When a beloved toy shop called Why Not closed in my city, Alexandria, Va., a few years ago, the owner explained why.

“It got where we had people out here with their phones taking pictures of stuff, and bing, order. That’s real disheartening when you watch people do that, and I said, you know what, “OK, I’m going,” Kate Schlabach told the local newspaper.

This sounds like the cruel practice of catfishing to me: You pretend to be a customer, but in fact you’re just using the small business owner so you can feel smart.

Some of our best and most beautiful toys were purchased from our local toy store, from a giant rubber duck (my daughter insisted on one that absolutely could not go down the drain) to a beautiful Schleich model of a brontosaurus. The toy store’s loss was felt – by employees, customers and the community.

Contrast that with what happened to Jahleel Pettiford, an entrepreneur I met in Staunton, Va. When he was still in high school, he started drawing on white sneakers – designs that other people wanted to buy. His father bought him white T shirts from Wal-Mart: And a company, Novel, was born. He drew designs and included funny, whimsical and wry sayings – things that helped him cope with depression and the world around him.

He sold the shirts for $18, and had a waiting list for orders when he arrived at the offices of the Staunton Creative Fund, which paired him with a mentor and helped him set up a business structure.

He’s now making several thousand dollars a month selling his clothing line on Instagram, and says COVID-19 hasn’t hurt the business.

Most of the entrepreneurs of America don’t make billions and don’t get “funded.” Only 1% of entrepreneurs receive venture capital. The number must be far lower globally.

Only 18% of entrepreneurs obtain loans. An astonishing 81% of all entrepreneurs receive no outside financing at all in our current system and are left to struggle to start their enterprises through their own means.

Big banks serve them generally haphazardly. Community banks have been declining for years, thought they have gotten an unexpected second wind because they proved so vital in the PPP distribution. Rohit Aurora, CEO of Biz2credit, a New York City-based financial services data company and lender, says fintech companies are trying to do better, using data available about people’s preferences and situations. “Using that data, fintech players can create a fully customized experience that doesn’t require a lot of hand-holding.”

But nobody I know of has built “because you’re my neighbor” into their lending algorithm.

Sometimes, the answer boils down to community support. Buying local is one start. Supporting local initiatives, like angel networks and co-working spaces is another. Using a small business owner’s good taste and hard-won sourcing ability is just cruel: So stop catfishing.

Small businesses are on thin margins, even thinner now. They borrow resources, capital and advice from the communities they live in. They scrape together startup capital from friends and family. They are our neighbors; their kids go to school with our children; we pass them in the grocery store. They are the lifeblood of America’s economic engine and the catalyst for growth in our economy. They are very rarely in the game explicitly to get rich, and hardly any of them do.

I wrote about Staunton, which has experienced a revival in part because of entrepreneurship. Against a backdrop of historic preservation, the city has pulled together a rich set of resources, including funding, mentors and ongoing support for its entrepreneurs.

“That’s the beauty of communities like the Shenandoah Valley,” said Debbie Irwin, director of the Staunton Creative Community Fund. “We have high-tech growth startups … we have game makers who sell millions of units of their games. We also have the Main Street entrepreneurs. Every single one of those entrepreneurs is pivotal to creating the community where I want to raise my kids.

The beauty is in recognizing that all of those people have importance.”

In other words, scale isn’t the only measure of value. Dollars are important, but so are your neighbors.

It’s working: The population of Staunton grew 5% between 2010 and 2019. Careful tourism is returning to the city: When I visited in May, there were two families with tickets to Polyface Farm, an epitome of buy local and buy direct. Joel Salatin is a celebrity farmer, featured in the bestselling Omnivore’s Dilemma, who writes about a third way:

Many successful entrepreneurial start-ups morph into Wall-Streetified empires that lose their distinctives. And in the process, the business chews up and spits out its workers and founders in a mad scramble to dominate something. Does middle ground exist between the calm talking-stick consensus circle of indigenous eastern tribal cultures and the mad scramble frenzy of western capitalism? Or perhaps more to the point in light of recent Wall Street and economic developments, what values are more important than growth? 

And here’s something I find telling: Two years ago, Staunton – which was a stronghold of the Confederacy and the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson — voted to rename its high school from Robert E. Lee to Staunton High. Entrepreneurs are not always, but often, in the middle politically. With an interest in stability, they are often on the side of progress and inclusiveness.

They’re usually stand-up parts of a community. Now is the time to stand up for them.



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