Why small business is better than big business

Technophilosopher Paul Graham (whose essay on Bayesian filtering spurred the development of one of the more popular methods for blocking spam) has some thoughts on what companies ought to learn from open source and blogging.

I really liked this quote: [Those who] run Windows on servers ought to be prepared to explain what they know about servers that Google and Yahoo don’t know. I know Google and Yahoo are a whole lot smarter than anyone I’ve worked for who runs on Windows.

But the most poignant bit for me was this: People work a lot harder on things they like.

I believe this is why successful small businesses are successful. Millionaire owners of small businesses often work very long hours–possibly 10 or even 14 hours a day. But many of them probably don’t realize they’re working those long hours because they enjoy it.

I’ve noticed this with my wife when I work with her. She doesn’t keep track of the hours she works because she doesn’t care. And at the end of my workday when I come home, we might spend most of the evening working, but at the end of the evening, we’re no more tired than we would have been if we’d spent the evening sitting on the couch watching TV.

As I watch the rise and fall of companies in the computer industry, I see this same pattern. Why can’t Microsoft sustain the growth of its early years? There are lots of reasons, but in the very early days when Bill Gates and Paul Allen actually spent time writing code alongside their employees, everyone worked excruciatingly long hours, but they did it out of choice. Microsoft is notorious for trying to force those kinds of hours out of its workers today (the book Microserfs details this in general). Could the reason every Microsoft operating system released in the last 15 years has been delayed be because they’re just a labor, rather than a labor of love?

I think that has a lot to do with it.

And I think this is the reason why I’m not a fan of big business and never have been. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no fan of big government or big labor either. Big anything is out of touch and can’t help but focus more on self-preservation than on the things it’s doing and why those things are interesting and important. I can’t necessarily tell you why any given thing is interesting or important but I can tell you without even seeing it that it isn’t because of the amount of money it can make.

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