Canary in the Coal Mine

img_0101Through the presidential primaries and even after the election was decided, I heard that small business in America was the driving force for new jobs. That’s so important because I believe that the answer to most problems in our country is jobs. Pure and simple. People who have jobs that allow them to support their families don’t have time to riot in the streets, break store windows and get pushed back by water cannons. Without jobs, the masses see no future. No way up or even out. Jobs bring pride in accomplishment. Hard work, whether mental or physical, can provide an outlet for creativity and invention. I believe most people want to work, but when there are no jobs, people are easily swayed and manipulated. In America we need more GOOD jobs.

So, back to small business. Can they bring more jobs? Sure they can. Could they create enough jobs to pull the economy up by its bootstraps? Maybe. Here’s what the SBA states:

⚪ 28 million small businesses in America account for 54% of all U.S. sales.

⚪Small businesses provide 55% of all jobs, and  66% of all net new jobs since the 1970’s.

⚪ 600,000 franchised small businesses in the U.S. account for 40% of all retail sales.

But percentages can be deceiving. What about the number of new jobs? Ok. Let’s look. Since 1990, big business eliminated 4,000,000 jobs while small business added 8,000,000 new jobs. So, great work small businesses, we owe you a lot. But creating enough new jobs is like moving a mountain and will take a partnership between big and small business.


Looking back in history, we see that the Ottomans came up with a unique strategy when faced with sailing past the big cannons at Constantinople. They took their ships out of the water, pulling them on the shore using logs and ropes.  This got them safely out of reach of the big guns. Every man, woman and child had to pull their weight. It took a total effort with no time to rest.


That’s what it will take in this country. America the beautiful. America the brave. America the strong. So grab the rope. Do what you can, and of this nation speak no ill. The future is what we make it, bright or dark. Words aren’t enough to pull this ship, called America, across the land and out of cannon fire. GRAB THE ROPE. IT’S OUR JOB TO KEEP AMERICA GREAT. Yes, I believe small business can add jobs, but they can give us more, much more.

It occurs to me that most successful small businesses have several things in common. This is at least true of the ones I have been fortunate to work with. Let me show you the common characteristics.

Honesty, sounds simple and is easy to say, but not so easy to find today. Being honest requires making promises and keeping them. This builds trust and trust keeps us going. How much do we trust the big companies we deal with? I think you would find our attitude about big companies much like Ronald Reagan’s thoughts about Arms Control. When speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev, he said “Trust but verify.” Small businesses must rely on their reputation to be successful. No one wants to do business with a company that they think is dishonest.


Small businesses often survive or fail based on repeat business. Repeat business is a product of fair pricing, high quality and follow up. How many times has a big company called you after you bought their product to see if you like it? It does happen, but you must admit, it’s rare. Small businesses have to follow up, because their customers must not only be satisfied, they must be elated.

Next comes integrity. You might say that’s the same as honesty, but let me disagree. In my mind, honesty is making promises and keeping them, walking the talk, and doing what you say. Integrity might go a step further. Integrity means doing more than what you promise. If  you begin a task and find there is an alternative that is a better solution, offer that alternative. Look for ways of being better than even the customer expects. Don’t just fix things. Fix them so they don’t break again. Truly understand the needs of the customer and the resources the customer has to fix the problem and then tailor a solution to fit. If there is something better, even if you don’t have that product or service, don’t be afraid to say so. So, integrity is really honesty after it has spanned the test of time and held up against the fires of unjust criticism. When you have honesty, integrity, quality at a fair price and great follow up, you only need one more thing. Hard work.

I’ve discussed honesty and integrity, but what about quality at a fair price? Quality is a lot like value, it’s mostly in the eyes of the customer. Quality could be seen as meeting the expectations of the customer. A quality product might be one that out performs other products in its class or category. High quality might even surpass average or normal expectations since its performance is critical to support the product or service produced or offered by the customer.

That leaves follow up. If you don’t follow up with your customers, how will you know if they’re elated or not? Follow up gives you the feedback necessary to make adjustments to your service or product to improve and retain that customer. It closes the circle of continuous improvement. If you underperform and your follow up either doesn’t occur or takes too long, the laws of disconnect engage and your lost business will increase. Also, without follow up, you won’t know why things aren’t going so well. So there’s a good chance you’ll blame it on some easy target like the global economy or unfair competition. The fact is you just missed the target.

What’s a fair price? A book could be written about fair pricing, in fact many books. But here’s a simple way I look at it. A fair price is one when the price of your product or service matches the value that it brings to the customer and the quality meets expectations. But you also must look at it another way.  A fair price is one that allows the provider of the product or service to make a reasonable profit. If you don’t price to make a profit you will be out of business and no longer able to provide that quality product or service. In this case, everyone loses. As a business it is your responsibility to run your business in a profitable manner.

In a small business if you are honest, have integrity, good follow up, and work really hard, you get to eat that week. If you forget one of those attributes, you might go hungry.


So,why are small businesses the canary in the coal mine? When mining for coal, miners could be exposed to dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide. They would carry a cage containing a canary down into the tunnels. The canary was much more sensitive to the gases then were the miners. If the canaries started to die, the miners would evacuate the tunnel to safety. The canaries were an early warning of eminent danger. Small businesses are this canary. If they fail, it means that one or more of these critical attributes are missing or lost. If it’s missing here don’t you also think it might be missing in big business as well? This trend has me concerned and you should be concerned too. When the canaries are getting sick and dying, the miners aren’t far behind.

Here’s my simple formula: Perform honestly, act with integrity, deliver quality, price reasonably, and follow up to make sure the customer is completely satisfied. I believe the young people of today will punish those companies that don’t heed this simple formula.

Steve Haberly

In my next blog I’ll share with you some of the small businesses that I’ve dealt with that are great examples of these principles.


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