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Bonnie Gillespie
Living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs.
Los Angeles, California
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Make It or Break It: Five Tips for Surviving Small Business Growth

Is small business growth a make it or break it situation? Pretty much. The stakes are high. You're about to turn a corner. Growing past the mom-and-pop stage without killing your baby is do-able, but it's not easy.
Written Nov 21, 2012, read 4960 times since then.


If there's one thing that can kill a small business, it's trying to grow that small business. Many of us at the mom-and-pop level will choose to keep doing everything ourselves because it's just so much dang work trying to walk anyone else through the important stuff. "Hmm... but we need help, so maybe we just delegate the menial stuff?" Well, no.

When we finally get to the point that we can hire staff for any decent stretch of time, if all we give away is busywork, what was the point? "But if it's anything too important and they get it wrong... ugh, no. Y'know what, I'll just do it myself. I know this account inside and out anyway. It would take too long to get anyone else up to speed."

Familiar words?

Before you have "throw money at the problem" money, making the right moves can make the difference between jumping to the next tier and killing your baby biz. Here are my five steps for surviving small business growth.

Step One: Surround yourself with the best people on the planet.

This is one of my philosophies in life, not just business. If I surround myself with the best people out there, make sure they know one another, and give them the space to be amazing, they'll create brilliant things (and have fun doing it). That's beautiful.

Each of our paid team members (notice they're called "team members," and sometimes "ninjas," not "employees," or "staff") started out as an intern or participated in a work-study program with us. Working with people before they're counting on a paycheck for what they're doing (even if that first workload is really brain-numbing) is a wonderful way to learn whose energy is a good fit for a bigger commitment, who would be a fantastic virtual assistant, and which folks won't stick around very long.

Step Two: Know you're gonna get some stuff wrong.

You will. So know it, going in. More importantly, make sure members of the team know that's something you're expecting. Day one, I say to anyone joining the team, "There will be something you should've covered that I end up doing. There will be something I should've taken care of that you tried to do. No big deal. Because we know it's going to happen, let's not stress about what that first misstep might be."

I'm telling you, there is nothing more lovely than that sigh of relief that comes from the new ninja on the team when she hears she's not going to be fired the second she screws up. In the end, you're the bottom line for everything that happens with your company, right? So, let everyone know you're willing to be accountable in those first days together, even if it's not YOUR email to a client that ignites a fire you have to put out.

Step Three: Engage in tenacious communication.

I learned this phrase from volunteer organization WriteGirl, and I immediately made it a part of our world at Cricket Feet, Inc. There will be a ridiculous amount of over-communicating at first, until everyone is clear on strengths, weaknesses, scope of work, and accountability. Newest team members have senior team members as checkpoints. Everyone is copied on emails 'til it's clear there's no need for that.

First time on a task? Expect a lot of instruction. In writing. Not sure what to do? Go back and check that communication. Still not sure? Ask. Still not sure after that? Ask again. That's better than guessing! Going out of town for a few days? Communicate. We'll get you covered. But to go off the grid with no communication? That's not okay. Similarly, if we're gonna be unreachable for a bit, the team will know it ahead of time, and coverage points will be assigned.

No, we're not curing cancer, but we may create something that provides a beautiful, distracted moment of entertainment for someone who is trying to get through that day's chemo drip. We don't let our cell phones rule our lives; we communicate in advance so we can take time away without stress. The bigger picture WORKS because we give it room to do so.

Step Four: Use the zone defense.

Everyone is good at something. Almost no one is good at everything. Sure, you built your business to the point where you finally have the luxury of hiring extra pairs of hands (Yay, you!) and that means you're pretty dang good at a lot of things, but most of the people who join the team will have fewer areas of expertise.

Here's the great news about that: There will be something that your lead assistant hates doing, and you'll soon find out the virtual assistant she brought on absolutely loves doing that thing. And he's FAST at it. Creating a task list that celebrates each person's interests is a gloriously efficient way of getting things done. Folks are more likely to spend quality time on the work itself if it's work they enjoy.

Of course, there will be something less fun that someone gets to do... and that's a great way to test out someone's future with your company: Can you stomach the scutwork while we learn where you really shine, so we can reward you with more of *that* type of work down the line? It's a great test balloon, and it gets the boring stuff done.

Step Five: Stay the course.

This is the hardest part. Yes, this is the step from which I come to you, today. You'll hear it takes 18 months to survive growth spurts in small business, and the most crucial one is the tier-jump from mom-and-pop shop to staffed corporation.

I remember fantasizing about the day I'd get to cut payroll checks and how awesome that'd be for our li'l business. Yeah. Some days, all it means is that the stakes are higher than ever, because if *I* don't bring home the bacon, several people's rent payments are in jeopardy, not just mine.

Stay the course. When you decide it's time to assemble a team, find a way to make it happen for more than a year. The level of productivity you'll achieve, thanks to having a team to help cover in-house and virtual tasks you take for granted right now, will likely astound you.

Sure, the first time I paid an assistant to spend four hours doing something that takes me 40 minutes, I balked, but then I thought about what I was able to create in those 40 uncluttered minutes, and the revenue that bit of creation would generate, when compared to what I would have saved, if I had just done that task myself. The first time I paid someone twice to do the same job (because it wasn't done right the first time), I realized that, sure, it would've been done right the first time if I had done it, but I wouldn't have been paid to do it at all, because I own the business.

Having a team to lean on means I not only own the business, it means I can spend more time than ever growing it. And so can you, when you're ready. Start by inviting an intern to open your mail and help you prioritize your to-do list, just one day a week. In my next article, I'll cover some of the best tasks to farm out, if you're a do-it-yourself-er looking to let someone else do something to help you grow!

Until then, you tell me! What would you add to these five steps? Y'know, because I'm still growing too. ;)

Learn more about the author, Bonnie Gillespie.

Comment on this article

  • Instigator-Consultant, Creative Collaborator 
Santa Monica, California 
Dyana Valentine
    Posted by Dyana Valentine, Santa Monica, California | Nov 29, 2012

    brilliant, B!

  • Concierge Services for Professionals and Seniors 
Geneva, Illinois 
Victoria Ann
    Posted by Victoria Ann, Geneva, Illinois | Nov 29, 2012

    Excellent tips - thanks!!

  • Creative Director 
Los Angeles, California 
Beth Goldfarb
    Posted by Beth Goldfarb, Los Angeles, California | Nov 29, 2012

    Great job, Bonnie! This is great advice as well as a great reminder for those of us that have managed to stick it out past the 18 month mark.

  • Living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. 
Los Angeles, California 
Bonnie Gillespie
    Posted by Bonnie Gillespie, Los Angeles, California | Nov 30, 2012

    Thank you, ladies! I so appreciate the feedback! I hope to continue building and, of course, taking notes along the way so I can share anything resource-like from my journey. ;) XO

  • Press Release Services 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 
Ramiro Rodriguez
    Posted by Ramiro Rodriguez, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Dec 06, 2012

    Hey Bonnie,

    Great stuff. I recently went through a growth period where I hired 2 writers and now I have none. I guess I couldn't handle the growth or I sabotaged myself :-(

    At any rate, now I have some good 'points to ponder' when I have to hire more people.

  • Biznik Director of Community 
Seattle, Washington 
Matt Lawrence
    Posted by Matt Lawrence, Seattle, Washington | Dec 06, 2012

    The Biznik team grew a bit recently when we added on the amazingly talented Angela Potter as an intern.

    Because she is whip-smart, there is a tendency on my part to under communicate my needs/goals.

    Step Three is definitely a take away for me. Thanks!

  • Living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. 
Los Angeles, California 
Bonnie Gillespie
    Posted by Bonnie Gillespie, Los Angeles, California | Dec 06, 2012

    Ramiro, I had to ask two of our paid staff to take time off this year (or go back to intern status, for a bit), so I don't think it's about not being able to handle the growth at all. I think we HAVE TO invest in our business growth, and sometimes we over-commit and have to adjust (but that's a heck of a lot better than under-committing and not making the leap at all). Hang in there and remember it's an iterative process! :)

    Matt, I'm so glad Step Three is a good one for you. Definitely, the smarter the folks in our orbit, the more likely we are to assume they are mind readers. All it takes is one big "uh-oh" to be reminded--while it allllll makes perfect sense in our minds--some things need to be spelled out a wee bit. :)

    Congrats on the Biznik growth! And thanks for all the support, here. Working up my next article now! Yay!

  • Life, Prosperity, and Small Business Coach. Author. Speaker. Trainer. Singer/Songwriter. 
Seattle, Washington 
Kate Phillips
    Posted by Kate Phillips, Seattle, Washington | Dec 10, 2012

    Bonnie, this is an excellent article! My first real business was a restaurant (what was I thinking!?) which necessitated us hiring and training staff before we even opened.

    Then and now (in a much more streamlined, mostly home and virtual business), I still find it difficult to delegate. I definitely identified with how the stakes become higher when you're cutting payroll checks. LOVED your example of wanting to resist paying someone to do something that you could do in a fraction of the time... but also recognizing the necessity of it.

    You have SO many good kernels in here... and you asked if we could add anything. I would say the importance of developing a vision for the larger business, that that is the thing that will get a business owner to stay the course. For me (back in the restaurant days, and later, in my life as a realtor), the motivation was quality time off - knowing I could take a day off or a vacation and that there were people who could manage my business.

  • Living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. 
Los Angeles, California 
Bonnie Gillespie
    Posted by Bonnie Gillespie, Los Angeles, California | Dec 10, 2012

    Kate, thank you so much! :) Wow... a restaurant... that's incredible. I recently watched "Restaurant: Impossible" (one of those reality shows in which an expert takes over the space, renovates it, retrains the staff, and turns the restaurant around) and I found myself asking, "How does ANYONE ever make it in the restaurant industry?" Ambitious stuff!

    The delegating thing (especially when I can do it faster, better, and with no ramp-up) was probably the hardest for me. I'm so glad I learned it though. I still find myself wanting to "just answer that email" and I have to say to myself: "No! That's not your job!" Always a bit of internal dialogue going on. ;)

    Ooh, I really like your "developing a vision" example. Thank you for that! I will add that to my strategy for staying the course. Phew! Some days are easier than others. ;) Ah... love it!

  • Life, Prosperity, and Small Business Coach. Author. Speaker. Trainer. Singer/Songwriter. 
Seattle, Washington 
Kate Phillips
    Posted by Kate Phillips, Seattle, Washington | Dec 10, 2012

    It seems funny that my first real business was a restaurant, but after working in restaurants for years, it seemed like a natural step at the time.

    A few years later I read The E-myth Revisited and thought, "That's what we were doing wrong!" Of course your article echoes the advice in Michael Gerber's excellent book.

    Now I half-jokingly say that I offer free 15-minute consultations to talk anyone out of opening a restaurant... I consider it a public service!

  • Living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. 
Los Angeles, California 
Bonnie Gillespie
    Posted by Bonnie Gillespie, Los Angeles, California | Dec 10, 2012

    Oh my gosh, that's brilliant! :) Ha! Love it. I wonder how many folks would actually take you up on such a service. ;) Pretty smart!

    I haven't read "The E-Myth Revisited," but I'll be sure to add it to my list. Thank you!