The perplexities of small business

As a business journalist, small business continues to baffle me. Not so much the way small businesses themselves work or how they contribute to the economy but rather how to cover them. It’s an eternal problem we face at the magazine. And to all the small-business people taking in the blog, maybe you can help.

There really is no question that, as a business magazine, we should include stories about small business, especially in a place like B.C., which we do – from time to time and with some difficulty. This province tops out the rest of Canada in a whole range of small-business statistics. The West Coast seems to be a magnet for those super-keen, beaming optimists who earnestly believe they’ve got the next big thing. It’s great. Vancouver has fabulous restaurants partly because the competition is so hot.

The problem is this: small business is all business. It’s easy to do a story about the forestry sector when something major changes, but the small-business area isn’t quite that simple. All the bits don’t really have a lot in common with each other. Really, what exactly does a small retailer have in common with a restaurant or a tourism outfit or a software startup?

I’ll tell you: the boring bits. Payroll, invoicing, cash-flow, taxes, and on and on. But the compelling element, the “story,” is whatever that restaurant, that shop, those nerds are doing in their own turf. And when you get into that stuff, suddenly it’s not a small-business story anymore; it’s a food/retail/tech story. You see the problem.

That’s why small business stories are so often one of two things: either advice pieces to impart some critical bit of know-how that applies to the greater entrepreneurial mass, or profiles that tell the harrowing adventure story of a single small-business pioneer. (I personally prefer the latter.)

But so as not to over-simplify, there are other great topics worth covering, which we’ve done, such as outfitting your office with open-source software, succession planning and micro lending. But unlike all things green, this list of story ideas dries up pretty fast.

All that being said, writing about small business can be lots of fun, mostly because you get to meet some fascinating entrepreneurs with great stories to tell (once they get over trying to promote themselves). But that doesn’t make it easy.