Thursday, December 2, 2010

To Grow or Not?

Bit of a week. The new business is taking off - relief. Worries of feeding my children on spam fritters after Christmas now abating. I'm in that funny stage now in the early life of a business where you're deeply involved in fulfilment - but just getting to the stage where it's getting a bit too much to do this well while also doing biz-dev work and the full range of necessaries - such as invoicing customers!

It's at this point I can see why people stay one-man-bands: you can earn well, control the work, really live your values. The step to involve others, be these associates or employees - is a major one. The only way to make it work, I am finding, is to identify people with very similar values to my own. So far, this has been ok. My network is a deep well and every time the bucket has been plunged, someone wonderful has been in it as it comes up, normally a freelancer (I have no staff as yet). But my well is finite and, at some stage, there's a scary decision to make - do I bore a new hole in unknown territory - with all the risks of a dry hole - or dodgy water - or stay at a size of business that is me plus my extended family of fellow-feelers?

I met Todd Hannula recently of Camberwell, a great business up in Leeds. They redevelop old or disused space into community use. I spent 15 minutes talking to Todd but, in just 900 seconds, he kind of convinced me seriously consider building a business which isn't necessarily the biggest, most investable or scaleable but which is, in its own way, a Small Giant. This term comes from a book of that name and refers to businesses which measure their success on the quality of relationships with customers, the extent to which the business corresponds to the owners' values and the quality and innovation of products and services. Not with growth metrics or market share.

Todd's story was one from which he had gone from an ambition to grow a big business - and got very quickly to a million turnover - but found fairly quickly that this was causing limitations and forcing him and his co-owners to feel less happy than they did about the work of the company. So he changed focus - and Camberwell is now aspiring to be a Small Giant: respected, loved, influential, a happy place, socially responsible, balanced.

After speaking with Todd, I reflected on my own approach - and how I am possibly representative of a slightly earlier stage of thinking about business. With Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) I was all about impact through scale. My logic was that I would increase our impact by the vector of our growth. One one level I was right. But on another, it wasn't so straightforward. Impact didn't grow in proportion with spend. We struggled, after a while, to innovate as easily. More and more had to be spent on creating conditions in which employees thrived. It happened less and less naturally as the organisation grew bigger. More variation appeared in our services. Things still felt good - but not quite the same.

Don't get me wrong - I regret nothing and am proud of what I did at Speaking Up. But I think what was achieved reflected a mindset that is now being challenged - by people like Todd and the Small Giants of the book of that name. Ideas of value are being expressed which suggest that long-term success comes through slower growth and less of a focus on profit, more on people, culture and values. The near-collapse of certain titans of growth and profit centred capitalism certainly makes one question these models.

Like all people, I am a product of my environment and my mentors. I was given immense support by people who taught me how to successfully grow my organisation. I have drunk their milk and thrived on it. Looking at other ways to succeed has, though, been exciting - and challenging as I consider what to do with new company, Stepping Out.

The choice as I see it is whether to grow it substantially, take on people and finance, ride the tiger of public sector outsourcing and possibly sell the business in a few years - something I know I could do - or to try a different model. Probably smaller, probably employing a tiny number of people and largely working through a growing network of excellent people. Building a reputation for strong values and keeping the focus on delighting customers rather than growing revenues.

Put like this, it seems a no-brainer. However, there is still that visceral part of me that is attracted to the growth model. Which wins will remain to be seen.

No comments: