Coronavirus has exposed the myth of the fiercely independent entrepreneur
As little as four months ago, this is what I frequently heard from my clients and many other small business owners: “I’m an entrepreneur, a free spirit, an independent. I don’t need anyone — especially the government. This is a capitalistic society, I can take care of myself!”
I’ve been hearing and saying this kind of stuff for years. We small business owners are proud people. Many of us left corporate jobs to start our own businesses. We took risks. We invested our own capital. For many years we’ve operated without a boss. We’ve been on our own. Master of our domains.
Many of us complain about government interference. We resist regulations. We avoid paying taxes. We don’t want the government in our lives. Why should we? We can make it happen without anyone’s help. It’s a free market, for goodness sake. Just leave us alone and let us do our thing, thank you very much.
That’s what I heard. That’s what I’ve even said. Now, let’s flash forward four months. You know what I’m hearing a lot of from those very same, fiercely independent entrepreneurs (myself included)?
“Where’s my government bailout check?!”
Now, isn’t that interesting? Isn’t it interesting that the minute things turned south, those same free-thinking, risk-taking, staunchly independent business owners went running to Uncle Sam for help? It certainly is.
You can argue that the economic downturn was caused in large part by the government forcibly shutting down businesses and requiring consumers to stay at home. You can also argue – and many people will as we head to the November elections – that the shutdown was too draconian, too drastic, too heavy-handed, even unnecessary. But it happened because of a global pandemic, and it certainly wasn’t the choice of those in charge. They were (and still are) trying to do the best they could to make decisions that avoid potentially killing millions of people.
You can also argue that the downturn was so sudden and so dramatic that it took many business owners off guard. You can point to the economic charts that show consistently rising trends followed by a sudden drop-off caused by the economic collapse.
Now, with the pandemic still very much a reality, businesses struggling to re-open must do so in an environment of sometimes conflicting rules and guidelines from governmental agencies that must be implemented or otherwise cause more illness, lawsuits and further loss of business. This is not easy, folks.
Not all business owners I know needed a government bailout. Why? Because they know how to competently run a business. They’ve stored away reserves for a rainy day — even a months-long monsoon like this one. They have low maintenance lifestyles and flexible overheads. They haven’t overextended themselves. They have close relationships with their bankers, suppliers and partners who are willing to be flexible. They have diversified supply chains and aren’t reliant on any one big customer or industry. They have strong relationships with their workforce that’s built on trust and fair pay. These business owners have weathered this terrible storm without asking for help from the government.
But unfortunately, this was not the case for millions of other small business owners. We say we’re “independent,” but we’re really not. We had our hands out for Paycheck Protection money as soon as it was available. We shamelessly begged for disaster loans and other aid. And when the money didn’t come fast enough, we complained. A fair number of small businesses may go bust because of this downturn. But a very significant number of those who survived did so only due to the help received from that dreaded super-villain: The government.
None of this is new. This time was particularly sudden and large, but in the past trillions have been proffered to rescue the airlines, insurers, banks, auto and other industries. Yes, this money went into the hands of those “too-big-to-fail” corporate giants. But much of it also trickled down to the contractors, suppliers, vendors and service providers – all of them small businesses – that depended on these corporate customers for their livelihood. Past bailouts for small businesses have also come in the form of tax credits, low-interest loans and infrastructure spending. More of this will be coming from Congress soon, by the way.
So no, we do not live purely in a free-market, capitalist economy. We are not as entrepreneurial as we may believe. We are certainly not independent. Oh, we think we are. We make up these fairy tales about our courageous entrepreneurism. We tell everyone that we’re brave business pioneers. But we’re not. We are not without the need for our own government safety net when the you-know-what hits the fan.
Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.