Entrepreneurs on the Small Screen: How America Imagines Its Small Business Owners

February 23, 2017 • 7 min read
Breanna Lambert

Breanna Lambert


It’s easy to feel unappreciated as a small business owner. You work your tail off, have to be an expert in everything from marketing to banking to technology, and, often, the only folks who understand are other small business owners—who, like you, are usually too busy to sit around and compare notes.

As it turns out, though, not only are small businesses second-only to the military as America’s most admired institution, your small business brethren are all over the stories we tell ourselves every night, on television. In fact, they’re often the center of their fictional community—especially if they own a bar (Cheers, “Cheers”), coffee shop (Central Perk, “Friends”), or restaurant (Monk’s Cafe, “Seinfeld”).

Small business owner characters

“The Simpsons” Springfield, for example, has been a haven for small business owners since 1989, supporting not only Comic Book Guy’s The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop and Moe’s Tavern, but even Ned Flanders’ Leftorium, a niche business if ever there was one, selling nothing but items for the left-handed.

In popular culture, big businesses and small businesses each have their own distinct stereotypes. While big business owners are often portrayed as heartless money grubbers (hello, Mr. Burns), small business owners are frequently depicted as cutesy passion-chasers without a clue about actually running a business. “Stars of reality shows tend to be self-employed dabblers,” a Slate columnist noted in 2012, because “no one wants to watch people signing payroll checks, making cold calls to land new business, or ordering inventory.”

So, while these entrepreneurial characters are often entertaining to watch, they’re generally not an accurate representation of the real small business owners we know.

Here’s a look at some of the ways small business owners are portrayed on television and film, and how they compare to real life small business owners.

Dreamers without a business plan

The early-twentysomething who’s always fantasized about owning her own cupcake shop but never taken a business class. The married couple who can tell you everything about the proper way to fragrance a candle but doesn’t know the difference between revenue and profit.

These are the storylines that make shows like CNBC’s “The Profit” possible: bumbling business owners so focused on their talent and passion, they seemingly skipped over the whole “business” part. Still, not every business owner needs someone to tear into their books, processes, policies, and pride.

Intuit shared a study that looked at nearly 200 business over a seven-year period to determine success rates and reasons for ceasing operation. Of the businesses that failed, reasons like external economic conditions and owners voluntarily moving on were nearly as common as poor management.

Owning a business is a learning curve, which is why, for every year of success, your chance of staying in business increases. If so many small business owners truly lacked a cohesive plan, 500,000 U.S. adults wouldn’t be founding, and getting funding for, their businesses every month.

Lunch meat for big business

big fish small fishIn the film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character runs an independent bookstore whose future is threatened by Fox Books megastore. The cult classic Empire Records has a similar storyline of a small business at risk of getting swallowed up by the big guys. Competing with bigger businesses or big box stores is definitely a challenge many small business owners face.

Less than ten years ago, when online book retailers like Amazon were quickly taking over the market, some business analysts predicted the end of independent bookstores was nigh. But today, local shops are thriving, and some commentators speculate that traditional booksellers’ small scale and ability to successfully market to a niche audience is the very reason they’ve beaten out big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. According to Smithsonian Magazine, membership in the American Booksellers Association is actually up 19 percent since 2009.

Thankfully, we’re often drawn to support the underdog in life as we are in fiction. For example, when Dunkin’ Donuts tried to expand into California in the ‘80s, customers remained loyal to the family-owned donut shops they’d grown up with. Hopefully, they’ll continue to support those local shops when Dunkin’ makes another run at the Bay Area this year.

There are some instances in which big business eats up the smaller guys, but, as Borders discovered, well-run small businesses have advantages the big guys can only dream of: unfaltering customer loyalty, decades-long merchant-customer relationships, expert knowledge of the local market, and the ability to respond quickly with personalized attention. As long as small businesses have an edge like that, it’s harder for big businesses to find an easy lunch than you might first imagine.

Behind the times

There's an app for that.

Pop culture often portrays small business owners as hopeless with technology if not outright hostile to it. Yet most small business owners are familiar with modern marketing tactics, and they’re using digital channels to bring in new customers and grow profit. According to a LinkedIn study, about 81 percent of small businesses use social media, and of that number, 94 percent use social for marketing. Facebook claims there are over 40 million small businesses with pages on its platform, and of its 2 million advertisers, nearly all are small businesses.

In fact, small businesses are the most well-equipped for agile marketing. There’s no red tape or set-in-stone processes that need to be acknowledged, and, these days, there are plenty of tools catering to small businesses and smaller marketing budgets.

Bob, the patriarch and operator of the family business in Fox’s show Bob’s Burgers, might not be jumping on digital advertising trends to draw in new customers, but his creative approaches to marketing, from his memorable burger-of-the-day specials, like the Itsy-Bitsy-Teensy-Weensie-Yellow-Polka-Dot Zucchini Burger, to special events like a murder-mystery-themed dinner—show a spirit of innovation.

It may come as a surprise “Bob’s Burgers” does a great job portraying some of the challenges of running a family business. While situations are taken to an extreme for comic effect, Bob (and his family) is the underdog the audience is always rooting for.

Bob’s been through his fair share of tribulations as a small business owner. Just in the opening sequence, the restaurant catches fire, has a rat infestation, and finally a utility pole crashes into the front window. His landlord, Mr. Fischoeder (pronounced fish-odor), is perpetually on the verge of evicting him, and the local health inspector is always looking for a reason to close him down. He’s got competition from the bigger small business across the street, the more upscale Jimmy Pesto’s Pizzeria, and, just like in real life, the profit margin for a restaurant is razor-thin.

That said, there are more successful entrepreneurial role models in TV Land, like attorneys Alicia Florrick and Diane Lockhart of “The Good Wife.” Business writer Rhonda Abrams says her favorite is the always-hustling real estate agent Phil Dunphy, on “Modern Family.” “He tries all kinds of marketing: signs on bus stops, free seminars, an ad on the side of his van. He holds lots of open houses and courts divorced women who could become his customers.”

If, however, you’re looking for a more realistic (and respectful!) representation of the average small business owner, check out these documentaries that profile real small businesses and their owners.

Twilight Becomes Night is a short documentary film that follows five family-owned businesses in NYC, looking at how a community is affected by the loss of local shops.

The Call of the Entrepreneur is a positive doc that tells inspirational small business stories through a baker, dairy farmer, and refugee from communist China.

Beer Wars lets you watch as small, craft brewers take on the big guys, like Anheuser-Busch.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows Jiro Ono, a renowned Japanese sushi chef and restaurant owner. The doc celebrates Jiro’s obsession with perfection, and what it takes to be the best in your field.

Burt’s Buzz tells the story of Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper-turned-accidental-founder of a pioneering international skincare brand.

Amy Johnson contributed to this article.

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