EOW Reflections 20/10/2023

Small businesses often tell us they are bullied. They feel they have no power and their bigger customers can simply impose their will. That’s not to say that all big firms are bullies. That’s simply not the case but I do know that it happens. I’ve just spent an hour hearing from creative and talented sellers who trade through big ecommerce, retail platforms. They say the same thing. They call it the David and Goliath situation. They’re angry and they want change. David made up for the lack of size and power with innovation and won out through resilience and creativity. Small businesses have those same traits at their disposal, so can they do the same thing?

This week when a giant firm imposed its will on all of the firms in its supply chain, I read in awe the response of the owner one small firm who said ‘good luck to you, we won’t be working with you again’. That took real bravery. It probably also took the certainty of having other firms that they could get contracts from in future and of course not everyone will be in the position to be so brave. Fear of losing their business will stop others following suit. But it may be that by making public the response and the fact that they are walking away, that one supplier may inspire others to take a similar stand. Even if one person can’t change the world, perhaps they can make a start.

If enough suppliers can win other work and walk away, the big customer may find it difficult, costly and time consuming to replace them. Skills and labour are in short supply and so there are fewer suppliers in some markets. If a supplier does make it public that they are walking away and is willing to talk about why they’ve taken that step, others will think twice about supplying the bully in the first place. Having a reputation for being a bully isn’t likely to endear you to potential suppliers. If you can walk away can you get the message out to others? Just occasionally being able to tell others how bad a firm is to work with can start a ball rolling and maybe even inspire the movement.

Reputations can take decades to build but minutes to lose. Business history is littered with big Goliaths that thought they were invincible, that might had right, and that they could impose their will on the smaller firms they should have worked with in partnership. Stewardship and nurturing a business relationship is more likely to lead to better outcomes for all parties, including shareholders and customers. The bully may rule for a while but eventually there’s likely to be a reckoning.

Increasingly investors including the big pension funds, as well as consumers and would-be employees want to work with firms with good reputations, ethics and purpose. Imposing your will on small suppliers isn’t the way to attract either investment or talent. The good firms win eventually be they big or small.

There are many, many big firms that are trying to do the right thing. Their leadership recognises the importance of building strong working relationships and partnerships and that good business boosts the bottom line. If you can afford to be brave, walk away from the bullies, don’t allow them to impose their will, tell others why you’ve done it, search out the good firms and sell them your wares and talents. Maybe one person really can change things for the better and maybe together we can show the bad players that bullying doesn’t pay.  Seeing the determination around this week has given me hope.