I have been a small business owner for my entire business career. Most of those small businesses have been real estate ventures of come type such as real estate brokerages, property management and owning different types of real estate. But I have also owned and been involved in insurance, restaurants, bars, garment factories, hotels, building and general contracting, convenience stores, food marts and gas stations. I was a partner in my first small business, a diner, at age 18. Even while I worked as an employee in someone else’s small business, I owned and operated several of my own at the same time.
I have only worked for one large corporation, and I hated every minute of the time spent there. I was employed for less than a month before I quit. I felt as if I were in prison. My boss was someone who had been in his position for many years, and he was counting the days so he could begin his impending retirement. Some of my co-workers were spending more time thinking up ways of not doing their jobs than actually performing their jobs. I was a nameless and powerless spoke in a wheel. When I realized that I had more authority and responsibility in my after-school jobs than in that behemoth of a business, I knew that I wanted to be my own boss at all costs even if it meant never playing with the big boys in the corner offices. So when you hear someone say a “mom and pop” operation, I am that business owner.
Some of the businesses I had were out-and-out financial disasters. Others became very lucrative. Most, though, just allowed me to make a decent living. I never started one in my garage that ended up being an Apple Computer. All of my businesses were just small operations. A few times when I felt the business was becoming too big, I either sold it or cut back. I wanted to know everything about the operation. Even if I did not possess the skills to do every job myself, I wanted to be able to at least understand what was needed to succeed in performing that particular job in my shop.
Why does someone like me decide to toil as an owner-operator and chief bottle washer than pursue a career with IBM? There are several reasons for taking the plunge into a life of entrepreneurship. When I was growing up most of my family, including my parents, were owners or employees of small businesses. My father went from owning a bar to being a bartender for someone then owning another bar again sometimes within weeks. That is why today I understand that failure is not defeat if one learns and tries again. We were a working class first generation and immigrant family looking to earn a decent living. For someone without skills or fluent in English or familiar with American customs, owning your own small business is the only way to grab for the brass ring. Small business ownership is in my genes. Even though I went to college and could have gone a different path, my personality and characteristics nudged me toward entrepreneurship.
Small business ownership is not for someone who doesn’t want to sweep the floors or carry out the trash. It is not for someone that wants to go home after their shift and leave business worries on their doorstep. It is not for someone that wants a guaranteed two week uninterrupted vacation each year or a pension or health insurance. It is not for someone who doesn’t possess a little of the dreamer in his soul. To be a successful small business owner, you need to be a romantic pragmatist, with a strong ego who can get out of bed in the morning day after day, week after week and year after year. You need to be self-motivated and confident that whatever happens, you can handle the day’s problems.
During this crazy political season, the four candidates for president and vice-president are extolling the virtue of small business people as job creators and the backbone of the United States’ middle class. They poetically tell the electorate that this policy or that policy is what is needed. It would be nice if one of them had ever owned a small business. The only person that states he had a job in a small business is Congressman Ryan. In high school, college and for a short time after graduating while waiting to be employed by the federal government, young Paul toiled at McDonalds, as a waiter and a trainer.
Mitt Romney at least made a fortune in the private sector. I guess you could call his boutique firm, Bain Capital, a small business. But I bet he never swept the floor trying to save the money on a cleaning person. He may have built that fortune but it wasn’t with the proceeds of his house being mortgaged to the hilt to allow him to pursue that dream. He had contacts and referrals from his father and mother. Governor Romney went to Harvard Business School and Law School. He worked hard and diligently for everything he accomplished. But Mitt is certainly not one of the guys from the neighborhood who made good. I doubt he can understand what it is like to be sweating out collecting what is owed to you so you can pay your employees that week.
President Obama apparently didn’t even have a job while in high school or college. Harvard and Yale is where he learned about private enterprise. He never experienced being a stock clerk at the corner hardware store or the kid that delivered the pies from the neighborhood pizzeria. His knowledge of small business comes from being a customer. He never invested his savings into opening a dry cleaner or even a law office. While his running mate, Joe Biden, might speak as if he knows how it is to work the factory line, he has been in politics his entire adult life. His greatest financial risk is if the Republicans shut down the government and he misses his paycheck.
The myth, we hear from our candidates, is that as small business people we are going to add jobs to the economy, that we are the job creators. It has and continues to be my firm belief that hiring additional employees is the last thing any smart small business person wants to do. I would much rather work harder and keep that person’s salary. I would much rather spend money on technology to be more efficient. A robot or computer program never walked out or didn’t come into work. Small businesses are not Fortune 500 companies. A small business owner has no bruised ego with not having thousands of employees under him. It might sound good to say I own a company that has 10 employees but I would rather have 5 employees and have more money in my pocket. That is the only way I will ever have a raise.
That is not to say that I don’t hire additional employees. I am not going to lose business over staffing issues. Additional employees have to have a benefit directly to me… not the macro economy of the U.S. It is true that small businesses hire the bulk of American workers. It is also true that small businesses jettison the most workers because most small businesses fail. The great thing about the United States is that failing is no barrier to trying again. Small business people get up, analyze why they failed and open a new business.
Another myth is that small businesses will expand by hiring more employees. That may be true for a very few business startups like Microsoft, but for the vast majority growth is measured in increases of one or two employees not hundreds. If I open a 24 hour a day 365 day convenience store no matter how successful it is, I will only employ so many workers. Even if I buy another store a mile away and staff it; have I increased the number of people working? The answer is probably not. Because if I hadn’t open that convenience store someone else would have. Sometimes, especially for small businesses, it really is a zero sum equation.
Our politicians need to stop making scape goats and heroes and concentrate on facts. The first fact is, Mr. President, I did build that business by my own ingenuity and hard work. However, Mr. Romney, I needed to count on the government to provide security, infrastructure and the rule of law to be successful. When I opened my first business more than 40 years ago, I never worried what I would pay in taxes if successful, I only worried about success. The tax rate never stopped me from going into business. Going into business is what I do just like an actor acts and a clergyman prays. What I so need of my government is consistency in laws, and tax rates and regulation. For my planning purposes I want to know what I can expect, today, tomorrow and next year.
I don’t mind being regulated. I’ve been a New York City property owner and building manager, I have lived with the stupidity of rent regulation. I’ve succeeded and prospered in spite of it. What I want to see is smart regulation. Any regulation or law that requires thousands of pages to explain its meaning becomes meaningless. Simplicity is the key to enforcement. It is not productive for the economy to have lobbyists, congressional staffers and attorneys writing arcane laws and regulations. That only ends up employing people in those nonproductive occupations. At the end of the day, it adds no new products to the American economy.
I think most Americans and the majority of small business owners agree with my sentiments. I would like my elected officials to reflect the American electorate. Perhaps we need fewer graduates of Harvard, fewer lawyers and career politicians running for office. Harry Truman was a farmer, a citizen soldier and a failed small business man before turning to elected offices. A little practical world experience would make for a better president.