Book Review - Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big

READ: 5 mins
REVIEWER: Robert Craven

A book from 2006 – I still recommend it.

In a nutshell, it is better to be a Small Giant than Big and bought out. Selling out is selling out your staff, customers, values etc.

Just because you’re the size of a minnow, it doesn’t mean that you must have such fatalistic views. With a clear and honest understanding of the marketplace, you can still find a niche for yourself and thrive as a result. You do not have to play the same game as everyone else (get bigger, borrow more money, buy out the competition). You can choose how you play the game.

Consultants, accountants, bankers and business schools all tell us that thriving companies grow their profits and revenues year-on-year (and if you aren’t doing it then you feel like you must be failing).

But bigger isn’t necessarily better.

You could reject the pressures of endless growth and instead focus on being the best at what you do, creating a great workplace, legendary customer service, and a sense of community (both locally and in the workplace).


Here are six attributes of Small Giants:

1) The founders/leaders recognise the full range of choices they have about the type of company they could create. They haven’t accepted the standard menu as given.

2) They have allowed themselves to question the usual definitions of success in business and to imagine possibilities other than the ones all of us are familiar with.

3) The leaders have overcome the enormous pressures on successful companies to take the paths they had not chosen and did not necessarily want to follow.

4) Each company has an extraordinarily intimate relationship with the local community, with customers and suppliers, and in the workplace.

5) Because they are privately owned, they have the freedom to develop their own management systems and practices.

6) The leaders had unbridled, limitless passion for their business and their service/product.

We currently have several clients who endlessly beat themselves up because they are not achieving year-on-year exponential growth…

  • Maybe the growth lifestyle doesn’t suit them?
  • Maybe their business hadn’t been designed to grow?
  • Maybe you don’t want to sacrifice all you have created to create a Frankenstein’s monster?
  • Maybe there’s more to life than selling the business for a huge profit?

Bigger is not necessarily better.

Bo Burlingham presents fourteen case studies of remarkable independent businesses, from a brewery to a record label, that chose a different path. A road less travelled.

These businesses reject the pressure of endless growth. They decide to focus on more free-spirited business goals - being the best at what they do, creating a stimulating place to work, providing perfect customer service, and making important contributions to their communities.

But what are the magic ingredients that make these companies unique?

Why and how does their approach work in such widely varying industries?

And what lessons can we learn from them?


The Difference

"The difference between the small giants and everyone else lies in their refusal to let go of the passion and their success in keeping it alive."
 Small Giants

Three Imperatives

There are three broad “imperatives” that were unanimously true within the culture of each organisation. All three have to do with employee interaction:

  1. Share a Higher Purpose.
  2. Remind people in unexpected ways how much the company cares for them.
  3. Build a culture of collegiality.

Be Unprofessional

"Though [small giant leaders] were consummate businesspeople, they were anything but professional managers. Indeed, they were the opposite of professional managers. They had deep emotional attachments to the business, to the people who worked in it, and to its customers and suppliers - the sort of feelings that are the bane of professional management."
- Small Giants

"‘We wanted to raise the bar,’ he said. ‘Instead of trying to do it all, we wanted to be the best at a few things. We physically gave up our licenses in other states so we couldn't work there, and we went from taking every job to questioning every job.’"
- Bill Butler, Butler Construction, quoted in Small Giants.



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