Cardboard Boxes

Shortly after our oldest child’s first Christmas, my wife and I decided to invest in an artificial Christmas tree. We didn’t have much money at the time, but we felt that investing in a good, sturdy tree that would last and save us money in the long run over buying live trees was a good idea. Thirty-five years later, I think we’ve come out on top, and the tree continues to hold its natural looking beauty as we use it each year.

Today’s Note is not about that Christmas tree. It’s about the cardboard box it came in. Looking at it today, we would all agree that the box has seen better days. The corners have been torn and are now held together with shipping tape. There are a few cuts in its sides from placing and replacing it on the storage shelf. And we long ago stopped relying on folding the flaps to keep it closed and give it some rigidity. Instead, we now hold it together by wrapping a few bungee straps around it—green and red, of course.

While the box continues to serve the purpose of holding the thirty-five-year-old artificial Christmas tree inside, it really does much more. When I bring it down from our attic each year, I’m reminded of the thirty-five years of family memories the box also contains and preserves. Just like cardboard boxes are intended to do.

In many ways, small businesses are like cardboard boxes. They’re strong and resilient, yet fragile. Many don’t age gracefully, yet they continue to serve their purpose. And they also contain the stories and experiences of the people who work there.

Too often, we see small businesses as independent entities removed from the people who work in them, and whose purpose is to beat last year’s or last month’s or last quarter’s numbers. Whose sole focus is on hitting some mystical set of KPIs that somebody, somewhere, said we should hit.

Those who know me also know how important I feel the numbers in business are. After all, we won’t be in business long if we don’t have more in the income column than we do in the expense column. But numbers aren’t the only thing, and we make a mistake if we overlook or dismiss the stories that give purpose to those numbers.

As we celebrate our company’s accomplishments, like winning a prized new client or hosting a successful event, it’s just as important to recognize the personal contributions and the silent sacrifices that played a role in achieving those wins.

Just as small children are frequently more interested in playing with the box a gift comes in rather than the gift itself, many new business owners are enamored with the idea of owning a small business. It’s only after running it for several years that they realize the purpose of the business or what it’s intended to do.

Every person in our company brings a story with them, and they create more while they’re here. Sometimes, we call this experience. Sometimes, we call it baggage. But it’s their story, and they’re living it out just as vividly as we’re living out the story of our company.

Sometimes, it’s good to pause and take a closer look inside the cardboard box we call our business; to celebrate the quiet contributions and individual stories within.

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