I was recently chatting with some peers about the rapid changes in our industry and wondering if we should consider changing the way we train future accountants. Inevitably, this has led to discussions about the only options most accounting majors think they have: joining large public companies or large private companies. New specialties, such as data analysis, technological infrastructure, etc., only seem to underline these choices.
But options do exist, and not just in a large company where continued growth is a primary goal. Small businesses offer so much, from full service to very specialized services.
Small businesses, of course, come with their own unique set of challenges. My mother once said that “a small business owner is a chef and a bottle washer”. Yeah. It would certainly be nice to have a department to handle all the problems that arise, until that same department becomes an obstacle to progress. The advantages and disadvantages exist for small and large companies. For me personally, the freedom and agility of the former outweighs the resources and inertia of the latter.
Like you, I’m sure, my inbox is full of offers to help me grow, whether through adding people, customers, or acquisition. If I had voicemail, I’d probably have offers there too. At industry conferences, it’s much the same. Grow up, like something’s wrong if you don’t. Nothing is bad.
If control, flexibility, and culture are high on your priority list, there are some advantages to having a small business.
If you run a small business, you decide everything from the look and content of your website to who walks in the door, or even if you have a door. Firm schedules, employee schedules and tasks, whether remote work makes sense or not, etc. Change in policy or procedure? Let’s vote. The “I” has it. The only opposition is time and resources. Unnecessary meetings are surely going to suck your life because, well, it’s been a week since the last unneeded meeting? No thanks. I will use this time on strategy or efficiency. As a small business owner, I will have challenges that someone in a large business wouldn’t, but it’s my choice.
A few years ago, I spoke with a partner at a large company I had previously worked at about technology upgrades I was implementing to take advantage of paperless cloud onboarding and application processes. that would enable remote work and customers. He saw the value in doing so, but choked on the cost, access, and risk of such a move for so many in his company; it could take years and a lot of policy and training to be successful. He said, “I just can’t do it.” I replied jokingly, “I guess I can change the direction of my little canoe faster than you can steer your big boat.” That’s when I realized I had an edge.
Small businesses have the ability to change almost instantly. For example, I can learn about a new technology today, get a demo tomorrow, decide if it’s for me by the end of the week, and if so, write a check (ouch ) and begin implementation next Tuesday. It’s much easier said than done, but with fewer employees and customers, it’s a reasonable option and one I’ve done many times over the years.
Flexibility goes beyond technology. Small businesses can react to changing markets, shedding less profitable customers more quickly to focus on more desirable businesses, industries, or specific components of business processes. None of this is to say you should make quick, rash decisions. Instead, once a decision is made, a small business can move on.
I’m not talking about naps, beanbags and table tennis – not that there’s anything wrong with those things. Culture is the reason employees stay or not. Do they have a work-life balance? Do they know the impact of their work on others and on the company? Can they measure their own performance? Are they learning and developing skills? Do they feel that their manager really cares about them as a person? And as this is increasingly a factor, do they feel the business is operating in a way that suits them? These factors are obviously important in businesses of all sizes, but they are more controllable with fewer people.
Culture is also the reason why customers choose to stay or not. Do they feel like you understand the business? Do they see you as a resource, both professionally and in the community as a small business owner? A small business owner can target specific organizations to support those that have a real impact on the local business community.
Do they feel a personal connection with the people in the company? These factors impact customer loyalty, advocacy, and whether they are willing and even happy to pay the fees you are worth. I know that’s why I look forward to coming every morning…or not coming because I work from home as needed.
If you prefer clear personal and professional boundaries, you will need to find common ground. If there is no reasonable mix, most employees will opt for the larger, impersonal store with higher pay. And some customers who don’t feel a similar connection may also go this route.
It’s hard to cover all the pros and cons of being a small business. But for every pro, there’s a corresponding con. For every point I made, there is a valid counterpoint. And you may have different experiences and preferences that favor a great store. It’s just that for me, control and flexibility and culture are too important to grow in the name of growth, which is different from settling.
Being small is not a character flaw; it’s a choice. My choice.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Shayna Chapman is the owner of Shaynaco LLC, where she focuses on tax and accounting for small businesses and their owners.
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