Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Key Small Business Insight No. 1: Don’t call them “Small Business”

Yes, this blog is called “Selling to Small Business.” That’s because it is not designed for small business.

To marketers, ‘small business’ is a useful name for a market segment. But just as you would not address a “Single White Male” (another perfectly useful marketing descriptor) as “Single White Male,” I urge you to avoid using the phrase “small business” when talking to entrepreneurs.

(I hardly ever use the phrase on my other blog, Canadian Entrepreneur. Because small-business owners read it.)

Years ago, when I joined PROFIT Magazine, it was called, er, Small Business Magazine. That name did a great job of describing our market niche – but it was a name many readers shunned. In English, the word “small” is a pejorative. It often means “inconsequential.” We talk about “small talk” (idle, meaningless chitchat). “Small potatoes, small beer, small-town thinking…” are all negative concepts.

If you think about the work it takes to build even a three- or four-person business, you may understand the resentment many business owners feel when you call their company “small.”

At, um, Small Business magazine, we held focus groups and learned that some readers didn’t mind the name, but most did. One owner said he hid the magazine inside the pages of another magazine, so none of his employees could see him reading something called “Small” Business. Another attendee summed it up perfectly: “A small business is any business that’s smaller than my business.

When you call a business ‘small,” you are (probably unconsciously) judging it. Sure, it's small compared to the banks, Alcan or Loblaws. But judged by its own markets and aspirations, it's not small. I remember meeting a guy who talked about running "the third-largest steel fabricator in the Ottawa Valley.” By most national standards it’s a small business – but not in his eyes. He’s a significant player in his markets.

Marketing 101 says you must view the world through your customers’ eyes. Please toss the word “small business” out of your copywriting vocabulary.

What’s wrong with the word “business?” (Or “business owner,” if you’re getting personal?) 98% of businesses are small and medium-sized businesses – so they’re the norm, not Air Canada, Bombardier or Chrysler.

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