Run it like a business

I made a comment on Facebook (always a mistake, I know) kvetching about the societal chants to “run it like a business.” The thread of comments afterward were few because, like real life, folks in the digital sphere tend not to talk to me. The pithiness and meme-size thoughts of social media don’t really allow us to expand on thoughts in a way that provokes meaningful conversation. But three things emerged from the conversation:

  1. What does *it* mean? 
  2. We should define what business we are holding up as a model (which was my point).
  3. If you don’t think the *it* can be run like a business then you are anti-business. 

So let’s go point by point:

What does it mean?

“Run it like a business” we’ve heard politicians of a certain stripe chant for decades now. What should be run like a business? The school system loses money and the answer is to run it like a business. The park system they say should be run like a business. The library. The dog park. You know, just make everything into a business. If it doesn’t turn a profit, it goes under. That’ll teach you. 

Add in the fact that nearly half of small businesses fail in the first year and only 33% make it past the ten year mark and I’m not really sold on using it as a model for, say, treating cancer or researching disease. Healthcare shouldn’t be a business. The issue here is of course that the measure of success with business is profit. The goal of healthcare should be wellness, not dollars. 

We should first note that many businesses don’t turn a profit. Like ever. Many businesses are incorporated as ways to avoid paying taxes or maximizing a return as are company’s nonprofit foundations. (Trust me, as a writer the write-offs are often the best way to “make money” is the claim your expenses, not count on the next book deal.) 

But do we really want to measure a school’s success by profit? Shouldn’t the measure be education? Businesses necessitate limited audiences—the people you market to who want and can afford your product. Businesses compete with each other and there have to be winners and losers. Do we really want to educate the public by creating limited audiences and forcing schools to compete with each other so some of them go under? It’s an absurd model, especially when you consider the push of those same politicians to make schools the great generator for the workforce. 

Open, accessible, well-funded education is good for everyone, including businesses. Same goes for parks and libraries and all the other things where the social media-sized thought of “run it like a business” is substituted for actual critical thought. Because the idea is not really to run it like a business; the idea is that we shouldn’t have to pay the taxes for it. (And this is where an amazing sense of irony is handy because businesses are tax shelters and the really massive businesses simply don’t pay anything in taxes.)

And my second—and original—point of the post:

What business should whatever it is be run like? Are we talking about running it like AT&T? I mean, go ahead and call customer support before you answer. What about Enron? Or WorldCom? All businesses, but not all the model of doing business. How about the courtesy and convenience of your local CVS? Ugh—should that really be the epigram of how you want to run a university?

I had business owners respond to my Facebook post saying that they had good businesses, which is wonderful to hear; however, do they think their business model is the pattern that would solve healthcare? Could their formula for success be applied to public education? It seems doubtful though I respect their acumen in their particular business field. 

I’m not saying you can’t run *it* (whatever the hell that is) like a business; I am simply asking for more specificity before I go into why that may not be a good idea. 

You’re anti-business, Ryan.

I think the evidence is on the other side of this one. I’ve reviewed about 1,200 businesses under our Google account and have written reviews of many small businesses on our blog. They are overwhelmingly positive. We’ve met some interesting entrepreneurs, including many of our VW driveway hosts and our radio partners at Happy Productions. We love our wineries and cideries and purveyors of coffee—all businesses. Several of our podcast episodes are platforms where small business owners can promote their products. 

We love good businesses doing good things. We love quality products. We love employers who treat their people well. We love when people look at an old way of doing things and think, “hey, I could shake that up.” 

But do I want city hall run like a radio station? Do I want the person who brews their own beer to be in charge of covid test distribution? 

My comment was simply to say this: Let’s be a little more thoughtful in our problem solving efforts than chanting “run it like a business.” Tell me what *it* is and tell me what business model you want and why. That’s all. 

Also, nothing—not even AT&T—should be run like AT&T.

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