I recently finished the book,¬†“Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big” by Bo Burlingham. This book was on My 2016 Reading List, so I was happy to be diving into it. Having worked under a variety of different management styles and cultures, I am so curious how some companies get it right while others miss the mark. Not that I am planning on starting a company in the near future, but if ever I did, I want to know what the good ones are doing ūüôā

Recent Read: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

As the subtitle clearly explains, the book profiles companies that chose to take a different path to success. In the introduction, Bo Burlingham goes into detail as to how he selected these companies out of thousands of possibilities. He established some criteria that would help him whittle down the options, and then narrowed it down to 14 privately held companies.

The 14 companies Bo Burlingham featured and followed for the book were:

  1. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, California
  2. Citistorage in Brooklyn, New York
  3. Clif Bar & Co in Berkley, CA
  4. ECCO in Boise, Idaho
  5. Hammerhead Productions, in Studio City, California
  6. O.C. Tanner Co. in Salt Lake City, Utah
  7. Reell Precision Manufacturing in St Paul, Minnesota
  8. Rhythm and Hues Studios in Los Angeles, California
  9. Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo, New York
  10. Selima Inc. in Miami Beach, Florida
  11. Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, New York
  12. The Goltz Group in Chicago, Illinois
  13. W.L. Butler Construction in Redwood City, California
  14. Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Of these 14 companies, I was only familiar with Clif Bar, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Zingerman’s. You’ll see in my recap of the book how this played into me losing focus at certain points.


Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group – Image Source: Chicago Tribune

As Burlingham researched these companies, he found that these companies all had a certain “mojo” in common. Discovering the source of this “mojo” led him to really explore what these companies were doing differently. Despite the extreme differences in industries and size, the common threads he found were:

  1. The traditional definitions of success did not restrict these business owners.
  2. The leaders had overcome the enormous pressures to grow exponentially.
  3. Each company had an extraordinarily intimate relationship with the local city, town or county in which it did business.
  4. These companies cultivate exceptionally intimate relationships with their customers and suppliers.
  5. These companies had intimate workplaces.
  6. They followed corporate structures that worked for them.
  7. The leaders had deep emotional attachments to the business, the people who worked in it, and its customers and suppliers.

The book is organized under these observations. Each chapter is dedicated to one observation. Within each chapter, anecdotes from a handful of the fourteen companies are used to illustrate the observations. Not surprisingly, my favorite profiles were of the companies I was more familiar with.

Recent Read: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson – Image Source: Outside Online

Takeaways from Small Giants:

Bigger doesn’t mean better – I really loved that these companies all chose different definitions of success for themselves. Despite the pressure to keep growing no matter what, these leaders had the strength to say no and follow their own paths. Seeing these companies all choose to play by different rules was very refreshing to see.

The notion that bigger — and more — is better has so pervaded our culture that most people assume all entrepreneurs want to capitalize on every business opportunity, grow their companies as fast as they can, and build the next Microsoft or Citicorp.

A business can shape a community and vice versa. All of the companies profiled in Small Giants have a deep connection with their community. Outside of providing jobs, the companies seem to take to heart the needs of the community. Outreach and giving is a natural extension of the work these companies do. It was really fun to read about the personal way that these companies give back.

Great work environments are built with intention, not by accident. I can only imagine how difficult it would be as a business owner to prioritize company culture over profits. It would take a lot of vision and forethought to realize the rewards for making your company a place where employees not only spend their time, but give their everything to.

In addition to having the right people on board, you need to keep the bus in good running condition. That may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies with wonderful intentions trip themselves up by having poor internal communications, or bad coordination between departments, or inadequate follow-through on decisions, or any of a thousand other management issues that can negate all the positive initiatives those companies undertake.¬†

Recent Read: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham - The Outside and In

Co-founders of Zingerman’s, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig – Image Source: NY Times

Final Thoughts on Small Giants:

Despite the lessons learned, I have to admit, my mind did wander a bit in certain chapters of Small Giants. I think it had to do with not knowing all of the companies that Burlingham was diving into. Especially if it was a manufacturing or construction company. Whenever he would share anecdotes about one of the companies I was familiar with, I was all ears.

Business owners should definitely add Small Giants to their reading list. I would also recommend it to anyone who leads a group of people in a common mission, like a school principal or non-profit leader. There is some fantastic content around creating a culture of intimacy with your employees and customers.

Have you ever worked for a company or organization with “mojo”? What about one that had the potential, but stumbled? What do you think made the difference?

For more “Recent Reads” and book recommendations, find them¬†HERE.