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Against the Gospel of Growth: On Being a Purposefully Small Business

13. February 2017 08:37

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Americans tend to assume bigger means better. Nowhere is that attitude more obvious than in the business world. The gospel of growth is preached in boardrooms and business schools across the nation, but at least one source for our 2017 Small Business Outlook isn't buying it. She says she only ever intended to be a company of one.

And she's not alone. According to Business News Daily, a report by Emergent Research and Infusionsoft shows that 88 percent of small-business owners are not interested in getting bigger.

Does your small business have to grow to be a success? Maybe not. We talked to two business experts to get their input.

The Difference between Big & Great

Bo Burlingham (@BoBurlingham), author of Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, says "bigness" and "greatness" are "totally different things."

"Being a great citizen of the community and a great employer and a company that provides excellent services and products to its customers and treats its suppliers well is a good thing in and of itself," says Burlingham. "And to be able to actually do that and still make money – that's one of the wonders of capitalism, if you can pull it off."

According to attorney-at-law and professor at Illinois State University (@IllinoisStateU) Carson Varner, the problem may be an "underlying attitude that if you don't want your business to grow, then you're a wimp and you're heading for failure."

He points to Europe for another way of looking at success.

"The European business is there for sustainability," says Varner. He describes their attitude as, "We want to be here next year. We want to make a profit for the owners. We want to provide work for our people and a good product. If we're bigger or not, it doesn't really matter."

Varner adds that "there's nothing wrong with making money." However, following the European model may make it easier for a business to continue making money over time.

The takeaway: "You can have a big company that's terrible; you can have a big company that's great," says Burlingham.

The key is deciding what great means to you and making decisions that can help you achieve that.

Why Some Small Businesses Choose to Stay Small

According to Burlingham, small business growth means giving up some of the thing that made you special. He says that as a business grows, it can "lose intimacy with their employees or with their community, and in many cases with their customers."

That may be fine if you can create a bigger business that has a great culture or provides exemplary service. However, the other struggle is maintaining your control. For example, Varner tells the story a roofer whose business model was to work with one crew that he could supervise with little trouble and complete the job in less than a day.

"If he goes for growth, he loses his control," Varner says. "Maybe he has two crews, but he's only one person. With just one crew, he has the control that's important to him."

Varner adds management can be difficult for entrepreneurs, too.

"You get past a certain point, and you need to be a manager," he says. "That is a different skillset."

The takeaway: Growth means change. While that's not a bad thing, you have to know if you want it and if you can handle it.

Tips for Staying Small

Keep these tips in mind if your end goal is to stay small and be successful:

The takeaway: Your business can be healthy, successful, and small. If you need more ideas on staying small and profitable, check out our Small Business Resources.

About the Contributors

Bo Burlingham

Bo Burlingham has been writing about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship for the past 35 years, mostly for Inc. Magazine, where he served as executive editor and then editor-at large. He is currently a contributing writer for Forbes. Along the way, he has authored five books, the most recent being Finish Big: How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top. He previously authored Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. A tenth anniversary edition of Small Giants with two new chapters was published in October.



Carson Varner

Carson Varner came to Illinois State in 1975 and has been a full professor since 1984. He has taught international business law since 1977, honors legal environment since 1982, and the MBA program since 1983 where he developed a seminar "Ethical Leadership and Western Taught." Varner has authored more than 40 articles and 60 scholarly presentations. He regularly writes on contemporary business issues for The Pantagraph, and he won the College of Business Distinguished Teaching Award. He has studied in Reading, England; Strasbourg, France; and as a Fulbright Scholar in Bonn and Berlin, Germany.




How to Grow Your Business | Small Business | Small Business Trends | Tips for All Small Businesses

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