My 13-year-old son is growing taller by the day. I asked him jokingly when he would stop and he replied “If I had my way, never.” He said it felt good to be achieving “new heights” even if he knew it would come to an end some day.
The same seems to be true of business. Small or large, businesses have an innate desire to grow. But why?
Growth is perceived as good for many reasons. There is the fun of new challenges. There is the hope of greater profits (while high profit margins are great, more profit trumps all). Bigger is better, especially in this country. We celebrate huge athletes, live in large houses, drive cars that are really trucks. Plus we love a good competition, and if a business is to compete with itself or others and “win,” it can only be by growing bigger. I’ve never heard anyone celebrate a year over year decline in sales even if it is associated with greater profits.
I’m not arguing that focusing on growth is misguided. There is something inherently scary about staying the same while the marketplace and one’s competitors change around you. I am more interested in knowing how, if we take the desire or need for growth as inevitable, we can do it more gracefully or transition our work to someone who can.
In some ways, growing a small business is easier than growing a large one. There are fewer individuals and “departments” to be consulted and without the budget for consultants, market research, and testing, you skip right to the live trial. I was the “co-owner responsible for growth” at Prantl’s Bakery, and as such I loved to run quick and dirty experiments. Some weren’t quite as quick as I would have liked, and others were more dirty than I’d have wanted, but the idea was to act opportunistically. A few of our ideas were flops (trying to sell Burnt Almond Torte at the airport), and we had the occasional big hit (shipping the torte and opening the Market Square location). But all of the growth initiatives required minimal up-front cash investment, and we didn’t have to commit to more than 60 days at a time. One last critical factor was that I had to manage the initiative until such time as we decided whether to make it permanent. Once decided, we could hire and train others to take it over, but until then I was the point person. Not only did this cut down on time and expense, but it kept me close to what was happening so we could incorporate our learnings quickly. Failing fast is important.
Despite the fact that growing a small business may be easier than growing a large one, at some point most small businesses grow beyond the sweet spot of their original ownership. To achieve the scale of a larger business ultimately requires a transition to the individuals and “departments” that can slow a new business down. However, that same scale can bring other advantages: more capital, greater systemization, lower costs, deeper expertise.
Some of you may know that my business partners and I sold Prantl’s last summer and are staying involved as part of a lengthy transition. While we had more than doubled the size of the business, we knew it needed to grow even further, for its customers’ sake (we struggled to meet demand) as well as our employees’ sake (we’ve got some great folks who are ready for bigger challenges). We also realized that we weren’t the ones to do it. As my son already recognizes, it can be bittersweet to know one’s come to the end of a road.
This is Lara Bruhn’s final column for Pittsburgh Quarterly.