An Evening with Bo Burlingham: How to Be a Small Giant

Written by Paige Dawson on Thursday, June 8th, 2017

So, Monday evening I had an ultimate fan-girl moment: I attended the Grow With Purpose event that featured Bo Burlingham.

Yes, that Bo Burlingham – the rock star small business writer of Inc. and Forbes fame as well as five books. I’ve been a voracious reader of his articles for literally decades now. He possesses an amazing storyteller quality that makes each article feel authentic, engaging, inspiring, and even actionable.

I’m happy to report that in person he is just as authentic, endearing, funny, and humble. Humble as in he says, “I’m just curious, so I write books. My secret is to tell people what they already know, but other people are telling them they are crazy.”

What Makes a Small Giant?

His talk was based on his book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big that’s currently celebrating a 10th anniversary edition update and even has its own Small Giants Community.

Granted I knew the theme and story, as I’d read the book years ago, but hearing the author share tidbits was fascinating. Here’s my giddy recap.

The premise for the book and movement all started with one Inc. magazine article 15 years ago called “The Coolest Small Company in America” about Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan—the company that was determined to make the best pastrami sandwich there was. By all accounts, they succeeded and then faced the question of what’s next. Do they franchise? Do they take private equity money and expand locations? Where do they want to be in 15 years?

Well, the owners took an entirely different route and used their skills, processes, and culture to start companion businesses to be the best at other areas—a bakery, a creamery, etc.

They were the best at what they did. They had a choice to grow faster, but didn’t. They had been around long enough to be stable. They built an amazing culture with their employees. They had “mojo.”

Bo deemed it mojo—the business equivalent of charisma that an individual leader may have. You can just feel it when you talk to their employees or customers. It’s a business that you want to buy from, sell to, work for, or read about. You want to be associated in some manner with this organization.

From that one article, Bo’s curious nature took over. He was determined to find out:

  • Are there other companies out there that are similar?
  • What is that something special that they possess?

Bo’s research identified six main principles of these Small Giants.

  1. They are led by people who have self-awareness and self–knowledge. They know who they are, what they want, and why they want it. If not, they run the risk of doing what other people say or want them to do. They can’t be swayed and know what feels and is best for the business and integrity. Case in point: Gary Erickson of Clif Bar & Company walked away from a $120 million company sale that wasn’t right.
  2. Their personality is shaped by their communities. Yes, they all give back in terms of time and treasure, but more, they have a personal connection, tie, and loyalty to their local community. They simply could not be located anywhere else. Case in point: Just as the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be the same experience outside of The Louvre, Anchor Brewing could only be in San Francisco.
  3. They get personal with their customers and suppliers. They establish a relationship beyond business. It’s friendship. It’s personal. They care about your life, your family, your business, your values, your opinions, your passions. They make you feel welcome and are thrilled that you are there to see them, call them, and interact with them. Case in point: Righteous Babe Records sent handwritten notes and replies to customers who ordered or offered feedback. (A girl after my own heart, as notes are an MPD signature move.) Restaurateur Danny Meyer called his focus to provide “enlightened hospitality” and a restaurant or company with a soul.
  4. They put employees first, customers second. While they want their businesses to be successful, they know that their success depends on the engagement, ownership, and skills of their employees. And, they realize they must care for their employees in totality, as humans with lives outside of their business. Case in point: Herb Kelleher attributed Southwest Airlines’ value to its culture and its culture to its people—their number one priority.
  5. Their leaders are passionate about the business. Regardless of what the business is, from a food manufacturer to a consultant to a warehouse, the founder loves that business and could think of nothing better. Case in point: Bo shared how his pal Norm Brodsky, who originally owned a records storage firm, would say he “loved the smell of cardboard in the morning.”
  6. They understand finances matter. Now, this is a new principle Bo developed as part of the anniversary edition; in part because a few original companies saw missteps along the way. To succeed, the businesses need to have: 1) steady gross margins that they protect; 2) a business model that is sound and will remain sound as the environment changes; and 3) the financial acumen to understand the basics of a balance sheet and income statement. Case in point: Reell Precision Manufacturing moved work offshore and was losing money, so 20 years of culture fell apart in a span of 4-5 months. Nick’s Pizza & Pub faced a similar financial crisis where Nick took ownership and responsibility for the situation. He also brought immense transparency and wrote to his customers asking for help—to come in, have a pizza, order delivery, and help us get through a few tough months. The result: customers rallied to save the company and sales doubled to avert its bankruptcy.

Where Does Transparency Fit?

It makes sense that many Small Giants also share an interest and common approach to transparency in their business with employees—and some with customers, clients, and vendors.

They support an open-book management style where employees understand and know the business numbers and financials. The goal is to use this education and awareness to help take a business to the next level by enlisting your employees in financial and decision-making duties.

Bo teamed up with Jack Stack, who pioneered the concept several decades ago as CEO of SRC Holdings. Together, they authored The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company way back in 1992 (updated again in 2013).

The approach is still as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. I know for our small firm, we practice open-book management with our team, and it does serve to make us stronger.

How Can You Learn More?

Thankfully there are many books, social media channels, events and groups that convene on this topic regularly. Here are some of my favorites:

Follow on Twitter:

Like on Facebook:

Read Bo’s annual research and list with Forbes to see who’s next:

Forbes Small Giants 2017: America’s Best Small Companies

My immense thanks to Mojo Media Labs and Insperity for the invitation and hosting the event. What an inspiring evening!

About Paige Dawson

With expertise in marketing, business strategy and public relations, as well as ‘in the trenches’ experience as a business owner, Paige Dawson brings a unique blend of talent to clients. As president and founder of MPD Ventures Company, Paige works with executives and entrepreneurs throughout the country to develop key messages, marketing strategies and measurable campaigns, driven by client business goals. She has extensive experience providing counsel for professional service firms, technology companies, associations and nonprofits.