How to Grow When You Are the Business

The road to expansion is open, even if your business is built around your own specialized skills.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Christopher Dorris wanted to send more people his message of using sports-derived psychology to enhance business performance by battling the fears and beliefs that hold people back. The problem was that he and Alison Arnold, his partner in the Phoenix training and consulting company Head Games, were the only people he knew who had enough drive and commitment to their approach to open a second office.

"We've come across many who demonstrate interest and are desirous of being involved in an expansion project," says Dorris, 35. "But other elements were missing: sharing the philosophy, and the ability and desire to run your own show."

Jennifer Roitman, an intern who had worked with the pair for two years, decided to move to Boston and approached them about opening a Head Games office there. After putting in some time with the co-founders, Roitman had absorbed their philosophy. And with Dorris and Arnold's encouragement and assistance, she opened an East Coast office in summer 2002. "Before we met Jen, we were wondering how we were going to grow," says Dorris. "But it's been a great relationship, and now we're profiting from her work."

Loosening the Reins

It's common for entrepreneurs to find the route to expansion blocked because they've created a business that's owner-dependent. One reason is that it's hard to keep a service or product offering consistent when expanding geographically. "People want reliability from those they do business with," says David Deeds, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve Universityin Cleveland. It only gets worse when the business is built around the owners' highly specialized skills.

Entrepreneurs also self-limit expansion opportunities when they become so closely identified with the company's brand that customers believe no one else can provide the same solution or service. Finally, entrepreneurs of all stripes often find it hard to delegate key tasks to others. Yet, says Paula Harveston, assistant professor of management at Berry Collegein Mount Berry, Georgia, "You have only so many hours in the day. For the business to grow, you have to let go."

Start by removing yourself from day-to-day operations-hire, train or, as Dorris did, develop someone who can do the job you have been doing. Usually, part of these solutions is systematizing your business operations. Typically, this is done by creating written reference books that cover every aspect of generating your product or service. "You have to have manuals and procedures," says Harveston. "Flying by the seat of your pants only lasts so long."

You'll also need to find a way to get customers to do business with someone other than yourself while remaining loyal to the brand. One approach calls for focusing customer attention on the outcome of doing business with your company, rather than on your personal skills set. "Rather than the message being 'I'm really good at this,' it becomes 'We're really good at this,'" says Deeds.

Expanding an owner-centered business is risky. You may make things worse for your business if you alienate customers by getting distracted and allowing quality to slip. For that reason, only owner-centered businesses that are healthy and running smoothly should consider expansion. "It's a bet-the-company kind of decision," warns Deeds.

But for those ready for the challenge, expanding an owner-centered business can increase reach, add new markets and raise profits. Head Games benefited financially from revenues generated by its Boston operation. And having a higher profile in the East Coast business world has helped snare lucrative corporate gigs.

Not only that, adds Dorris, but it looks good. "Having a presence in Boston is extremely important for us because of the perception," he says. "We've grown, and now the market is perceiving us as having grown."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.


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