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June 5, 2013

'The End of Big': Nicco Mele on the Rise of Small Businesses

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NiccoMeleAcross every domain -- business, politics, news, entertainment, academia, government, war -- the internet has radically shifted the balance of power so that small organizations now compete on equal footing with bigger rivals. In fact, in some ways being big has become a disadvantage.

That’s the basic premise of Nicco Mele’s The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, which serves as a call to arms for anyone running or working for, a small- to medium-sized business. For inbound marketers, his book has quite a few takeaways.

How David Become Goliath

“Radical connectivity -- our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally -- has all but transformed politics, business, and culture, bringing about the upheaval of traditional ‘big’ institutions and the empowerment of upstarts and renegades,” Mele writes.

The shift presents many opportunities and risks to society. In media, for example, we’re losing important institutions that in the past served as a check on government and business. In entertainment, it’s great that anyone can make videos and distribute them on YouTube, but without huge resources from a major studio, can anyone really make a fantastic full-length film?

Another twist is that while technology is empowering small organizations, it is “paradoxically creating some things that are Even Bigger,” Mele writes, referring to all-powerful technology like Apple, Amazon, Ebay, Google, Skype/Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook. Those organizations are becoming so powerful that “we can’t hold them accountable,” Mele says.

Inbound Marketing for Underdogs

Mele is a political junkie who worked on the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. After that, he formed an internet consulting firm, EchoDitto, that advises clients in the public and private sector. EchoDitto’s first client was a little-known politician running for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois -- a guy named Barack Obama.

In both cases, Mele’s challenge was to get attention for an underdog, to help a smaller player compete with bigger, better-funded rivals. And in both cases what Mele and his team ended up doing was a form of inbound marketing -- creating content and drawing people toward their “product” (candidate).

In the case of the Dean campaign, “we started a blog for the presidential campaign -- the first blog launched by a major presidential campaign,” Mele writes. “If Big News didn’t care about Howard Dean and wouldn't write about him or cover his candidacy, then we’d cover it ourselves.”

Imagine There's No Walmart

Mele says that it was through his work advising big organizations that the idea for “The End of Big” began to take shape. In an interview in his office in Somerville, Mass., he shared his vision a world where huge corporations like Walmart don’t exist or have no special advantage because of what Mele calls “the commoditization of scale.” (Meaning: anyone can build a supply chain to China.)

“Imagine a world where mass marketing has gone away,” he says. “There’s no TV, and no radio. What is marketing in that world? It’s inbound. It’s a world where the local guy has the same power as the big company.”

Mele looks at the rise of the self-employed and freelance economy as a sign of this shift. “More people are self-employed in the United States right now than at any time since the Civil War,” he says.

He argues that big corporations themselves are something of a historic anomaly, a phenomenon that occurred only in the past 200 years that is now fading away. Ecommerce websites like Etsy and tools like Square and 3D printers will fuel the creation of small businesses, he says. The trick is to leverage new platforms and learn to use them to gain advantage.

Nearly a century ago, in 1910, the world stood on the cusp of enormous, wrenching changes, among them the end of hereditary monarchies, Mele writes. Today we’re in a similar period of massive change and disruption.

“Scan the headlines every morning -- through your Facebook and Twitter feeds -- and you can feel history shifting under your feet. Every day I find more and more evidence that we are in the twilight of our own age, and that we can’t quite grasp it, even if we sense that something is terribly amiss,” he writes.

At times melancholy and anxious, “The End of Big” seems intended as much to raise questions as to provide answers. It’s a smart, provocative read that will leave you a little bit worried about the future but perhaps better armed for it.

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Topics: Inbound Marketing

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