers. And let’s not forget that it was a handful of corporate leaders and financial players out to make a killing who brought the current economic crisis on us all.

But it’s not to speak out against corporate greed that I am writing this piece. It is to celebrate the little successes, and to suggest that for most of us, they are more than enough to lead us to happy, healthy, and in the end regret-free lives. Because not a lot of people are willing to say it – certainly the folks who write business books aren’t. And it deserves to be said.

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