Once you’ve been writing about large companies—the mainstay of so many publications—you may think that all business journalism is the same. It’s not.
They work differently, are run by people who think differently, and frequently operate differently. To cover them, you need to first understand them.
Focused on fundamentals
From my experience both writing about entrepreneurs, startups, and small companies for years and also having run my own, small business owners and operators have a greater focus on business fundamentals than large corporations.
I’m not saying the small companies are savvier or more effective. But they few resources in comparison and can’t afford to make mistakes. You know what you call a small retail store, rug cleaner, or landscaper who screws up? Out of business.
That has implications. The resources a company has get focused on the areas that can make a difference: increasing revenue and decreasing costs. There is room to innovate (depending on the company), but such businesses tend to be more conservative on marketing. They don’t have a lot of money to lose, as so there must be a near-term payback.
Small businesses (and remember, that can be $5 to $10 million in revenue or upwards of 500 employees, depending on whether you’re taking estimates of the middle market or a Small Business Administration definition) often have yet to develop more sophisticated approaches to management and control of the business. That can make dealing with them idiosyncratic, putting it mildly. Sometimes owners and executives can be incredibly helpful, but they also may have an unrealistic view of dealing with the press in terms of what they expect they’re owed. And, as I’ve heard from colleagues, you sometimes get business owners who take great objection because the coverage wasn’t positive enough.
Loss of metrics
The biggest challenge is in trying to take a measure of performance. These companies are likely privately held, and so there will be no mandatory financial filings. Even the smaller companies that are public, typically as over the counter, are not necessarily the most dependable in filing. You may be able to find data. Some company officials might be willing to offer some details, although I’ve found they tend to be tight-lipped. There might be alternative sources, such as a filing in a legal case, some form required by a regulatory body, or possibly data from a source like Dun & Bradstreet, although I’ve found that estimations of revenue can be far off.
Limitations aside, one big advantage is that you’re more likely to be able to reach top corporate executives. They might require more probing and careful questioning to get to what you’re looking for, because they will have less experience talking to the media and so phrasing things in a way you might expect.
But you might also get fresher material that will lead to a more interesting story. Just remember to take your time, don’t assume that people are offering sophisticated dodges, and help coax out the truth.