Big versus Small
Dream factories and cash-outs
16 January 2017
It's with mixed feelings that I greet the news that Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down. My heart greets this with joy because the last time I was at this circus—which was perhaps 20 years ago—there were far too many animals in captivity being put through very unnatural behaviors. It bothered me then, and I've I've grown more aware and awake as an individual, my memory of that day at the circus has gone from nagging guilt to full-on horror.
The flip-side of this is what happens when a business scales up and up and up. What used to be a three-ring circus under a tent holding 2,000 to 8,000 people has become an event spending a week in an arena holding 12,000-15,000 people. What used to be a family business—owned by the descendants of the Ringling family until 1967 when the circus was sold to Feld Entertainment—scales up to having to satisfy the financial appetite of a large publicly-traded corporation.
I have no doubt that the name-recognition alone could produce a viable circus at a much smaller size with a focus much less on animals and much more on performing humans. But that's outside of Feld’s attention span, a business that would need passionate ownership and leadership to succeed and might not, after paying the expenses of infrastructure and labor, do much more than support a family.
That used to be a laudable goal in this country: decent jobs for a few hundred people and a good living for the family or two who owned it. The predominant model now is to create a business and then continually dangle it in front of buyers with deep pockets. Everyone from owners to investors are looking to create value and cash-out. Often this cash-out involves a lot of people losing their jobs and the business being “absorbed” by a competitor. The idea behind the business—which may have been quite disruptive and innovative—is buried by the purchaser, or perhaps slowly integrated into its own products. This dilutes the force of disruption and holds down the overall impetus of innovation.
Funny how thinking about a circus makes me think about these other things. Circus might just be the perfect word for it!
Here again I play my song like a corrupted MP3 that's stuck on a single verse: I love small business because it's one of the few true “dream factories” left in our economy, a risky but rewarding path to following one’s own unique passions.
Dream on, folks. Think it up and make it happen. But, please, consider that maybe the world needs your ideas more than you need that big cash-out.