Honey, I shrunk the business: Why everything is small

Joan McGuire

Thoughts on the world of micro-solutions

Share this article!

It’s a small world, after all. The business landscape of the past several years has witnessed the rise of microretail, microtransit, microbreweries, microloans, microrestaurants, microcontent, microinfluencers and countless other species of the micro genus. The label crops up in fields as varied as marketing, retail and urban planning.

The world of fleeting impressions that created this micro-verse has already swung to the next big idea for selling small. Micro is so last year. The next frontier is subatomic — the New York Times reported recently on the ascendance of “nanoinfluencers.”

What is the power source for this business-model-shrinking ray gun? With so many applications for tiny products and services, it’s hard to point to general causes. But a few broad trends might have some downsizing effect.

In the media landscape, the causes are likely content saturation and declining attention spans. It is estimated that Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook now store a combined 1.2 million terabytes of information. The average human is deluged with emails, social media posts and articles. We yearn for digestible content. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that people now have shorter attention spans — just eight seconds — than goldfish.

A 2015 study by Microsoft found that people now have shorter attention spans — just eight seconds — than goldfish . . . wait, what were we talking about?

Digital marketers have attacked the short attention span with surgical precision. They are increasingly relying on “microcontent,” which creative agency Brafton describes as 10- to 30-second snippets, including memes, listicles and tips shared on social media. Otherwise defined as: the reasons you hate the internet.

Smartphone maker Palm and Verizon Wireless debuted the tiny palm phone, a finger-length device linked to your original phone. The palm is designed to help you cut down those pesky notifications on your old phone. Makes sense, right? Owning two phones means you’ll use both of them less, because it’s so hard to read the words on the tiny phone.

The second potential cause for shrinking is declining trust in institutions. Only a third of Americans now trust their government to “do what is right,” according to a report released in January by communications firm Edelman. Trust in business and nongovernmental institutions decreased by about 10 percentage points compared with 2017. Millennials, in particular, famously distrust banks, big business and, especially, the media.

That’s where influencers came in. Marketers figured the consumer, who doesn’t trust the business selling the product, might trust a real person recommending it to them. But millennial bullshit meters are finely calibrated, and pretty soon people stopped trusting those suspicious Instagram posts, too. Here at Oregon Business, we reported on the outdoor industry’s solution to that problem: relatable, local “microinfluencers.” 

Related Story: Brand Sherpas: social media influencers in the outdoors

Now we’ve arrived at nanoinfluencers, people just like you and me, with as few as 100 followers. They post pictures of shampoo in exchange for free samples. They’re considered more trustworthy and more likely to produce high social media engagement, because they strike from within the consumer’s own social circle.

The cautionary tale of nanoinfluencers is simple: Trust no one.

In the built environment, we are just running out of space. As its population expands, the Portland metro area is feeling the pressure of the urban-growth boundary and height restrictions. Consequently, developers are proposing tiny homes, infill development and accessory dwelling units as design solutions for an affordable-housing crisis. Elsewhere, urban designers are promoting “pocket parks,” green spaces as small as 4,400 square feet.

As roads fill up, another tiny solution is turning the corner. Recently, the term “microtransit” has come into vogue. It describes mobility services that fall in between a private car and a public bus—everything from public vanpools to company shuttles to UberPools. Microtransit poses a heaven or hell scenario. The plethora of startup projects could integrate seamlessly with larger public transit systems, or they might siphon riders, and create a world where only the rich can get around. It’s also difficult to plan an efficient route, as seen in a failed experiment in Salem we reported on for our Bus is Back series.

Related Story: Salem experiments with an on-demand bus

In retail, the problem in need of a micro-solution is not too little space, but too much. For a previous story, Matt Powell, a retail analyst, told me “there will be physical stores in our future, but we have far too many.” A Morningstar Credit Ratings report from 2017 estimated the United States contains about 23.6 square feet of retail floor space for every person.

One solution to overbuilt retail is — you guessed it — “microretail.” These tiny stores allow customers to see, feel and smell a product before they buy it online.

Related Story: Digimarc wades into a hyper-competitive retail market to save in-person shopping

Finally, in the food and beverage sector, a trend toward healthy, sustainable and local fare favors small establishments. Warren Valdmanis, a venture capitalist I spoke to for an article, called “the conviction that Americans are going to eat more healthy, sustainable food in the future than they do today” a “social mega-trend.”

Consumers want to know exactly where their food comes from and who made it. “Microrestaurants” get diners right up next to the chef. While these ventures are often unprofitable, they can serve as brand-building loss leaders for larger enterprises. In brewing, the quest for small batches has gone from microbreweries to nanobreweries and even “picobreweries.” A liquor license is about all that separates a picobrewery from a dude in a garage.

In the The Diamond Age, the prescient Seattle-based science fiction author Neal Stephenson envisions a world that takes micro-solutions to the extreme. In the fictional setting of New Chusan, citizens rely on millions of micromachines powered by nanotechnology for everything from transportation to security to bodybuilding. Life is easier, but it’s also chaotic. Micromachines constantly battle with each other and are so ubiquitious that cities become enveloped in fogs of nanoparticles.

Related Story: Neal Stephenson predicted the future of retail

While not as dramatic (yet), the current world of shrinking solutions carries echoes of The Diamond Age. Micro-solutions simultaneously distill a complex world and make it infinitely more complicated, the paradox of choice run amok. Microcontent reads faster than a long-form article, but you can fit thousands of pieces of microcontent into the same space. Microtransit could simplify a commute, but it could also crowd the road with hundreds of competing startups that take liberties with spelling (e.g. Bridj). The combined effect is a world that’s more digestible, relatable, human-sized. But it’s also totally nuts.

If you made it here, to the end of this macro-content, congratulations. You probably won’t remember it anyway. 

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here. 

Latest from Caleb Diehl