Sustainable Growth: Stories from 5 Small Business Owners

Sustainable Growth: Stories from 5 Small Business Owners

How do you know when to say ‘yes’ to opportunities for growth and ‘no’ to the things that will lead you from your path? In this article, business owners share stories about their growth and offer practical advice about retaining their identity while building their future.

How do you know when to say ‘yes’ to opportunities for growth and ‘no’ to the things that will lead you from your path? Turning down chances to bring more money or manpower into your business can feel foolish. And in a time of billion-dollar valuations, it can be tempting to look at the growth of your business and feel inadequate. But growth looks different for every business, and it’s vital that business owners can identify when to scale and how to do it without compromising their core values.

In this article, we bring you success stories of businesses that have figured out ways to grow sustainably, entrepreneurs who scaled without compromise, and we offer practical advice to those thinking about retaining their identity while building their future.

When thinking about growth, it pays to take a holistic approach – to think hard about all of the aspects of your business, where you are, and where you want to be. Then use that to help identify areas of growth that best serve those goals.

Holly Howard runs consulting firm Ask Holly How and highlights the importance of not only understanding the vision for your business but also staying true to the experience you want to have. Not all businesses will grow into millions of revenue – and not all business owners want that. She says, “The reason we start a business, oftentimes, a lot of people will say for the money, but also people say for freedom, and what they mean is the freedom to work in the way that they want to work.”

To hone in on your vision, Holly shares the following questions she also asks the businesses she consults with:

While it can be easy to define your vision and values, it can then be difficult to keep putting them into practice, especially when it comes to making decisions that will impact your business. Sheena Russell of Made with Local, a snack foods company, understands this.

Sheena faced some big decisions about how to respond to the growing demand for her products and how to scale her operations. “When you go to the energy bar section in your grocery store, you're gonna see that the lion's share of those bars are made in the same way because they're made at the same manufacturing facilities, with the same equipment, and with the same ingredients — just in different packaging,” she shared.

But Sheena wanted something different for her business: “We knew from the get-go, that we were not willing to take that route. I didn't want to make the same kind of product as everybody else. I didn't want to compromise on our product and on our values. [That] works for a lot of brands, but I just knew that it wasn't for us.”

She pushed back against convention and decided to build partnerships with social enterprise bakeries instead, even though that would slow the company's growth. But she maintains that she was and is proud of her decision. By sticking to her original vision, Sheena ensured Made with Local didn't lose its soul and continued to be the business she wanted.

Scaling your business isn't just a question of where you can grow and how you go about that growth, it’s also a question of sustainability. How much to grow and at what rate are equally important questions to grapple with. This is something that Joel Gascoigne, CEO at Buffer, has thought about a lot as he shares that, “When you're growing fast [at 50-100 percent every year], that pace of growth [can] cause a lot of problems culturally.”

Hypergrowth isn’t part of Joel’s vision for Buffer, who states that the ideal growth rate would be 20 to 30 percent yearly. “That’s the growth rate that allows us to be very intentional, [it] allows us to continue experimenting within our culture in the working environment,” he says.

The next step after defining your business’ vision is usually choosing which metrics to measure performance against. And if you have a set of values you don’t want to stray from, you’ll need to be firm about choosing metrics that help you maintain your vision.

When you know your vision for your business, it’s easier to define the metrics with which you’ll measure performance. And although tried-and-true metrics exist for a reason, it’s crucial to determine and stick to your own goals – even if they buck against the traditional methods.

Huw Thomas, co-founder of Paynter Jacket, shared, “When it comes to growth, the stereotypical way to measure business is by its revenue, or the number of employees., We might look at it and just go okay, it was a positive measure of reputation or impact. How interesting we are as a brand.  Can we just stop for a minute and stop measuring traditional metrics and think of other ways to grow a brand.”

The founders of Paynter Jacket have avoided looking at their business through the lens of traditional growth metrics because the ways they want to grow are at odds with some conventional ideas of growth, such as producing more products. In a saturated market like fashion, choosing metrics and goals that make you stand out is also vital. “To make sure that we make a small dent in our industry, we'd like to be the thorn in the industry’s side. To make an impact, we need to be around for a long time, that doesn't necessarily mean that we have to be a big company or grow a lot. That means we do have to grow our reputation,” says Huw.

The Paynter founders focus on quality and sustainability, which also influence how they measure and determine how, when, and where to grow their business. Becky Okell also shares that because production takes so long, customers build an emotional connection with the brand and the product, so improving customer experience is an essential metric for them.

Each piece of your business framework, from your vision and values to the metrics you use to measure performance, impacts the other – including your chosen growth model. You may not start out with grand expectations, but most people hope for a successful business. Determining what to do when that success comes is one of the steps in defining what growth means for your business.

Different businesses will scale in different ways – the priorities and values of the business owner often drive decisions to grow. “Sometimes people might think of growth as creating a family legacy. Other people have defined growth in terms of how can they set up a structure that they can take a sabbatical six months of the year. [And some] think of growth as scaling to some sort of acquisition…or an employee ownership model,” says Holly Howard.

However you think about your business, and whatever your vision is, a growth model can help you achieve the scale you seek. Zingerman’s, for example, hasn’t taken the traditional model to growth but has scaled regardless.

Instead of franchising or opening up more of the same original unit in different locations, Ari Weinzweig, co-founder and CEO, had a different idea of what the business could be. “Zingerman's community of businesses has certainly grown in a model that, at least in our minds, we made up, it's certainly not the typical growth model,” he says. “Those aren't necessarily bad [but] they're not for me.”

Although Ari and his co-founder Paul didn’t start out with a set-in-stone vision for Zingerman’s, Ari acknowledges that, in hindsight, they had one. “Essentially, [the vision] would have said from the beginning, we want something unique and really special. We also want great food, great service, a really down-to-earth place, and a great place for people to work. And those were very clear in our heads from the beginning. And then last but not least, and we knew from the beginning, we only wanted one [business].”

The growth model that Ari and Paul eventually devised was to create a community of businesses all operating as one connected organization with semi-autonomous pieces. In the way they imagined it and wrote it in the vision, each business would have a managing partner or partners in it.

“So there was an owner on site who was really passionate about the product and or service that that business did, and that we would operate as one synergistic organization that models that philosophy and that framework still underlies everything that we do,” Ari explains.

Following this growth model, Zingerman's family of businesses now includes the original deli, a roadhouse diner, a creamery, a bakery, and many more companies, including a business management consultancy.

Periods of growth are periods of change. When you're growing and changing, it's very likely that you will have to make compromises — choices between two opposing priorities — and making the right choices can be more accessible when you communicate and consult with other people involved in your business.

Ari understands the value of involving the community in decision-making, saying, “Compromise is something that we all do every day – and that's okay. Part of the benefits of the community is that we can bring diverse perspectives together of like-minded people and through that arrive at better conclusions. And then by making conscious collective choices, when we do compromise, it's a group [decision].”

Part of the value of prioritizing people is avoiding communication breakdowns which can lead to tension and mistrust. Holly emphasizes the importance of over-communicating with your team by pointing out what happens if you don’t: “...when the team doesn't have an awareness of what's happening, that's when we start to have tensions within the team. Or we might say we have things like culture issues.”

Whenever you're going through a phase of change, involve the people that are stakeholders in your business. Explain why you’re making certain decisions and what you hope to achieve. Give the people your big-picture context.

“We define that vision or purpose statement, and they live in the manual, or they live on the wall in a poster or something like that. But they should be living and breathing documents that continually weave into our conversations. Maybe we're checking on our goals or our KPIs – we want to keep that context alive,” Holly advises.

Growth can be challenging and will require hard choices. So to be prepared, you need to look inwards and consider how our decisions now impact the future we want to build.

One of the main challenges of scaling a business is staying agile in understanding and defining who the customer is as you grow. “Understanding our customer should be a continual process,” says Holly. “We sit down to define who the customer is and then we're like running with a content calendar and strategies and our social media marketing, but it should be a constant conversation. Are we sure that this person doesn't exist in this area?”

Another challenge might be dealing with the consequences of an alternative choice in your overall business model. Made with Local has been outpacing demand and production capacity but their decision about how to scale their business sometimes leads to capacity crunches.

As Sheena shares, “It has slowed our growth, because we've been doing things differently. And proving that we can grow this model, but we've been pulled out in the market faster than what we've been able to grow at. So that has been tricky.”

Or, as you grow, you might find yourself with more competition and a changing industry that requires you to redesign and repackage your product – a challenge that Buffer has been facing. Navigating shifts in the market while staying true to the vision and mission of the company has been a significant challenge over the years.

As Joel shares, “Social networks changing so rapidly has been a challenging place to be within the last five, six years. [There have] been times when we've seen opportunities to keep our growth going. But it would have taken away from really the DNA of the company, which to me was always around merely serving small businesses and staying committed to them.” Working through challenges like these is why you must know and connect with the vision you have for your business.

Finally, when you’ve chosen an alternative path to growth, it can be a strength to take the constraints you encounter and turn them into an opportunity, as Paynter has done. If they chose the traditional way of making clothing, they wouldn’t have the same connection with customers.

“To think about growing our experience and making [it] better, we have to be firm on staying small and what that actually means to us. So think about what you have and the constraints that you have in your business. And then what that actually means because it often means that you can do things in a way that no one else would,” shares Huw.

For more thoughts on growing a business from the small business owners in this interview, check out Season 2, Episode 4 of the Small Business Big Lessons podcast.

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