Notes from a small business: To grow or not to grow

  • 10 Aug 2021

By Guy Browning

Companies are often judged by their growth. But for many small business owners, it’s more important to have something sustainable that just works.

Big companies have a phrase, often trotted out by the CEO: ‘if you’re not growing, you’re dying’.

This often translates to, ‘if my bonus isn’t inflating, I’m going’.  

 

It’s not the same for small businesses. We don’t want to shrink because we’d disappear altogether, but we don’t necessarily want to grow too much, either. What we want is to keep going, to be sustainable.

What does ‘sustainable’ mean for a small business? It means paying the bills. It means having orders in the order book. It means ending the week in a slightly better place than you started it. It means the spark that caused you to set up the business is still glowing. That’s what we all want, but proper growth is a different beast. Proper growth changes everything. 

There are normally two reasons you set up a business: you wanted to do more of what you love, or to take control of your life. Ideally, both. Sometimes when you grow a business successfully, you end up doing less of what you love and more of what you hate (meetings).

On the other hand, if you set up your business to take control, you can grow it as much as you like, because you’ll still be in the driving seat. Unless you get into debt – debt means someone else is the boss. The same goes for giving shares in your company. Do you want to share control?

Growth can sneak up on you. You start with one or two people, add a few more to help when you’re busy, another couple to take advantage of new opportunities, and before you know it, you’ve grown. The tipping point is around 40 people. You’re no longer a small business when you don’t know the first name of everyone you meet in the office, you don’t know each and every one of your customers and you don’t know the exact meaning of every single line in your accounts. 

 

For most small businesses, the biggest step to growth is employing the first person who wasn’t one of the founders. The big worry is that, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work out, and you’ll spend the next year trying to get rid of them while they try equally hard to bankrupt you. That’s our fear – mostly irrational, but it’s there nonetheless. 

Even if it does work, there’s always the fear that they won’t be as committed as you are. It’s like having a childminder: however good they are, it’s never going to be their baby. On the other hand, hire the right person and you’ll wonder why you did so much yourself for so long. 

If you already have a sustainable business, it’s worth asking yourself why you would want to grow it any further. Maybe it’s because you just want to make more money. But if that means working so hard you end up divorced, then you’ll lose half of everything, including your family.

Alternatively, if you want to grow because there seems to be a huge pent-up need and desire for your product, then seize it with both hands and all the other hands you can find. Managed right, you can do that kind of growth in a way which keeps control and doesn’t make you personally smaller.

Guy Browning runs the design agency Smokehouse.

Related topics