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Small Giants: Book Review of Bo Burlingham’s Bestseller

A few months ago, I picked up the book Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. The book is the best I’ve read this year and is a fascinating read for anyone with a side business, a start-up, or a small business.

For many companies, the only priority is the near-constant pressure to grow bigger, make more money, and crush competitors. Bo shows and tells the stories of companies spearheading an alternate movement to build businesses that are sustainable both in revenue, happiness, or another priority that you set. Rather than only chasing profits, chase a better workplace or increasing the quality of work—even if it means fewer customers.

Small Giants Book Bo Burlingham

Here are just a few of the nuggets I found:

Just because you have a restaurant that is well known and popular doesn’t mean you have to franchise or even expand. You can stay as you are and have a business that’s profitable and rewarding and a source of great pride.

The experience of going bankrupt forced him to think about why he was in business in the first place, what he was really looking for; and it made him aware of the tremendous responsibility he had for his employees.

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. This can be tough when considerations of status and prestige come into play. It can be an ego thing.

It’s not enough for us to be good to customers. We want relationships to be personal and real, not contrived. Handwrite letters and make the phone calls that are authentic. Customers know they can count on us.

Keeping the team small, relieved him of management chores and getting weighed down in the small things. People who weren’t working out didn’t have to be fired, they left on their own accord. Conversely, those who meshed with culture were embraced by group and given more responsibility. A small team can do way more fun, extracurricular things together and grow culture.

Rather than figure out what someone was doing wrong and trying to fix it, we thought we’d show people what worked for us. Create curriculum and teach the principles of business for what works.

The higher purpose should be woven into the fabric of the business. A constant presence. Then reminding the teammates in unexpected ways how much the company cares about them. Lastly, the feelings that employees have toward one another.

Danny Meyer: Mistakes will happen. If someone finds a small screw in their risotto, they are going to tell everybody. I can’t change that. But what I can do is make sure that when they tell the story they go on to say, “But do you know how the restaurant handled that?”

Isn’t it a CEO’s job to make the tough call? At Reel, the CEOs wanted employees to feel ownership of decisions and responsibility toward the welfare of the business.

It’s helpful in companies to have a common vision of the kind of society in which they want to live and work.

Goltz’s secret to business is leverage and control. Leveraging the assets you have. Control: Making sure that what you want to happen actually happens. The bigger you get does not mean it always gets harder. Use a system and get help making the right hires.

Selima said that she can’t do anything for somebody she doesn’t like, so she only takes on fashion clients she wants to (at the cost of more profit).

UNBT bank thought if you exceeded the organic growth of your business it would undermine the ability to provide excellent customer service, create great workplace for your empoyees, and maximize shareholder returns.

How do you inspire people to action when they feel comfortable with the way things are?

1- Open the books to managers

2- Discuss with employees what business they were really in, what value they should be offering customers, and what changes they would have to make for the company to be the best at what they did.

3- To help their business turnaround they needed a metaphor: how intimidating a peak looked from base camp.

Overall the team missed some milestones but kept going and became more capable as they went along.

Every founder in the book has a passion for what their companies do. They love it, and they have a burning desire to share it with other people.

You need to feel in your gut that whatever you do is the most interesting, exciting, worthwhile thing you could be doing at that moment. Otherwise, how do you convince anyone else?

There’s NO recipe for making small giants. There is a pattern, they all have a clear understanding of who they are, what they want out of business, and why.

* * *
I’ve found that many of the lessons in this book apply to life–personal life–too. When you know who you are, what you want out of life, and why… you more opportunities for happiness are available to you.


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9 responses to “Small Giants: Book Review of Bo Burlingham’s Bestseller”

April 6, 2020 at 2:24 pm

Have just discovered your blogs and podcast and they are really motivational. Have started reviewing your book suggestions to get me kickstarted on my startup ideas. Thank you for sharing

Kurt Frankenberg
May 1, 2014 at 7:28 am

I dig it.

I also made a commitment to my customers. I own a martial arts studio and was brought up in the martial arts in the 80’s with gritty, down-to-Earth, REAL self-defense training.

When my instructor and others with him seemed to want to go more after the almighty dollar, I stayed true to a small, intimate setting with REAL SWEAT and BLOOD on the mats…

Today he has a multimillion dollar operation, which suits him fine. I make an insanely good living selling information products (not related to my martial arts) but still get to run a studio and stay true to the tradition of serious training.

As a result my Students get me at my best, and in just a few cases over 28 years of we’ve had some reports of them having to use their skills. When they are called on to defend themselves or others the results are extremely good.

It’s okay to make money doing what you love… but another thing altogether to sacrifice the heart and soul of what you love in favor of making more money, doing a watered-down version of it.

“Success” need not be described merely by the bottom line, but by the lives you’ve had the privilege to improve.

“That’s all I have to say about that” – (Forrest Gump voice)

Keep Stepping,


April 30, 2014 at 10:34 pm

yay on book reviews, you just saved me a bunch of time, NK. And you know I love Danny Meyer.

Did a lot of the Small Giants takeaways resonate with AppSumo? Did you get inspired towards any changes or was it mostly preaching to the choir?

Rafael Oshiro
April 29, 2014 at 12:22 am

I always like your book suggestions and the reviews, thanks for sharing.

Luke Freeman
April 28, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll add it to my list!

Also, I have no idea why but you were in my dreams last night telling me to take a few more risks… funny how the mind puts together all the different inputs in our lives and meshes them during sleep!

So thanks to Dream Noah, also, I guess, for the karate kick to the pants :p

Randy Cantrell
April 28, 2014 at 6:58 pm

The organization is pretty interesting, too. Bo (and Jack Stack’s) “Great Game Of Business” is another terrific book, too.

Alec Barron
April 28, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Thanks for putting this book on my radar, Noah. Never heard of this book, but I think our world would be a lot better if more businesses took on this philosophy.

I’ve thought about my own career in somewhat similar terms for the past several months. Instead of continuously earning more and more money, I have an annual income number that is my personal limit. Any money I earn over that amount will go to solving problems I care about that don’t have an ROI.

My reasoning is more money above that limit isn’t going to make me happy. I don’t care about owning a Ferrari or huge house. So why not use that money to make the world a little better?

Nate Desmond
April 28, 2014 at 6:39 am

This reminds me a lot of 37Signals’ approach. When you’re small, you have a lot of growth options and the opportunity to build a strong culture. Once you’re big, becoming small again or fixing the culture both become much more difficult.

It also reminds me of a gymnast’s autobiography I read recently. They were placing quite low going into their first World’s competition, and their coach said something like, “No one expects anything from you. That’s a big advantage.”

Once you become big, people expect a lot from you… and it’s too late to repair a weak foundation.

Tyler Banfield
April 28, 2014 at 6:23 am

Thanks for the recommendation Noah! This hadn’t previously showed up on my radar, but after reading the above snippets, I’m excited to check it out.

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