For many US small businesses, 2020 was not a funny – or fun – year at all. It’s hard to find any humor in a year that a pandemic caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people, destroyed jobs for more than 12 million and ruined countless restaurants and other small businesses in the fitness, arts, travel and retail industries.
But last year one small business did give us all a reason to laugh. That small business is Four Seasons Total Landscaping in, of all places, my home town of Philadelphia.
Four Seasons Total Landscaping became a worldwide story when President Trump’s campaign announced a surprise press conference – on the day the election results for Pennsylvania and other states were released – in their parking lot on State Road in the north-east section of the city. The announcement befuddled both supporters and opponents alike. The press conference – like so many others of this administration – was a confused, rambling affair. No one knew if this was actually planned or just a mix-up with the Four Seasons hotel near Broad Street. No one could figure out if Trump even knew what was happening. It happened anyway. And the whole thing was very funny.
It was funny because of the imagery: Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani fighting for his boss’s political life surrounded by other small businesses typical to State Road – a sex shop and a crematorium – and of course with the Four Seasons Total Landscaping sign prominently behind him. It was funny because it was absurd and surprising and curious. It was funny because no one admitted this was a mistake. Was it? It was funny because the incident occurred in a city where Trump had recently warned “bad things happen.” To him apparently.
But the real reason why this story was so funny is because of Marie Siravo, the owner of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. She and her team’s response to what happened wasn’t partisan. It was a perfectly American lesson in business savvy. Siravo saw the humor. She also saw the dollar signs.
Doing her best to stay out of politics she doubled down on the unprecedented exposure her small business received. Siravo immediately spruced up her website. She posted a politically astute Facebook message that any seasoned PR professional would be proud of. She sold tongue-in-cheek shirts that said “Make America Rake Again” and “Lawn and Order” and coined phrases like “in sod we trust” on other promotional items. She participated in the quickly organized “Fraud Street Run” which drew 2,100 participants and began from her parking lot. She embraced the crowds and the people who – to this day – stop by for a quick picture of political history. “We’re not making any political statements,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re running with this and enjoying it. It’s like a magic carpet ride.”
Four Seasons Total Landscaping represents the very definition of the typical American small business. The media likes to glamorize those tech-savvy, venture capital-backed entrepreneurs starting up the next big thing in Silicon Valley and Austin. But there are 30m small businesses in this country. Most, like Siravo’s, are family-owned and -operated. They typically provide an un-sexy but necessary service … like landscaping. Similar to Siravo, they usually employ fewer than 30 full-time people and are typically located on the State Roads of their home towns. You know these businesses. These are not businesses that would be talked about by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and James Corden. Or profiled by the BBC. Or featured on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Or written about here in the Guardian.
But this company was. And that’s funny too.
So Siravo – like so many smart entrepreneurs navigating the changing dynamic of 2020 – pivoted. She converted her conference room into a fulfillment center, not for landscaping jobs, but to assemble and sell more than 35,000 T-shirts, sweaters and face masks which racked up more than $1.3m in sales to customers like Jake Tapper, Mike Myers and Emma Watson. She appeared on TV and other media outlets because, like a shrewd small business owner, she wasn’t going to let a good PR opportunity get away. “You know, a lot of companies don’t do snow, don’t do irrigation, don’t do planning,” she reminded us in one interview. “So that’s where ‘total’ came from.”
I did not know that. Now I do. That’s funny.
The whole story is funny because it came at a very unfunny time. Everyone was on edge. Everyone was tired of the pandemic, worried about the election and generally stressed out over the future. And then we heard about this strange presidential press conference at a landscaping company on State Road that sounded too much like the five-star hotel in town and … we laughed. We read about this small business owner’s lighthearted, entrepreneurial response and we chuckled. We admired her pluck, her self-effacing humor and her ingenuity.
It was a funny story and we were reminded that we can all – Democrat and Republican – appreciate a funny story. And more importantly, we were reminded just how much we, as Americans, appreciate our country’s small business owners.