Sunday, December 12, 2010

Growth is Hard Work

This is the fifth blog post regarding the 10 Things I Accidentally Learned on the Path to Growth. There is little question that many small business owners really don’t understand just how difficult the growth process really is. The common misconception is that if you show up every day and work hard – it just happens. That has not been my experience. There are many steps along the path to growing a business, and it must be done intentionally and executed continually to keep moving forward.

It all starts with you. You started your business because you wanted to be your own boss. You wanted to call the shots. There is a likelihood that you worked for someone else and decided you could do it better. But when you make the decision to grow – it can’t be about you anymore. Growth means you have to involve others – inside and outside your company. And that is the first step. You have to hire someone.

I remember those days well. It was a scary proposition. All of a sudden I was responsible for payroll which meant we had to be generating revenue. I sort of convinced myself it was ok to work some of the time and not pay myself – after all it was my company. But when you bring on that first employee they typically don’t quite see it that way. They come to work with the expectation they will get a paycheck and they should. So we have to know how we will generate enough revenue and keep them busy so we can pay them.

This is usually when the first lesson of growth occurs. It isn’t a straight line up. We have steps – take a few forward and then one backward. It looks something like this for many:

Seldom do companies grow with the green line – just up and to the right continually with no hiccups. Nor do companies maintain their situation like the red line – stagnant without change. I am a believer that if you are not growing – you are shrinking because I seldom if ever see a company just stay the same. But growth is a series of ups and downs and that is normal. It isn’t a mistake – and there isn’t anything wrong with you when it happens – it is the reality of how growth occurs.

There are a half dozen key stages I see in the growth cycle. The following chart shows some of them and areas where they may show up in your growth pattern.

You won’t necessarily experience all of these in the same order or at the same level as the chart describes, but as you grow your IT firm you are likely to experience all of them along the way.

That takes us to the second step – which is the need to become a sales organization. To be totally honest – this is the one where many companies get hung up. It may happen with 2-3 employees or you may make it to 7-8, but at some point sales will be your blocker to growth. Why? Nothing happens until someone sells something. I will go into much more detail on sales in a future blog post. It is essential, so embrace it and accept the fact it has to happen if you want to grow.

This is the first of what I consider to be the five key areas to growth:
1. Become a sales organization
2. Learn how to market
3. Put in place and execute process
4. Develop leadership
5. Understand the power of strategic relationships

My experience is that if you understand and work through these key blockers – you will grow and grow significantly. But each one can plateau you for years or for life. You can’t skip any step – the order may change – but all are essential to continually growing your company.

Realize that your business should serve you – not the other way around. If the business controls your life – you have a job. You probably left a job to start your business so don’t just trade one for the other. Dreams should be coming true. You should have more freedom – not less. It has to function without your presence – if you are required to make it work – you have a job with a different title on it. It should be predictable in meeting your goals and needs. It should not require you – or the 4 P’s from you:
· Your presence
· Your personality
· Your problem solving
· Your persperation

As you build your sales organization you begin to feel like you are losing control. Not everything goes through you anymore. You have to trust others. It is a huge step. But if everything flows through you – then you are the bottleneck to growth and not only will you restrict that – you restrict profit potential as well. You cannot be the center of your company forever. The only way you escape the problem is to keep growing and putting others in places you once were responsible. That is called delegation – not something many entrepreneurs are comfortable with – because no one does it quite like we do. But we have to get over that and let others do the work.

So you have began to build a sales team and hired a sales person or two. They are selling and then hit the wall. They run out of people they know and places to call on. That is when marketing has to kick in. Marketing is key to keeping a sales team productive. They don’t manufacture sales – they close leads and turn them into sales. Many small business owners make the mistake of thinking that just hiring a sales person fixes all the sales issues. In fact it just creates more needs. They have to be closely managed and there has to be a consistent lead generation system to keep them productive. They can’t just make this stuff up. It has to be fed to them so they can do what they do – go build relationships and close deals. That is what we hire them to do so now we have to equip them with the tools they need for success.

Next comes the need for some sanity in the midst of chaos. Many companies go for years without any process, procedures or policies in place. And then as they have some success and grow – things quickly get out of control because you can’t scale without processes. So in the teens for number of employees you have to get things written down and folks trained to follow them. It is hard work. We never have time for it. And changing behavior to follow is a difficult task because we are upsetting their world. Why do we need this all of a sudden? It is far easier to do this step early with few employees than wait for the chaos to require it. But most of us don’t make the time until it is mission critical. And that is driven as we grow to a certain point. Take it from me – it is far easier to write a process for two than for twelve. Do it early – do it well – and set the example to follow them.

After some more growth and success we begin to run into a leadership void. We typically expect our people to learn by osmosis and just being around us. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way from my experience. So we have to make investments and train folks on leadership. That is essential as we will need to grow practices around key technologies, vertical markets or opportunities. Many companies don’t have nearly the leadership they need to continue growing. It is a sad reality. It happens because we have been too cheap to invest and too busy to notice than no one else is really stepping up to lead. This costs money and takes time – intentional and significant time – which far too many small business owners never take. We seldom invest in our own skill building let alone that of others. But if we want to keep growing we have to build leadership and a team that can help make that happen.

At some point along the curve we grow past our ability to drive continued growth on our own. That is when the value of strategic relationships kicks in gear. I find it happens somewhere past 50 employees and it becomes essential to learn to leverage the investment other partners in the ecosystem are making. We need to use their marketing, lead generations, services and tools to help to continue drive the business. But it is all about building and maintaining strong relationships. It won’t happen accidentally and I find this one area to be a key blocker for many companies that are trying to grow. More on this topic in a future blog post as well.

Growth has many steps. They don’t all move upward and to the right. It is hard work and requires determination, dedication and a very big desire. But you can grow if you truly want to and commit to it. We have experienced it even on the farm in Iowa where our business is operated. It isn’t magic – it is hard work and execution day after day to work toward a strategic objective. Plan for growth and then execute to achieve it. Realize it means change often along the way. But you can achieve it if you want to!

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