Building a small business that matters: 3 ways to be a force for good AND be profitable

Last year I wrote a book called Storytelling for Small Business: Creating and Growing an Authentic Business Through the Power of Story. (It’s a cool little bite-sized book, or so they tell me. Check it out if you’re interested in that topic.)

What most folks who’ve read it don’t know is that the subtitle of the book was originally slated to be Building a Business That Matters Through the Power of Story. But someone in my trusted circles raised a red flag. “To me, that sounds like I have to have an ‘I’m-changing-the-world’ mentality in order to benefit from the book. There are lots of good people who just don’t think of themselves like that…I’d advise you to change that if you want people to read it.”

So I did.

Hey, now, cut me some slack. It was an introvert’s first book. I’d been sleepless about the whole process already, and that advice sounded reasonable enough. Of course I wanted people to read it. So I changed the name.

And, of course, I regretted it the minute I punched the publish button on Amazon.

Because here’s the awful truth about me: With every tiny cell in my body, I think our businesses should matter. And what’s more, our businesses can matter.

All of them.

The art of “doing well by doing good” isn’t just for the behemoths with a whole floor devoted to their department of Corporate Social Responsibility.  From an artist painting in her garage after her day job, to brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants, to the biggest brands we can name, every one of us has the ability to shape our livelihood into a force for good. Let me show you.

What ARE you going on about, Margaret?

What does it mean to have a “business that matters”? It may mean different things to different people, but for me it means looking at what my business creates and shares—products, services, artwork, knowledge—and seeing it through the wide-angle lens of what I want to be able to show for the 80-odd years I get to spend on this planet. 

  • What do I stand for/against? What matters to me? If that’s a tough question for you, look around your life, your social media, or your record of charitable contributions. Whatever it is that riles you up—or chokes you up—should give you a clue about what you stand for.
  • What am I doing to put legs on the things I care about, over and above “likes” on Facebook or the occasional donation?
  • Given all the hours and energy I spend doing my “work,” how can this time support something that matters to me so that my head, heart, and feet are all pointed in the same direction?

There’s always some grumbling about the idea of altruism in business. In addition to the hardliners who prefer keeping work and purpose separate, many will dismiss the idea of weaving them together because it sounds hard, futile, and expensive. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. In fact, I’m seeing more examples every day of small businesses who’ve connected with a bigger purpose and suddenly gained the traction and the following that had eluded them before. Why is that?

Times are changing.

Buyers care more about who they buy things from. Mission matters. People will keep buying cars from Tesla (regardless of deliverability woes) because their vision is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” rather than “be the industry leader in blah blah blah.”

People are willing (and often able) to pay more for something created by a business that has a heart and a conscious (in other words, by businesses that matter). It often comes with the bonus of it simply feeling great to support someone we like and admire.

Employees want to work for businesses that are run by good people. They want to work for people they like and admire, and want to feel like part of something bigger and more important than just keeping shareholders happy.

The face of business startups is shifting. As the social world gets more difficult to navigate, there’s a rising wave of self-employed people who are guided by the “triple bottom line” (profit, people, and planet) and not just dollars in, dollars out.

If that last one is you, well, welcome to the clubhouse. I’m glad you’re here.

And I’d invite you to consider these three ways to build a bigger “why” into the work you do.

1) Do it to add a little soul to what you already offer: Go beyond trading a good product or service for money

Ever think about what your work/business is already creating MORE of or LESS of in the world?  More peace of mind. Less poison in our cosmetics. More independence from the broken medical establishment. Less isolation and loneliness. More beauty to make our home feel like home. Less factory-made food. My point? If you’re looking for ways to make money while making a difference, you may already be halfway there.

Even if you find yourself teetering toward bummer, I’m not one of those types, know this: it’s not something reserved for artists and coaches and activists and nonprofits. You can add a thoughtful, soulful element of connection to any business. You just may need to find the right road to it.

A cafe or restaurant can choose to cooperate with other businesses in town to help solve a local problem.

A real estate broker can educate young couples or even college students on saving to buy a first home, or special loans/programs available to help them.

A small farm can set up a day for “gleaning” (picking whatever is left after a big harvest) to support local hunger efforts.

A private trash collection company can host a workshop (or give away an ebook) on how easy it is to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

A bookstore can set aside a corner of the shop with comfy chairs for purposes like job help, tutoring, or teaching ESL.

A hardware store can help teach people to be more frugal and self-sufficient by holding a class on easy fixes around the house or helping tools last longer through proper care of them.

An accountant can set up a payment button on her website that allows people to donate small amounts to a fund that helps older people/nonprofits afford her financial advice and guidance.

Anyone who offers a healing service/product of some kind can offer different price tiers so that more people can at least experience a taste of the goodness you offer.

All of these things matter. They make something better in addition to satisfying the need to turn a profit. And, in fact, they often help you turn a profit.

2) Do it to go big or to go…little.

You know why I like Patagonia? Well, there are a hundred reasons. But the main one is probably that they pledge at least 1% of sales or 10% of their pre-tax profits—whichever is more—to grassroots environmental groups often overlooked or rejected by other corporate donors.

You know why I like the small eco-friendly burger chain Larkburger ? Because they wrapped an entire business around responsibly-sourced/scratch-made food and recyclable/compostable everything, and profitably model what every restaurant in the world should be like. It’s hard to find a quick place to eat that lets me be zero waste (We’ll go a dozen miles out of our way to patronize their businesses.)

You don’t have to be Patagonia, or even Larkburger. But maybe you could be like Steamers Coffeehouse in Arvada, Colorado, which trains and employs developmentally disabled people to staff its restaurant, prep kitchen, and jam businesses. Or like my friend Michael, a psychologist in New York who volunteers as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Worker. Or our little local saloon that reduces and recycles everything, including recycling fryer oil (they donate the rebate check for that to children’s charities in Africa). This isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Even if you’re tiny, or still trying to get traction financially, you can matter. Some ways:

  • Joining an affiliate program offered by a vendor you use often, with proceeds going to a cause
  • A donate button to support a charity
  • Explaining yourself on your About page, include your reason for doing this
  • Giving a certain percentage each year to a particular organization or movement
  • Taking a day off each month to volunteer (and blogging about it to shine a light on that cause)
  • If you sell knowledge—think practical, hands-on, marketable skills—consider gifting a local women’s shelter, job assistance center, or charity to help elevate their clients.
  • Rather than using Fiverr for subcontractors, investigate the local community college’s intern program or job board.

Just pick something that matters to you, and find a way to support it with your business. Not for the press or the marketing bump, but because it’s who you are.

Do it to know who you are.

In Bernadette Jiwa’s great little book Story Driven: You Don’t Need to Compete When You Know Who You Are, she defined a great company this way: “…They don’t try to matter by winning. They win by mattering. The people who build them know what they stand for and act on those beliefs.”

It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a small business or a solopreneur or a freelancer or just someone who works for yourself. If your work matters, you are part of pushing us toward something better, or at least helping arrest our slide into something worse.

To me, building a business that has the guts to stand for something isn’t just one of the best ways to spend a life. It’s also one of the best ways to stand out in the noisy world of mainstream marketing, and make a good living that makes a difference.

Here’s to working on something that matters to you, and growing a business that matters to everyone.


2 replies
  1. Trudy Boyle
    Trudy Boyle says:

    Great post Margaret. No wonder I think you are fabulous not only as a story telling web designer but as a standout human being. You are one of the best and I am grateful to be in your circle of influence.

    • Margaret
      Margaret says:

      Thank you so much, Trudy, but I’m the one who’s lucky. The gentle, powerful work you’re doing at is so inspiring to me. xx


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