Why your successful small business is refusing to become a successful big business

May 13, 2011

Assuming you want your successful small business to become a successful big business, what stands in your way?Almost always, the answer is simple: You. Or, more precisely, a very specific aspect of you.

Let me explain, in three steps:

1. Small businesses are successful because (irrespective of the product or service they offer) they deliver consistently high quality.

2. If a small business is successful, then, assuming there are no inescapable constraints on market size, there is almost always no mechanical or logistical reason why it cannot be a successful large business.

3. The reason most successful small businesses fail to grow into successful large businesses is because the founder/owner is unprepared (either consciously or subconsciously) to do what is necessary to deliver consistently high quality in a complex environment.

It’s those four final words that make all the difference: in a complex environment.

See, when the business is small and growing through the stage I call Fun, the founder/owner and her team can deliver consistently high quality in a (relatively) simple environment through improvisation, innovation, tap-dancing, determination, boldness and sheer energy. This is exciting, it’s energizing and it fits the founder/owner’s self-image.

However, for their business to become large, the founder/owner and his team must learn to manage complexity. This is a stage in every organization’s growth that I call Whitewater, when tap-dancing no longer works. There is no way to truly scale without developing systems and processes and using them to deliver consistently high quality.

This is not exciting. It is not energizing, and it certainly does not fit the self-image of most founder/owners. As a result, many founder/owners begin to sabotage their organization’s success, in order to get back to the heady days of Fun.

In a later post I’ll show how this self-sabotaging happens, and how to overcome it. But for the moment, my question for you is this:

In terms of your own self-image and personal work preferences, what price are you not prepared to pay to grow your business?