Small Giants

Steve Kayser interviews

 Bo Burlingham, author of

  Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big

Take the Money and Run


Is there a new breed of entrepreneur rising? Building and leading companies large and small, foregoing revenue and geographical growth to focus on, of all things, being the best at what they do?  Is there really an emerging breed of entrepreneurs that don’t plan to build, or want to build the next Microsoft or Google, then “take the money and run"? 


Take the Money and Have Fun


Is there a new breed of entrepreneur rising that has as a mission “take the money and have fun”? Entrepreneurs that want to build enduring companies, great places of employment, great products, provide great customer service ...  and have fun too?


We'll find out in this interview with Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big.


But first …



It was a distinctive ring … a warning-belll ring.  The ring I set for the one person I never want to hear from ... or ever answer.

But I had to. 


It was, “answer the phone on the first ring” customer-service day at the company.

I knew who was on the other end. I handled it professionally (after a brief moment of staid reflection).

Who was on the other line?

Perfidious, Perorating Perforator

The most exasperating, frustrating, obdurately obnoxious, perfidious, perorating perforator of corporate gobbledygook in known history - and most probably unknown history too.  A person that could unleash a tornadic swirl of immeasurably long and undecipherable words lasting upwards of five minutes without taking a breath, or, making any sense whatsoever. Not even a miniscule pause, which is, in my opinion, always his most singular accomplishment, as I usually have no idea as to what he’s trying to say.

I’ll admit, however, that this person has the most impressive repertoire of corporate gobbledygook I've ever heard. He uses every acronym known to mankind, and possibly most extraterrestrials; a corporate gobbledygook automaton of epic proportions. The best there ever was … or will be.

Because of this talent, I dubbed him …  

“CAL 9000” (Corporate Automaton Linguist - 9,000 pre-programmed acronyms     for release upon the slightest provocation [such as breathing])

However, CAL 9000 should not be confused with HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) of “2001 Space Odyssey” fame.

Hal had a personality.

I’d hoped changing my phone number and e-mail address 17 times over the last seven months would have discouraged him.

It hadn’t.

I picked up …

          “Steve! I know you’re there. It’s me. Answer.”

          “What?” I despairingly choked out.

          “You know who this is?” asked Cal.

My silence, to him, assumed assent and consent.

“How have you been? I just took the helm of a new company!”

“What happened to … ”

“You mean my market-leading, universal, enterprise-content application tool with extensible, real-time, interactive, scalable, multi-alphanumerical particularities supported by multi-colored platforms?”

Note to Reader: To translate the above, please take a deep breath and visualize 

     “Yes,” said I.

“Well, we got blinked in a tipping-point paradigm shift because of the politically mega-dynamic CRM, BPM, ECM, ERP-like, non-BI, WI-FI market space, game-changing, evolving evolution. Combined with some global leveraging incompatibilities, it made our projected cash flow go upside down in the futures market, and our equity became … ”

… “Inequity?”

“No … the correct way to assess, analyze and actionably communicate the business-model position would be to say our revenue and profits were seamlessly outsourced to the competition,” said Cal 9000.


He can compress the most words into  the smallest idea of any man I ever met."

- Abraham Lincoln

 “I thought competing against the PC might be tough.”

“To your credit, in retrospect, you may have had a strategic insight we missed.  But you should have seen our PowerPoint presentations. Boffo! The best 109 slides of artistic business acumen ever created. I’ll probably revisit, rethink, reuse and recycle them in my new business.”

 It’s hard having ears sometimes.

“But that’s not why I called. I wondered if you could tap into one of your experts.”

“What for?”

“To help me ‘Shoot the Donkey!’ HA HA HA HA. I made a funny. HAR HAR HAR. Used your meta-metaphor.”

For readers unfamiliar with Cal 9000’s “Shoot the Donkey” unfunny mucking-up of a metaphor, it refers to a classic scene in the movie "Patton" (based upon a true-life event) where the Seventh Army gets critically held up in battle on a bridge, by a cart-pulling donkey that has stopped and refuses to budge, totally blocking the bridge. Life and death are at stake. An MP struggles with the donkey and the owner, trying to get them out of the way.

The entire Seventh Army halts for this recalcitrant donkey.

General George Patton roars up, leaps out of his jeep, whips out his ivory-handled pistol, shoots the donkey, and immediately has it hurled off the bridge, removing the obstacle.

That classic scene not only revealed Patton's character in a cinematic way, but also embodied the great leadership principle of taking decisive action to remove all obstacles to fulfill one's mission.

Insight 1



Pragmatic, Patton Pistol-Powered Philosophy

Take decisive action. Remove all obstacles to your success.


 “My grandfather, heaven rest his recently departed fantastically wealthy soul, left me a unique business opportunity.”

         “Left you? You mean you inherited?”

“Not exactly. There was a clause in his will. It specifically said, “over his dead body would I ever get his company.”

Wow. I think Cal 9000 might have had a really smart grandpa.

            “I’m confused,” said I.

“I have a great lawyer,” Cal gushed. “Grandpa was dead. We read the will over his casket. Over his dead body … aren’t lawyers great?  


Insight 2


Plain questions and plain answers 

make the shortest road out of most perplexities."


– Mark Twain

I’m no longer confused.

“Anyway, to get back to the topic, you think you might have an expert that could share some global-macro-micro–socio-economic, web 2.0, horizontally vertical focused, long-tail strategic visionings?”


“Let me explain. My grandfather wasn’t much of a businessman. He had his company for 30 years. Produced ‘okay’ revenues … over 100 million dollars for the last 25 years.”

I’m waiting for the downside.

“But he never tried to grow the company and go public. He thought big was bureaucratic and bureaucratic was bad.”

Hmm ... I surmise Cal 9000’s Grandpa was, in the words of that underrated, yet existentially famous philosopher, Tony the Tiger, “Great!”

“Grandpa preached, ‘Our customers are family.’ Is that old-time lameroo or what? He bragged that industry analysts always called his company ‘the absolute best’ at what they did. So what! The company never got big. And worse, it remained a private company for crapsola sakes. You can’t even get the media to cover a small private company.”

“What would you want the expert to discuss?”

“My visioning strategy.”

I couldn’t wait to hear this. After Cal 9000’s Tom Petersian-inspired, re-imagining, re-inventing, re-invigorating, wowing strategy for the way-past-defunct dinosaurific typewriter business, he had nowhere to go but up.

“Go public. Get as big as possible, as fast as possible.”

I hate to be a downer, but what’s wrong with the company the way it is? It’s profitable. Customers and employees are happy. You have any idea how tough running a public company is?” 

“I read your article, Give Me Liberty or Give Me an … IPO? You used a bunch of well-researched facts to convolute, pollute and refute what everyone knows is an absolute … a truism. Bigger is better! Always has been. Always will be.  Grow or die! You’re a negativist Steve. Give it up.”  

Grits Teeth

Vows to never answer phone again


“Don’t you think there might have been a reason your grandfather kept his company the way it was?”


“Sure. No vision. No corporate acumen … he wasn’t a deep thinker like me.”

Deep thinker?


Cal continued. “I mean he couldn’t even talk ROI or shareholder value. All he ever talked about was a nebulous ROLL.”


“ROLL?” asked I.


“Return on Living Life” – being able to create good jobs, giving substantial parts of his profits to charitable causes and pretty much being able to do what he wanted, when he wanted (on a small scale … remember he wasn’t a big public company). What kinda egalitarian, do-the-hokey-pokey, non-business business strategy sense is that?”


Hmm …. is it dense in here?


“And Steve, get this, it’s weird. Cultish. Freaky really. His small but devout group of customers, vendors and employees wear t-shirts and hats with the company name on it. You’d think the company was a high-fashion clothing retailer. That’s the down side of being small. People think they’ve found something special.”


My silence deepens; my thoughts accelerate … to quickly ending the conversation.


“You know, I respected and loved Grandpa, but come on – he lived and breathed his company. What kind of strategy or life is that? You need to grow, grow, grow! Bigger, better, best! I have a vision! I’m going to build the next Google, flip, cash out, and retire.”


“Do you have an expert in mind already maybe?”                  

“Yes. I’ve heard about this guy, Mo Curlingham, who was supposed to have written a book about making small companies giants. Let’s see if Mo can help us ‘Shoot the Donkey!’ Uh-oh, the other phone is ringing, must be investment bankers. I must exit this conversation.”




A click never sounded better.


Never sounded sweeter.


Against my saner judgment, I decided to search for this Mo Curlingham and his new book. Did I mention that Cal 9000 often has ...




Three Stoogian Freudian slips?


The author’s name was not “Mo Curlingham,” and his book isn’t really about transforming small companies to giants. 


It’s about something better, much better - an emerging economic force, maybe new way of life, based not upon size, but choice.


ENTER: Bo Burlingham, author of “Small Giants.”


Bo is the author of “Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big and an editor-at-large of Inc. magazine.


The BUZZ on BO



Bo Burlingham reminds us of a vital truth:

Big does not equal great, and great does not equal big.


 - Jim Collins, co-author of “Built to Last” and author of “Good to Great”


With new management books arriving by the boatload, Bo Burlingham has somehow managed the near impossible- he’s given us a true original. Moreover, in the process, he may have “discovered” the most interesting and under-reported corner of the U.S. economy. In short, “Small Giants” is a large masterpiece. Bo's reporting is stupendous, and his writing and storytelling skills make the book’s equal parts fun and profound.

- Tom Peters, author ofIn Search of Excellence and “Thriving on Chaos”


Steve: What are Small Giants and why are they important?


Bo: In answering that question, I need to make a distinction between the criteria I used to choose the companies in my book and the characteristics that they had in common. I chose the companies first, and then I looked at the qualities they shared. The two were similar, and related, but not identical. I’ll start with the criteria. There were five of them.


First, I wanted companies that had had the opportunity to grow very fast, get very big, go public, go national, or whatever, but had chosen not to because they had goals they considered more important than getting as big as possible as fast as possible.


Small Giants have goals that are more important than getting big fast.



Insight 3




Small Giants have goals that are

more important than getting big fast.


Second, I wanted companies that were considered to be the best at what they did by their peers and competitors - that is, the people in the best position to judge.


Third, I looked for companies that had been recognized outside the industry for their contributions to the greater good.



Insight 4




Small Giants are the best at what they do and

exceptionally good at doing good.


Fourth, I focused on companies that had been around long enough (10 years or more) to experience all of the ups and downs of business and had managed to remain profitable through thick and thin.


Finally, I realized that - because of the choices the companies were making - I would be looking at businesses that were private and closely held. After all, these were businesses that had decided not to make maximization of return on investment their number-one goal. That’s tough to do if you have outside investors.


So those were the criteria I used in selecting the companies. I found that the companies I selected had five characteristics in common. 


Their owners were crystal clear in their own minds about who they were, what they wanted out

of business, and why. 


Second, the companies had close, symbiotic relationships with the communities in which they did business. 


Third, the companies cultivated personal, one-on-one ties with customers and suppliers. Nevertheless, I also found that the customers came second with these companies: The employees came first.



Insight 5




Customers come second.


Employees come first.




All of the Small Giants had what I call a culture of intimacy, which was the fourth defining characteristic. 


The fifth one had to do with the attitude of the owners and leaders toward whatever it was that the business did: They loved it. They were absolutely passionate about it. They were so crazy about what they did that they wanted everyone they came into contact with to feel the same way about it.


Why are these companies important? Because businesses are the building blocks, not just of an economy, but also of a whole way of life. What they do and how they do it have an impact that extends far beyond the economic sphere. They shape the communities we live in and the values we live by and the quality of the lives we lead.  



Insight 6




Being a “Small Giant” is a way of life.


If businesses don’t hold themselves to a high standard, the entire society suffers. There are no businesses that hold themselves to higher standards than do Small Giants.



Insight 7




There are no businesses that hold themselves

 to higher standards than do Small Giants. 


What’s more, it’s a standard that every company can aspire to, and many can achieve. As more companies become Small Giants, it can’t help but make our world a better place.


Steve: In your book you say Small Giants have mojo. How do you define mojo and how do Small Giants generate it?


Bo: I define mojo as the business equivalent of charisma.


When a leader has charisma, you want to follow him or her. When a company has charisma, you want to be associated with it. You want to buy from it, sell to it, work for it, wear its hats and t-shorts, be part of whatever it’s doing. That’s mojo.



Insight 8




Small Giant Mojo = Charisma


No Mojo ... Business No-Go-Mo


Small Giants generate their mojo by working very hard on the relationships they have with all the groups of people they come into contact with - employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors, and so on. The Small Giants realize that those relationships have a huge impact on a company’s success and must be maintained. If you get distracted and start to neglect the relationships, the mojo is lost, and the business is usually headed for trouble.


Steve: What are the benefits of buying or dealing with a Small Giant?


Bo: Well, do you want to buy from a company that treats you as another party in a commercial transaction or from a company that cares about you and what you want and will go the extra mile to see that you get it? Small Giants are fanatical about customer service. They don’t want a customer to be satisfied. They want the customer to be delighted.



Insight 9


Small Giants don’t want customers to be satisfied.


They want them to be delighted.


Small Giants care.



They cultivate personal, one-on-one relationships with customers with the goal of understanding and providing them with whatever it is that they are looking for. That’s the benefit to the buyer: The Small Giants care.


Steve: I penned an article titled Give Me Liberty or Give Me an … IPO? that lays out a case for remaining a private company. Do you think Small Giants will begin to proliferate because of the excessive drag and anti-competitiveness of regulatory burdens?


Bo: I think that there are many advantages to staying private these days, including the increased government regulation of the public equity markets. But more significant from a Small Giants standpoint is the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs with a business perspective dramatically different from that of the generations of 1980’s and ’90s.



Insight 10



Small Giants want to build an enduring business …

not flip, cash out, and retire.


Most of them aren’t out to build the next Microsoft, nor are they building to flip, cash out, and retire.


They want to build enduring businesses, great businesses, but not necessarily huge ones. I suspect that we’ll see a lot of Small Giants arising from their ranks.


Steve: Examples of some of the companies you profiled?


Bo:  There are snapshots on my profile webpage.


Steve: Why is shareholder value so different in public and private companies/Small Giants?


Bo: As I point out in my book, the definition of shareholder value depends on who the shareholders are. If you’re a shareholder who has invested your savings in a public company because you hope to make money on your investment, you want the value of your stock to increase as much and as rapidly as possible. That’s why the vast majority of people do invest in public companies, so it’s natural to think of shareholder value in that context as a direct reflection of return on investment.


On the other hand, if you’re the 100% owner of a private company, you can define shareholder value any way you please. In that context, shareholder value is simply what you want to get out of the business. Maybe your number-one priority is to increase the value of your equity as much and as rapidly as possible, in which case, you’d measure shareholder value the same way that public company investors do. Then again, maybe ROI is third or fourth on your list of priorities. Maybe you figure you’ll maximize your ROI over the long run by focusing on building a great, enduring business. Or maybe you don’t care about maximizing your ROI as long as you have a great business you’re proud of and a great life you enjoy. In any case, it’s your decision.



Insight 11



Small Giants have the freedom to choose.


They choose to be great.


You get the freedom to make that choice when you stay private - and that’s another reason why I believe a lot of owners are going to decide to keep their companies private in the future.




About Bo Burlingham


Bo Burlingham is the author of Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big and an editor-at-large of Inc. magazine.


My story in brief: I joined Inc. in January 1983 as a senior editor and became executive editor six months later - a position I held for the next seven years or so. In 1990, I resigned and became editor-at-large for a number of reasons, including my desire to go back to writing. I subsequently wrote two books with Jack Stack, the co-founder and CEO of Springfield Remanufacturing Corp. and the pioneer of open-book management. One of the books, “The Great Game of Business(Doubleday/Currency, 1992), has sold more than 300,000 copies. (It explains what open-book management is and how it works in practice at the company that does it best.) The other, “A Stake in the Outcome (Doubleday/Currency, 2002), has also done pretty well and gotten great reviews. (It’s a book you should read if you want to know what it really takes to run an employee-owned company.)


Before joining Inc., I freelanced for various publications, including Esquire, Harper’s, Boston Magazine, and Mother Jones. I was also managing editor of Ramparts magazine for a while, if anyone can remember back that far. In 1982, I joined Fidelity Investments, where I wrote for Peter Lynch, Ned Johnson, and other honchos until coming to Inc. From 1992 to 1997, I served on the board of The Body Shop Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the international cosmetics company. I was also a founder, with Tom Peters, of PAC World, a weird international networking group that gave me a chance to meet a lot of zany - and brilliant - people from around the globe.

About Steve Kayser:  

Steve Kayser is an award-winning business writer that has been featured in a marketing best practices case study by MarketingSherpa, "Purple Cows" (by Seth Godin), "A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing," Innovation Quarterly, B2B Marketing Trends, and Faces of E-Content Magazine. His writings have appeared in Corporate Finance Review Magazine, CEO Refresher, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business 2.0, and Fast Company Magazine among others.  

In his spare time, Steve professionally models kilts for Un-Vanity, Non-GQ and The Manly Kilt Wearing Man's monthly magazines.

Steve also headlines fundraising events for his run at an Olympic Gold Medal in the kilt-wearing mechanical bull-riding competition to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2050. For more info, you can contact Steve at