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Lessons On Growth: Why Big Isn’t Always Better

Businesses come in all shapes and sizes, from local independents to global conglomerates. For most entrepreneurs, it’s not about the size of what they started, but the motivation to do something different and create something better. 

“You figure out something that no one else has thought about and you do it in a totally different way. And so breaking the rules, you have to be creative. And that’s the fun part of business, actually. I love breaking the rules.”

Yvon Chouinard

Better might mean cheaper, faster, or more reliable. It might mean higher quality, more exclusive, or sustainable. However, getting your business started takes a lot of hard work. And before long, that inventive, entrepreneurial spirit can end up feeling just as stifled as it was running someone else’s business.


The challenges of growth

Common pitfalls for startups include hiring too fast or taking on a new premise, just to look bigger than you really are. But the faster and fatter you grow, the greater the challenges. Some businesses find ways to stay small – not compromising on quality, profit, or sustainability – but recognise that small can be significant too. 

“There’s two kinds of growth, one where you grow stronger and one where you grow fat. And you’ve got to look out for that growing fat thing.”

Yvon Chouinard

So is there another way? Can you maintain that creative spirit whilst building the structure to establish something solid and sustainable? 


Keeping it lean

Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire businessman, turns 80 this year. He is best-known for founding the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, as well as his workplace philosophy, ‘Let Them Go Surfing’. Long before ping-pong tables and bean bags were introduced at Google, Chouinard was establishing a startup that would prioritise quality over quantity and sustainability over size. He’s established a business selling clothing with a lifetime guarantee, of the very highest recyclable and repairable quality. 

In fact, even Amazon started with an understanding of the value of keeping things lean

“In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos instituted a rule: every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas … focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability …”

Chouinard and Bezos’ outworking of that principle may be very different. Not many of us would see Amazon as an aspirational working environment. But keeping your startup lean is something that has served both businesses very well. 


Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire businessman, turns 80 this year. He is best-known for founding the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, as well as his workplace philosophy, ‘Let Them Go Surfing’.

Source: Ecowatch


Keeping it simple

“… the hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life because everything pulls you to be more and more complex. And so I think what I learned from fly fishing is that if we have to – either we’re forced or we decide to go to a more simple life, it’s not going to be an impoverished life. It’s going to be really rich.”

Yvon Chouinard

If a simple life leads to a richer life, how can you embed that in your start-up? 

Purpose – staying on track

Startups have limited time, energy and money. Knowing what you’re for prevents you from saying yes to all the wrong things. 

Companies can spend a lot of money on catchy phrases which inform brand identity and can be helpful for your employees and customers. But ultimately they are just capturing that spark that got you started. 

Stick it on a poster or write it on the wall. Keep the main thing, the main thing. 


Planning ahead – turning vision in to strategy 

Entrepreneurs can be spontaneous creatures. They love starting things. But hate maintaining them. However failing to plan means planning to fail. Implementing that vision and following a business continuity plan and turning it into a viable strategy is usually the next stumbling block. Often that takes a third party – business coach or partner – to provide the objectivity to create manageable achievable targets but a little time and effort can go a long way


People – growth versus culture

Another challenge for a growing business is when to hire. Wisdom says, “hire slow, fire fast”  

“A lot of startups hire fast and fire slow. A bias for speed combined with the pressure for high growth drives many leaders to be quick to hire (“We need to fill this role now!”) but slow to remove underperforming employees because they’re busy and would rather put off the awkward, hard conversations.”

“[However] it doesn’t serve the world to create bloated, bureaucratic companies that will slowly die. We need healthy, growing companies capable of sticking around for the long run.” 

Building a great workplace culture instead of a ‘grande’ workplace will ultimately lead to happy customers and a growing business too.  


Premises – finding a profitable place

One of a small business’s greatest financial burdens is property. Traditionally it’s been the mark of maturity for a business to open its own office or premises. But the options today are very different. 

Many use shared workspaces or partner with overseas companies where overheads are significantly lower whilst providing ethical investment in a developing community. 

Or consider a shopfront in an unlikely part of town and put your mark on it. It’ll offer cheaper rent, a local presence and probably good transport links. And the opportunity to spend the money you’ve saved on staff or systems that will help you reach more potential customers. 


Performance – making money

Keeping track of time spent, wages paid, and products sold, is vital for ensuring that all the limited time, energy and money you have, is spent in the most effective way. 

“While not all products, services, or customers will be profitable for your company all the time, it only makes sense to try to understand where you are making money and losing money in the business. Operating in the dark and simply hoping to win more often than lose, is no way to run a business.” 

While not all products, services, or customers will be profitable for your company all the time, it only makes sense to try to understand where you are making money and losing money in the business. Operating in the dark and simply hoping to win more often than lose, is no way to run a business. 

Keely L. Croxton National Center for the Middle Market

Small is beautiful

So next time you are daydreaming about business growth, consider what that really means. Is it possible that you can grow profitably, without having to expand beyond what’s manageable for you and your team? 

Small businesses often try to appear bigger than they are. However, a small business has unique marketable qualities all of its own. 

Local. Independent. Personal. Authentic. These are all qualities that big business seeks to pursue, whilst small businesses often under-value them. 

And one unique quality small businesses have is flexibility. Being small and agile means a business that can respond quickly and more efficiently than one that has to navigate many layers of management to do so. 

What’s ironic is that most large businesses do everything they can to make themselves appear smaller, more personal, and more authentic. 



Take Tesco’s Food Stories campaign. They could boast of their profits – they’re still seeing success where many are struggling – but they know the power of telling stories. Stories about David, not Goliath. Their marketing ignores every success they’ve achieved and makes it simply about one person’s recipe and what that means to them. 


Strengthening your weakest link

And lastly, what’s your weakest link? Because it will still be there however big you grow, only then there will be far more at stake. 

Perhaps it’s admin, communication or marketing. 

From diary appointments and chatbots, to emails and invoicing, there’s software out there for every business startup or charity. And from hard-working freelancers to global agencies, there are creative solutions for every step of the journey. 

The secret is to do what only you can do. And outsource, delegate or set aside the rest. 


Slow, small and steady wins the race

Short bursts of intensive marketing, multiple projects, or mass production, are like rocket boosters on a shuttle launch but they aren’t sustainable for a healthy, growing business. The rocket boosters only purpose is to carry the fuel that has to be burnt off in any event to propel the shuttle towards its true mission.

Many SMEs are feeling small and insignificant whilst carrying too much weight, believing success is measured in size. Growth at all costs can provide short-term gain but growing in strength is far more sustainable. Investing in the health of your business (and the business of your health) may create a slower-growing business, but one that is sustainable, more enjoyable and richer in the long run. 


Karen Sturrock writes for SIXTYEIGHTFEET a creative partnership providing effective communication through copywriting and design for business and charities. Follow her @sixtyeightfeet

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