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Every big company was a small company once. What does it take for some small companies to grow and excel over time? turnstone, the Steelcase brand inspired by entrepreneurs, has discovered unique ways that successful small companies operate. These insights are worth sharing with leaders of any company, big or small.

“Small companies have different DNA than big companies,” says Kevin Kuske, general manager, turnstone. “Understanding these differences can help other small companies succeed and even teach large companies a few things, too.”

Goodsmiths, a small company in Des Moines, Iowa is a very good example. They built an online marketplace where arts and crafts makers sell their wares in virtual stores to customers across North America. After little more than a year, has 5,000 stores for makers and traffic and sales are booming.

It isn’t just the steep growth curve that sets Goodsmiths apart, it’s how they achieved it. “When you have to compete with bigger companies with far greater resources, more brand recognition and greater awareness with both customers and potential employees, you have to think and work differently. Goodsmiths knows this. The way they’re heavily involved and invested in their local community, how they let their unique personality as a company shine through and how they’re passionate about their craft, these are key to their success,” says Kuske.

The little guys make a big difference in the overall economy. Small businesses (fewer than 100 employees) represent more than 99% of employers and provide 60% to 80% of net new jobs annually. In the United States they produce as much as 13 to 14 times more patents than big firms, according to The U.S. Small Business Association says small businesses collectively produce over $6 trillion in gross domestic product each year, which on its own would be the third highest of any country in the world.

The story is similar in Europe, too. Small and medium size enterprises (SMEs, 90 or fewer employees) outside the financial sector account for 99% of businesses and two out of every three jobs, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the E.U. In addition, 85% of net new jobs in the E.U. between 2002 and 2010 were created by SMEs.

Regular road trips by turnstone employees and the in-depth studies conducted by the Steelcase WorkSpace Futures research and design group show there are seven key ways great small firms operate differently than large companies (see end of this article). Two of these differentiating ideas—embracing their local communities and taking their unique personalities public—are explored here.


An Internet company with online stores that represent makers all over the U.S. and Canada, Goodsmiths’ team of 11 employees is also actively engaged in the local community. They’re located in Valley Junction, a historic section of Des Moines that boasts the largest collection of independent businesses in the city, including art galleries and handcrafted goods stores, the types of businesses that use “It gives us a connection, a base in a part of town that’s all about handmade, creative goods, just like the shops on our site,” says Riane Menardi, whose job title is community builder.

“Grounding your company in the community gives everyone a sense of belonging. It’s part of the vision of successful small companies to be part of a larger purpose, and it connects the company with the pool of talent, customers and resources locally,” notes Kuske.

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