Cottage Business Returns in a World of Enterprise

Old flour mill near railroad tracks

2020 – The year of infamy.  The year time forgot.  The year we all spent in a reality TV series.  Theses are but a few tag-lines I’ve heard recently to describe one of the hardest years in American history.  In times of trouble, however, we find tidbits of truth, often wrapped in levity, that conspire to develop us into wiser, kinder, and more capable people, eager to correct the wrongs of the past.  As this year begins to wain with falling leaves and dusting of snow, we’re naturally drawn to reflection, learning lessons from the previous year and, frankly, genuflecting on this year just might be more important than any previous year in modern history. 

 As a small business owner, one of my biggest takeaways from this year is the simple realization of how completely different the world looks and I can’t help but wonder what our “new normals” will become.  A friend of mine told me this morning that “What I’m seeing less of is class-solidarity; it’s eroding so maybe a have/have not scenario is more applicable” when discussing the apparent expansion between the wealthy and the poor. 

When we dive into that thought further, I can’t help but realize that the business landscape is no different.   The disparity between small business (call them the “have-nots” in this example) and large corporations (the “haves”) has never been larger, which is evident when we take into account congressional relief distributed earlier in the year; countless millions of tax payer money funneled into shell corporations or non-existent businesses while nearly 1,000 small businesses shut down across the US, as of late September.*  Even scarier is the realization that many more of us are hanging on by a thread through lines of credit, praying an economic recovery comes sooner than later.

Now What?

It’s not all bad news.  Though we understand that small business cannot thrive in open markets with fierce competition from large conglomerates, what we see in the market is not a dissolution of working class business owners and their teams – what we see is small business getting a lot more creative with how they generate revenue to continue to provide for themselves and their families.

This resurgence of creativity and agility is reminiscent of a previous time in history when large entities dominated trade and politics in a similar fashion, driving the average citizen to discover unique tradecraft that would provide a livelihood of specialization that larger business could not provide on their own, affectionately referred to as cottage business.  Specialization and hands-on production, paired with opportunity and proximity, drove the formation of cottage business; small teams specializing in a trade that no one else in the world could provide, emphasizing local business, local sourcing, and hands-on customer service. Cottage business is making a return in the world of enterprise business.

I spoke with a potential client of mine in the health care space who recently discovered the same trend – “What I’m finding isn’t a push from the big boys into more market share, no.  Our business thrives on the backs of these big corporations, on specialization, on providing out of the box solutions that big business simply can’t keep up with and they begin referring their clients to us to try and salvage a small sliver of their relationship with that client.  There’s good money there if you know where to look.”  His discovery that niche business, especially business that has a specialization that takes years to develop, are nearly impossible for big business to push out – they’re simply not agile enough to adapt to this new dynamic and will likely rely on acquisition to increase market share in the future.

Our Future

This rebirth of cottage business should be a point of exciting opportunity for the average American.  Have you been dreaming of starting your own micro-brewery but that 9-5 has kept you from taking the leap?  Take heart, this is your time!  Like to garden on the weekends but just not sure how to proceed?  Resurrect a dying breed of vegetable and develop a local supply chain to help your fellow local businesses and promote the rebirth of culture and well-being.  The opportunities are endless and the World is ready to try something new, something set apart from the “norm”.  

The sole focus of this year is about defining who we are not only Americans, but as the human race.  I can’t help but hope that a return to a simpler time, when cottage business increased our neighborly interactions and promoted quality and customer service over profit margin, might just be that push we need to define ourselves anew in a light of rebirth.  The return to caring for our fellow man.  We need each other, not another promotion and, perhaps, this movement, this “new norm”, is exactly what we need to get there.  /J

* https://vigeoconstruction.com/remainingagileintimesofuncertainty/
* https://fortune.com/2020/09/28/covid-buisnesses-shut-down-closed/