The Small Business Mindset

Published in on Nov 21, 2021

"Small businesses play a central role in the U.S. economy, contributing to job creation, economic development, and self-sufficiency. In many instances, workers view self-employment as an attractive alternative to salary employment. Workers in low-income areas may be particularly interested in self-employment since there is likely a dearth of appropriate wage and salary jobs in their neighborhood. In addition, starting a small business affords flexibility that traditional workplaces may not offer and can furnish substantial opportunities for individuals residing in disadvantaged localities or zones..." from Entrepreneurship in Low Income Areas, the Office of Advocacy of the Small Business Administration

Small businesses are inherently fragile and vulnerable to risk, and the less social power their owners have, the more fragile they are. (If we didn’t know that before COVID, we know it now!) At the same time, many low income entrepreneurs start small businesses because their other options for supporting themselves are worse. Starting a small business is an expression of hope and a container for hope.

But being an entrepreneur isn’t just about learning specific skills like bookkeeping, marketing, negotiating with landlords, etc. You certainly need those skills, but any of them are arguably easier to attain than the overarching mindset that makes somebody happy to work in a small business setting. This is something we’re belatedly recognizing at POCA Tech, so from here on out, you can expect us to never shut up about it. All the data suggest that most acupuncturists will either need to create their own small business or work for a small business that somebody else created, so we have to talk about the small business mindset.

Making a living in late capitalism via a small business is a lot like transporting yourself through a city via bicycle. The terrain was built for cars, but you don’t have a car; you’re surrounded by things that are much bigger than you are, driven by people who don’t even see you as they whiz past. If you let yourself get discouraged about how hard it is to ride a bike through traffic in the midst of big scary cars, you might not have the energy to peddle up the next hill, so you can’t let yourself get discouraged. However you also can’t ignore the degree to which you’re vulnerable and exposed and need to be able to respond, quickly, to any surprises. If you’re going to survive your commute, one thing you absolutely cannot do is to pretend, even for a moment, that you’re NOT riding a bicycle.

A lot of acupuncturists, students, and prospective students really want to pretend they’re not riding a bicycle. A lot of them would prefer to cruise through city traffic in a Hummer (second cousin to a tank). If they can’t have a Hummer, okay, they’d settle for a nice solid Volvo. And so they pretend that’s what their bicycle is. Of course, many of them won’t get on a bicycle at all after they graduate from acupuncture school (which is probably a good decision) but others do get on their bicycle and then expect it to behave like a Hummer. When it doesn’t meet their expectations, they get angry.

(I’m trying to have a conversation here about risk. People hate talking about risk, so I keep testing out different metaphors in hopes of making it easier. Granted, other acupuncture schools are not helping with this conversation, but it’s not all their fault either.)

At POCA Tech, we can teach you how to ride a bicycle through city traffic; not only that, we can teach you to ride it through a low income neighborhood, where there are probably more potholes than average, some surprisingly deep puddles, and maybe even a loose dog or two. That’s what we WANT to teach you, that’s our whole reason for being! Our version of acupuncture school is like training wheels for that kind of ride. But what we don’t have, and can’t give you, is a Hummer. Or a Volvo. Or even a used Honda Civic. All we have is a bicycle.

On our end, we’re coming to terms with the understanding that we can’t teach you to ride a bicycle in a low income neighborhood if YOU don’t actually want to and you’re going to resist learning it. If you’re going to continually be disappointed that we’re not offering you a Hummer so that you can feel as safe, as secure, as insulated from risks and surprises as you want to feel, you should not be learning acupuncture at POCA Tech.

Awhile back, my sister sent me an article (I can’t remember now which one) about how people who had chaotic childhoods sometimes make good small business owners not in spite of the stress of their upbringing, but because of it. I went down that rabbit hole of research and found lots of interesting stuff about how growing up in an unpredictable environment may have given me a range of entrepreneurial advantages: flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, facility at updating my “working memory” (or being able “to forget information that is no longer relevant and to attend quickly to newer data that is”). The main take home message was that not expecting anybody to save you is an adaptive advantage for entrepreneurs. It helps you take responsibility.

I don’t mean to say that everyone whose childhood sucked is a good candidate for entrepreneurship or even that I’m happy that I have these skills. I’ve taken way more responsibility than my fair share and I’m trying to learn to take less. I’m also not saying that being a good small business owner means never asking for help; that’s not true at all. You can take responsibility AND ask for help and support. A lot of acupuncturists and would-be acupuncturists, though, are completely unprepared for the level of self-responsibility that a small business demands. That bicycle is powered and guided by YOU; if you expect an invisible thousand-horsepower engine to magically kick in when you need it, you’re going to be in trouble, out there in traffic.

One crucial aspect of the small business mindset is the ability to make the best of things, to cultivate a strategic focus on the positive. In my experience, especially when your business is new, you have to radiate faith and goodwill, and set an overwhelmingly, contagiously positive tone. In my experience, this requires a lot of self-discipline.(I had to give up complaining as a hobby.) You also have to let go of critique and perfectionism. They will not help you. I know letting go of perfectionism is harder for some people than for others, and it might represent a multi-year project, but working on it is still better than allowing it to tie you up in knots. Because being tied up in knots is no good when you're riding a bicycle.

POCA Tech is a small business and WCA, whose clinics it uses to train students, is also a small business. We need students to take responsibility for the inherent risk and fragility of small businesses in order to learn in these settings -- but also, living with risk and fragility is possibly the most important thing we teach. We love riding our bicycles through our neighborhood with its potholes, its puddles, its loose dogs, because it’s where our people live. We love riding in this neighborhood even when the weather’s bad and we’re cold and wet and yeah, a nice big warm car would be much more comfortable, but who cares? We’re flying down our own street on our rickety bicycles and we’re home, we’re home, we’re home.

P.S. Thank you to the Cully Boulevard Business Alliance for giving WCA a $4000 COVID Relief Fund Grant this month.