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What Even Is a "Small Business" Today?
Small businesses have held an "almost-sacred place" in the US. But are today's small businesses what we mean when we say "small business?"
What is a small business today? Who is an entrepreneur?
I listened to a fascinating interview withon Tech Won't Save Us with , and then went and immediately read the report Weigel wrote on Amazon's 3rd party sellers.
Weigel's research leads her to argue that Amazon is transforming small businesses:
"Time and again, interviewees described how succeeding on Amazon required them to behave like mini Amazons."
More broadly, platformization—that is, the way platforms come to serve as intermediaries that leverage the work of contractors and entrepreneurs for their own profit—extends the logic of platform companies onto their users:
Constant drive for subscriber or follower acquisition (i.e., user acquisition)
"Hiring" independent contractors rather than employees
Complete disregard for negative externalities
Detachment from local communities & their economies
Use of "loss leaders" to game the system
Honestly, I don't know a "small business owner" or "entrepreneur" in the online space today that hasn't either 1) accepted all of those tactics as necessary or 2) lost sleep over not doing those things.
We like to think of small businesses as ventures that support local economies, make more ethical decisions about growth, treat their workers well, etc. "Small businesses occupy an almost-sacred place in the political imaginaries of the United States," writes Weigel. As such, we assume that small businesses are an unassailable good above reproach.
To borrow from Nixon, if a small business does it, it must not be exploitative.
And that leads me to wonder, echoing Weigel, what is a small business?
If a small business is merely following the same capitalist logics as venture-funded behemoths, is it really the kind of entity we mean when we say "small business?"
When we declare that "small business" and "entrepreneurship" is the solution to our economic challenges, are these the kinds of ventures we want to promote?
Social theorist Kathi Weeks asserts that "Work produces not just economic goods and services but social and political subjects." And I think the same can be said of these labels of "small business" and "entrepreneur."
A small business doesn't only produce the economic good or services that it sells, it is itself a social and political subject. It signifies a set of values and sociopolitical priorities. It is an identity that confers a certain status in American culture.
It seems that it's time to determine whether the signifier is still pointing toward the signified.
What does "small business" or "entrepreneur" mean to you?
I'm not so much looking for a technical definition as I am the kind of characteristics you associate with those terms. Are those associations still accurate? Why or why not?
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