The words “business” and “business leader” often conjure up Dow Jones–size companies and the big names who lead them. We’re almost as fascinated by stars of big business as by stars of the big screen. And why not? A recent Forbes article pleading “Bring Back the Celebrity CEO” makes the case for superstar leaders who create jobs and enthuse their business with purpose, mission and meaning. The roll call is so familiar that I don’t even need to cite the companies they lead: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Phil Knight and Meg Whitman, among others. And zapping up very quickly are people like Tony Hsieh, who not only does well but also does good, endowing seemingly a city’s worth of staff, board members and other supporters for Venture for America.
Modern celebrity CEOs have a combination of natural talent and smart guidance, and they show how the brand of a corporation and the personal brand of its leader can reinforce each other’s greatness. But out of the really hot spotlight, hundreds of thousands of small businesses harbor equally great stories and leaders with fantastic personal brands.
Well over 99 percent of the 27.5 million businesses in the United States in 2009 were small businesses (meaning 500 employees or fewer), employing half of all U.S. private-sector workers. Some of those millions are budding Amazons and Facebooks and Zappos. A few would love to get big but don’t have what it takes. Most are happy to keep it small to stay manageable, grounded and fun.
Take photo-sharing site SmugMug. It was launched in Silicon Valley in 2002 and meant to be a social network around video games, but the sideline photo-hosting project turned out to be more promising. So founder Don MacAskill hired his father, Chris, to help set up a subscription-only site with no advertisers, no debt financing and an emphasis on total user control of their photos. Other family members joined the staff along the way. When the company needed more, it decided to hire its own customers, since they already know and love the service. The result is a community of enthusiasts. The founders mingle with customers at SMUGs (SmugMug User Group meetings) and not only post regularly on Twitter but also respond to tweets personally. With just 24 employees, income of a few million dollars and no outside investors, Don MacAskill has created one of the top company brands in its field and one of the most-liked and most-respected personal brands.
RunKeeper, whose offices are in Boston, has become a poster child of the app economy. Co-founder and CEO Jason Jacobs cobbled together a team of moonlighting engineers who took the fitness-tracking concept from idea to iPhone app in a matter of weeks. It was one of the first 200 apps on Apple’s App Store. The following year, tapping the smarts of Emerson College marcomms undergraduates, Jacobs ran the 2009 Boston marathon dressed as an iPhone with the RunKeeper app on the screen and raised $2,500 for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the process—not to mention getting massive media coverage and plenty of downloads. Passionate about health and fitness, Jacobs aims to evolve RunKeeper into a service that lets users link their information together any way they want. Meanwhile, the RunKeeper team is still very lean in more ways than one, with fewer than 25 people, all into fitness.
Burnt Peaks is a small (five employees, including the family dog) video production company in Connecticut that has the sort of quirky creativity that’s a YouTube staple these days. But founder James Mairs was way ahead of that curve. He has been shooting original video content for commercial clients since pre-digital, pre-Internet days in the early 1990s. As he tells it, he cut his teeth filming Grateful Dead concerts. With characteristic humor, the company name refers to Mairs’ bald head, and its website leaves no doubts about the Burnt Peaks ethos and approach to work. (Full disclosure: We swear by them for our quirky research films.)
Compared with Americans, the British have a more hot/cold attitude toward business, which is part of the reason so many small-business leaders across the pond prefer to keep a low profile. Those who don’t mind the limelight tap into British traditions of humor and showbiz chutzpah. The King of Shaves brand, for instance, looks at first like something from the portfolio of a global consumer goods company. In fact, though, it started with a product originally dreamed up by the hyperactive Will King (hence the brand name) and produced in his kitchen in 1993. Today the brand sells “software” (gel, oil, serum) and “hardware” (razors), with a line for women called—you guessed it—Queen of Shaves. King is an avid communicator with a regular blog and a very active presence on Twitter (more than 30,000 tweets). As for the number of employees, here’s how King responded within minutes of being asked: “15 at KoS HQ – but ‘a lot’ in manuf & supply chain wk. #virtuallyintegrated.”
Here’s one surefire prediction from this trendspotter: Many more small-business leaders will wise up to the value of building their business brand by building their personal brand. And here are three reasons why we’ll be seeing many more brilliant business-leader brands coming out of small business than big business: