Stretch Your Business to the Limit Taking on a big project offers the chance to take your business to a new level.

By Randy Myers

A client has asked you to take on a big project that you aren't sure you can handle. It will mean working your employees like dogs for the next six months while challenging your ability to keep up with existing commitments. It may force you to embrace new technology and/or hire more employees. The pressure will be enormous. Failure could jeopardize your reputation as well as your balance sheet.

Should you go for it? If you're interested in growing your business, the answer may be "yes." Big projects offer the chance to leapfrog your business to a new level--one with more employees, a broader skill set, new confidence in your capabilities, and a more impressive portfolio. And that can open doors to more projects, more revenues and more profits.

"Work breeds work," agrees marketing and management consultant Lauren Perkins, president of Perks Consulting in New York City. "As you continue to do bigger and better projects, you are able to pitch larger things, add more value for your clients and increase your profitability."

The challenge, of course, is actually pulling it all off. Here are four strategies--shared by entrepreneurs who've successfully tackled their own big projects--that can help your company take the risk and come out on top:

  1. Plan, plan, plan. While you may be able to muddle along when your plate is merely full, you need to pay extra attention to scheduling and tracking work when it is overflowing. "Laying down expectations and setting down plans is crucial," says Perkins. "Doing otherwise creates more bumps along the way."
  2. Limit your financial liability. Taking on a big project often will entail some financial risk, whether you're obliged to increase spending on people, equipment or materials. Savvy business owners are careful not to spend more than absolutely necessary. When inventor Jean Newell of Melbourne, Florida, was given an opportunity to begin selling her "wearable organizer" bag, the PUP, on the QVC shopping network, she took advice from others who'd gone before her and treated each TV appearance as if it would be her last, never producing more than the minimum amount of product the network required her to make available. "I've seen people take a second mortgage or wipe out their 401(k) plan in similar circumstances," she says. "I think they might have stepped over the safety line."
  3. Use just-in-time manpower. When a Fortune 100 technology company approached Rob Cockrum a little more than two years ago about providing construction management services for projects under way at its facilities, his fledgling Walnut Creek, California, firm, The CRE Group, had just one employee: him. That was about eight fewer, it turned out, than he would need in the coming year to meet the client's needs. Still, he took the job. "I knew it was going to be a challenge," he says, "but this was just a few months after I had started my company, and I knew that something like this was rare and I had to jump on it."

    To get the work done, Cockrum tapped into a "virtual bench" of construction management professionals he'd worked with in the past, bringing them on board as needed to meet his workload. Today he has nine project managers on his payroll and saw his revenues grow from about $350,000 in 2008 to approximately $1.3 million in 2009.

    Perkins relied on a similar strategy when a women's executive network came to her in 2008 with an emergency assignment to completely revamp its 150-page website and marry that to an entirely new, yet-to-be-determined business model, all in just eight weeks. "We'd designed some small sites, but our firm had never done a 150-page site, and this was a very tight timeline," Perkins recalls. "But my two staff members and I were very gung ho about it. We felt this project could really launch us into a new stratosphere in terms of project size, budget and exposure." Perkins closed the deal in 24 hours, and quickly added four freelance designers and three freelance programmers. Her delighted client subsequently gave her two referrals, one of which led to an engagement. Despite a tough economic environment, Perkins says, she was able to double her sales in 2009.
  4. Don't stop selling. When you're devoting every waking hour to a big project, it's easy to let slide responsibilities like sales and marketing. That's bad, no matter what industry you're in or where you're located.

    Consider the experience of Australian Project & Consulting Services (APCS), a 12-person IT consulting firm based in Mt. Waverly, Australia. After winning the job of designing and building the data network for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, APCS focused "99 percent" of its effort on that project, recalls Craig Dennis, its director of consulting services. The job was simply too big--it encompassed more than 3,200 computers, printers and other components across 35 venues--to do otherwise. Unfortunately, Dennis notes, that prompted APCS to shortchange its sales efforts, leading to a brief slump in business once the games were finished. "We actually employed a second sales guy, but he let us down," Dennis recalls. "Our management focus was directed elsewhere, and we did not place him under the same level of scrutiny we would have under normal circumstances."

    Once it got its eye back on the sales ball, APCS quickly regained its footing. It has since nearly tripled in size, growth Dennis attributes, in part, to the Commonwealth Games project. "Our exposure to government business has increased enormously, from about 5 percent of revenue to about 60 percent," Dennis reports, "and we recently won a major government contract on the strength of our Commonwealth Games experience."

That's the power of stretching to take on projects outside your comfort zone. The risks are big, but so are the potential rewards.

A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones and contributor to Barron's, Randy Myers is a contributing editor for CFO and Corporate Board Member magazines.

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