James Burgess, Focus31, Business NameEvery parent knows that they shouldn’t call their children a name. “Criticize the behavior,” goes the adage, “not the person.” So when your kids trash the kitchen, don’t call them slobs. Say that their actions display disturbing similarities to those behaviors exhibited by people who are slobs. Thus, no one goes away “labeled”.

Names matter.

So I was delighted when the Post announced it was relaunching its weekly “Small Business” section under the name “Entrepreneur.” Because those two labels say very different things. Nearly 30 years ago, the weekly Financial Post (as it was then) launched a spin-off magazine aimed at small business. One of the working titles the founders considered was “Profit.” But in the end the publication launched as The Magazine that’s All about Small Business.

That silly name couldn’t last. Eventually the magazine adopted the name everyone called it anyway: Small Business. Working at a competing medium, I quite envied Small Business. The names of other business publications — Financial Post, Financial Times, Report on Business, Canadian Business — seemed relentlessly generic. None of them really knew who their target audience was: investors, managers or executives? But Small Business knew.

A few years later, I joined Small Business, as a big fan of its niche. But the name was no longer working for me. I realized “small business” was a label some people use to lump together all the businesses in Canada that don’t really matter. Just as the phrases “small talk,” “small-time” and “small potatoes” are used to describe things that are idle or trivial.

My suspicions were confirmed when we asked our readers what they thought. Some focus-group attendees liked the title, saying they were proud to run small businesses. Others did not. One business owner said he hid the magazine inside another magazine so none of his staff would see him reading it. When we asked participants how they define “small business,” one person replied, “A small business is any business smaller than my business.”

We soon changed the magazine’s name to Profit. (We hoped to rehabilitate that word and make it safe to say out loud in Canada. It was only years later that I found we had chosen the same name the magazine’s founders originally envisioned.)

Here’s the bottom line: When you address a market, you need to use language your market uses. There is nothing wrong with talking about “small business” or “the SME market” if you are an economist interpreting macroeconomic data. But when you address small business owners, you must be more respectful. “Small business” utterly fails to address the self-image, hopes and ambitions of business owners. Anyone who has ever tried to start a company knows that creating a successful business of any size is no small feat.

Now, “entrepreneur” is another word that not every business owner identifies with. Many people still think an “entrepreneur” is some sort fast-talker who couldn’t be more different from the salt-of-the-earth small-business owner. But I have seen that misconception melt away in recent years as more and more people recognize the role of entrepreneurship in innovation and job creation. “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards presented by Ernst & Young and other organizations lend entrepreneurship some class, while such TV shows as Dragons’ Den bring its message of hope and creativity to the mass market.

But entrepreneurs aren’t restricted to small business. Entrepreneurship involves innovation, commitment, and leveraging scarce resources to create improved results and, usually, some sort of market or social change. Today, big businesses and many organizations and institutions strive to become more entrepreneurial; they want employees and members to think like owners, find new solutions, and overcome obstacles that those in head office just can’t see. Ironically, not every small business wants to be entrepreneurial. Some business owners are content to be what they are, not changing their products or their marketing. Those who don’t wish to be entrepreneurs will find the deck stacked against them. If they don’t adopt the behaviors of entrepreneurs — infinite curiosity, a willingness to explore new markets, a commitment to serve their customers better — they will fall behind.


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