Ryan Holiday for Small Business: In a political minefield, follow your principles, not just profit

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided that we would take a stand against the recent ban on certain books in Texas, where we live and run an independent bookstore. We put a trailer on Main Street in front of our shop in the small town of Bastrop and gave away hundreds of copies of books like Fahrenheit 451Lawn boyand Out of the darkness

Obviously, giving books away isn’t a major source of income, nor is it potentially alienating members of your community whose politics differ from yours. (On one of the books we gave away, parents protested at a high school just a few blocks from our store.) But none of those considerations was enough to overcome the feeling that we were doing the right thing—at least by our moral standards, if not our bottom line.

And it turns out, in the bigger picture, following our conscience was good for business. Local media came out and covered our event extensively. National media followed. And the ebook service Scribd eventually picked up the tab for the books.

Let’s make a backup. I opened a bookstore in the depths of the pandemic for the same reason I write – because I love it. Because I felt called to do it. I think that books are important and that a world that people can’t access is not a world I want to imagine.

I’d like to believe that reasoning is analogous to the way many (not all) companies start out. Someone sees a need in the world and becomes an entrepreneur by fulfilling that need. The company has a goal that goes beyond making a profit.

That goal is important. We live in an attention economy. What is scarce is not capital or natural resources or retail space or consumer dollars. The prize source is the attention of the ever distracted, unceasingly courted, highly jaded public. Without people’s attention — be it on social media or on foot — your business won’t survive. And the pursuit of profit in itself will not attract attention.

The thing about protecting your profits, or just acting in your limited economic self-interest, is that it’s very boring. It is the driest definition of capitalism. It doesn’t generate much goodwill or enthusiasm, and it reduces your relationship with your customers to the value of their next transaction.

On the other hand, being goal oriented frees you up to do the things that really matter to people – and stand out from a sea of ​​companies that don’t.

Take Covid for example. I didn’t want to get sick, and I didn’t want anyone who worked for me to get sick either. So it seemed clear that whatever the governor of Texas did, we would mandate masks in our store. What we did. Did that upset some people who might otherwise have come in to buy things? Of course. I understand that other companies had circumstances that forced them to make different decisions. But I wouldn’t have let an unmasked stranger come into my house in 2020 or 2021, so in the store too, we said no thanks.

And when a woman I don’t know sent me a nasty comment about our mask policy, I posted it on social media. As with our book giveaway, significant press coverage followed – as well as a spike in our online sales. For every person who entered the store and complained about the minor inconvenience of masking, many more people came in and thanked us for taking the extra step, of creating a space that was safe for, say, their immunocompromised children. We even got employees from other companies in town thanking us for giving us an example to point to when asking their bosses for the same protection.

In writing you notice that the less pretensions you have, the more your work connects. As a business owner, I’ve found that the less I think as a business – the more I just do what makes sense to me as a person, what feels right for my community – the better I sleep and the better our business performs.

Because being yourself is recognizable. It is real. You may feel like you’re well on your way, but actually it might be the safer bet – because it gives you access to an audience that everyone else is too scared or calculating to reach.

From the May/June 2022 issue of businesstraverse.com. magazine