Don't Throw Out The Baby

 As it is with most issues I’m of two minds when it comes to Facebook.  On the one hand I’m a middle-aged person with Midwest roots and I enjoy my privacy.  On the other hand I’m a small business owner who appreciates (though doesn’t fully understand) the marketing power of social media.

Embarrassing as it may sound it took me years to appreciate marketing – I still don’t understand it, but at least I understand it a bit more than I did in the early days.  In 2011, when I started Greenlite Heavy Industries, I was laser-focused on bringing my ideas to market, and scarcely gave a thought to actually selling my product.  As you can well imagine my company floundered.  I slowly realized that half of the business is making the product and that half of the business is selling the product.

So how do you sell product?  There are numerous marketing techniques, but in order to sell product online (as opposed to having shelf space in a store) you must advertise.  When I started I had this Yvon Chouinard-like pipedream of “oh I’ll make some stuff for me and my friends and it’s just going to take off organically and …”  Yeah well forget that.  Advertising comes in many forms: news stories, radio, TV, print, blogs and, last but not least, social media.  News stories, radio, TV, print and blogs all take some upfront investment, while social media is – at least at first – relatively inexpensive (nothing is free but social media is close).

Back in the day a new clothing company had to decide: are we going to sell retail or are we going to be mail order.  If you chose retail, you had to produce in large quantities and you had to convince the retail market gatekeepers to stock your product.  One way to do this was pay dearly for a spot at the Outdoor Retailer Show.  If you decided to be mail order you could sell direct to consumer, but you had to invest significantly in advertising.  Either way the first step for most companies was towards a bank.

The internet changed all that.  Now a small company can set up on a shoestring budget, make a small production run, create an online store and start building a brand via social media.  Obviously, this only goes so far, but it’s a fair start without requiring a big bank loan or creativity-stifling investors.

While I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg - I don’t believe that he’s either as smart or as innovative as he presents himself – I do worry that the value of social media (of which Facebook is the dominant player) to small independent business is poorly understood by the majority of Senators and Representatives who were questioning him.

Online retailing and marketing via social media have allowed small businesses to gain a foothold in the marketplace without first taking on a potentially crushing debt load.  Innovation comes from the fringes – the dreamers on the outside who aren’t constrained by corporate think.  I’m certain that regulation of social media is on the horizon – and some regulation is overdue – I merely hope that the architects of this regulation understand the power and independence social media provides small entrepreneurs. 


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