Thinking small, scoring big

Many of the world's best- known firms were born of a founder's fervent belief that the products or services in a given category just weren't up to his or her standards.

Convey that belief to a lender, and even a relative unknown has at least a shot at landing some seed money and making a run.

That's been especially true of start-ups that appear to have the potential to make it big - though the '90s left venture-capital providers rather wary on that front.

But what about entrepreneurs who don't promise to be world-beaters, and aim only to fill some tiny niche? Lenders who care less about the return on their investment than about giving a small-time innovator a leg up are rare.

That may slowly be changing.

"Microlending" programs have been deployed in the third world for decades, reaching out to those who need help most, often women.

Recently, as Sara Terry reports, microlending has come home, with nonprofits raising "lending capital" they can then distribute - charging real interest, yes, but also providing invaluable help in setting up shop.

That's good news for the smallest of the small US companies, the ones run by one person or a handful of family members.

There may even be enough funds for a fair number of them. America is the land of the start-up, but it trails other developed nations in the percentage of private enterprises staffed by fewer than 50 (and often just a few) people, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In that category, in fact, the OECD recently put the US last among its 20 member nations. (The US rises to first in the 50-to-99 and 100-to-499 workers categories.)

A small set with a big future.

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