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Growing Your Business Expert Peter Meyer

Ready to grow your business by leaps and bounds--in the next six months? Hold your horses there, cowboy. Find out why quick growth isn't always best.


If ever there was a time in history where the concept of "time" has lost all meaning, our light-speed info-age must be it. Computers are outdated as soon as you buy them; most of us work so much we forget the sun even exists and believe the eerie glow of the PC monitor sustains life; and if you haven't IPO'd within two years of start-up and/or are over the age of 22, you may as well throw the towel in.

Calm down. Rapid-fire growth may not be all it's rumored to be-especially if your company isn't ready for it or if you're not growing for the right reasons. Peter Meyer, principle of Scotts Valley, California-based The Meyer Group, a management consulting firm focusing on rapid-growth organizations, provides the tools to grow quickly and wisely in his new book, Warp-Speed Growth: Managing the Fast-Track Business without Sacrificing Time, People, and Money (Amacom, $25). A frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Meyer recognizes the problems that can accompany warp-speed growth and so addresses the main concern of all companies wanting to grow: how to sustain. With all the dotcoms, tech companies and IPOs, it seems that companies grow faster and faster now to keep up with the competition. Why isn't rapid growth always a good idea?

Meyer: Growth is a tool; it's not an end in itself. Some people use it as a tool to improve the valuation of the company. Some people use it as a tool to improve the ability to recruit people. Some people use it as a tool because they want to improve their own sense of self. Some people use it because they want to improve the way they deliver products to customers.

Of those, only the last alternative is one that is truly sustainable. The other ones will generally cause problems over time. So if you're growing for the sake of pure growth, you'll find it hard to keep people. You'll find it hard to keep valuation. You'll find it hard to keep a sense of self without going crazy. On the other hand, if you're growing to improve your ability to deliver more products to customers, you'll often find it works nicely if you can control it.

If you want to look at examples, you could look at Cisco as an example of a company that's growing very rapidly but very focused on what they deliver to customers. They're not a dotcom-they don't try to compete with dotcoms. What they try to do is simply be excellent as providing the answers to the customers quickly. What is jigsaw management and how is it important when preparing for growth?

Meyer: It's like when you start a jigsaw puzzle. If you were to say to everybody, "Go ahead and put the pieces together in the way you feel best," the puzzle would eventually get assembled. If you want them to do it under a time deadline or a money deadline, you might say, "Okay, you have 20 minutes to do the entire puzzle," and either they'll succeed or they'll implode. And the first thing people will do intuitively is find the box top of the puzzle and try to match the pieces to the box top.

Well, in business, we often forget to look at the box top-we just go. And the result is you go in different directions. Whereas if you look at the box top, people tend to go in the same direction and understand what they're doing, and they're more likely to succeed. So the message is very simple: Give people the box top when you give them the pieces.

Jigsaw management is really very intuitive. It makes sense if you stop to think about it-you can't grow in every direction. And if you have people growing your business in different directions, it's pretty much guaranteed to fall apart. The faster you grow, the faster it will fall apart. On the other hand, if you keep people focused in the same direction, your growth can build upon itself. What are important characteristics of the "box top"?

Meyer: I think probably the most important characteristics are to make sure the box top is important and that it's seen as important. Also, that it's well bounded. There's nothing worse than working on something that has no edges except, possibly, working on something that doesn't feel important. What are your most important resources when your company is growing?

Meyer: This is both an intuitive and research answer. We've gone out and asked a whole bunch of senior-level managers and middle-level managers what resources they think are important, and they always come back with the same three answers but in different orders: People, time and money. And the order I just gave them to you has to do with the order most middle managers use. Most senior managers will reverse the first two and say that time is more important than people are. And you get into a lot of very hot discussions about where people relate to time.

But let me explain why I think time is number one. If you make a mistake with money, you can usually fix it pretty quickly. You can buy something, sell something, acquire something, divest something, take a loan or cut costs. You can find ways to get money fairly quickly. If you make a mistake with people, it takes longer to fix. It can take you six months, a year or two years to fix a people mistake and that's a lot of opportunity costs, but it can get fixed.

You only have about 80 hours in the average workweek of your readers. When those 80 hours are gone-they're gone forever. There's no recovery. There's no way you can get them back. They're the most perishable item in the world. And if you're growing rapidly, you definitely want to conserve those 80 hours as carefully as you can. Not just for you, but for your people as well. If you're able to use the 80 hours wisely, then your people become more effective, and you need fewer of them. The money you use becomes more effective, and you need less of it. Time is the one thing you have that will help reduce the pressure of the other two resources. How important is investing in technology?

Meyer: One place to invest is always going to be technology, and most people invest there without thinking much about it-that's not always smart. Technology is no more than a tool. Technology for it's own sake is usually a time sink, which you can't afford. Even buying extra features is a time sink.

Let me give you an example: This morning we were in a meeting with a marketing firm because we're putting together a launch for a dotcom company. The head of the marketing firm said, "Well, if you can offer all those features, who would say no to them?" The readers of my book might be the people who would say no because features that don't add value to your daily work should not be added. They'll detract your best people from doing what they're there to do. So technology is a good place to invest in order to get something else to move your business forward. What is the difference between moving into new markets and established markets?

Meyer: One of the key things people often want to focus on, but don't know how is moving the business into brand new markets. If you're looking for excellence in a market where there's heavy competition, you have to be operationally perfect. You've got to have your costs completely under control. Your marketing and sales have to be refined to an extreme degree, and every mistake you make gives somebody else market share.

If you can enter a brand new market-define and control that market-you have room for many more mistakes. Your margins are much higher. Your ability to experiment is much higher. The pressures are totally different and often reduced. So most CEOs view new markets as a Holy Grail, and most companies don't invest in getting to them. They hope to get to them. But if you have time and people and money, you can invest them in existing markets or new markets or some combination. And the conscious decision to go after new markets-to control and dominate new markets-is a great investment of your three resources.

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