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J. Kelly Conklin

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Who Represents Small Business Matters

Posted: 05/30/2012 2:12 pm

Who really represents small business? It is a loaded question in this election season. Every politician embraces "small business" and depending on the policy in question chooses his or her position based on what some organization or other tells them helps small business.

How we define small business has a lot to do with what actually helps, what doesn't do much at all and what actually hurts small businesses. So when a national organization like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the NFIB gets substantial and repeated support from big businesses, you should wonder who they are actually representing.

It is a rare event indeed that has an actual small business owner standing next to a politician saying, "This will help me because... " That may be because the folks doing the representing are worried about what we might say.

I see small business from the perspective of my own 35-year-old enterprise. How I got into business, how I have survived (mostly my own inadequacies) and now, as I near the end of my career, what I think it has amounted to, shapes my perspective and therefore what I think about the important issues of the day. That perspective rarely coincides with the big business agenda and that is where a universal definition might help clear a few things up.

I am not alone in my little enterprise. My wife and partner has been right beside me, sometimes helping feed a sheet of plywood through the saw, so to speak -- and sometimes screaming, "Stop, you f-ing idiot!" And together we have had a lot of help from an army of employees. Today, we are 10; in better times, we were 15.

Here's the thing: I could be an auto mechanic like my friend Jim, or I might own an aircraft parts and supply business like my friend Henry, or maybe I could own a dry cleaning shop like my neighbor John or a bakery like my lifelong friend (and the first "out" gay person I ever knew) Marge. It just so happens we make stuff out of wood. While we may not all share the same political ideology, we all do have one thing in common: every day we get up, leave home and head to our respective enterprises. That is how we survive and hopefully prosper.

Most of us work in concert with our employees to produce a product; some work alone. What we earn comes from that effort and this fundamental concept -- earning your way -- is what animates and informs the idea of small business for most Americans.

Don't get me wrong. The same definition applies to a small law firm or a doctor's office, an architect or an artist. The key here is the person with the "buck stops here" sign on their desk, the person who opens the door first thing in the morning and locks it behind them at the end of the day, the person who signs the paychecks, finds the next job or client and takes the call when things don't go as planned, is who we imagine when we think "small business owner." They are our friends and our neighbors and for millions of people across America, our employers. Their stock is not traded on Wall Street and they are not answerable to share holders or equity financiers. They answer only to their customers, their employees, their community and themselves.

With increasing frequency that image, that definition, is distorted and mangled in the white hot cauldron of American politics, in state capitols across the country and especially in Washington, D.C. Too often, that means real help for real small businesses is an illusion, an empty promise -- and real harm to us is a consequence.

I'd like to use posts on this blog to reduce the distortion by putting policy ideas within the context of my experience. Hopefully, that will help clarify what's really good for everyday small businesses, and what's not.

So here goes: health care, education, money in politics, immigration policy and the environment -- there is plenty to talk about. Stay tuned.

 
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