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What's Stopping Your Business From Growing? Three masters of scale unpack the reasons why you might be failing at growth – or in danger of doing so.

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Mike Turner

So, what's stopping you from scaling? If you ask Rich Mullholland, founder of Missing Link, the reality is that most entrepreneurs don't need to understand what it takes to scale. "Scaling speaks to exponential growth," he says, "which for the vast majority of business owners simply shouldn't be a consideration. Growth by itself is okay, and even then, it should be growth as and when it's required."

Rich's key point is that growth for the sake of growth should never be a business owner's primary goal. Growth should be strategic, and good for the company. Growth without a solid foundation can actually harm – or even kill – your company.

If your goal is growth though, here are three key points to keep top of mind.

1. Too many business owners don't understand what it takes to scale a business

"Entrepreneurs are so focused on getting through the month with their cash flow intact that they often fail to lift their heads and look to the horizon," says Allon Riaz, CEO and founder of Raizcorp. "Scale requires strategic thinking, while most entrepreneurs are in operational thinking mode."

Howard Mann, president at Brickyard Partners and a US-based business turnaround specialist, advises business owners to stop focusing on revenue growth alone. "Scaling a business is about balance and too many entrepreneurs just focus on the speed of revenue growth. When revenue grows without the infrastructure to support that growth, clients leave as quickly as they come in.

"Instead of focusing on top-line growth, focus on maximum profit margins. This will completely change where you focus your efforts. I would rather have a $10 million business with 50% margins over the false glamour of a $50 million revenue business with razor thin profits."

2. Without the right systems, process and people, you'll never be able to scale

Allon believes the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make are:

  • Not arranging sufficient cash reserves for a growth period
  • Believing that the people who brought you to point A are the same people who will take you to point B
  • Having insufficient systems to scale the business

Rich agrees, adding that you need to focus on the business you want to be, and not the business you currently are. "Businesses often commit legacide," he says. "They allow the legacy systems, put in place for a business of a smaller stature, to hold them back. Not to get too cheesy here, but to quote the Great One, NHL hockey legend Wayne Gretsky, you need to skate to where the puck is going. The systems you put in your business should be systems appropriate for the business you want, not the business you have. Sure, you'll possibly be paying more in the short term, but it will be a fraction of what you lose trying to play catch-up later."

Howard believes that losing track of managing the expenses required to manage growth is one of the biggest stumbling blocks entrepreneurs face. "To intentionally over simplify it, you want to figure out the most efficient and effective way to rapidly attract and close new clients while being able to serve and delight them at the lowest possible cost," he says.

"Another mistake is taking on too much debt in the name of growth. We are all mesmerized by VC backed start-ups that put out press about their massive growth. You do not see how much cash they are burning through and that most of these companies have net losses that are growing as fast (or faster) than their revenue growth. Again, protect your profit margins. That is your growth fuel and protection against shocks in the economy."

3. Growth for the sake of growth can actually kill your business

Before you embark on your growth journey, understand that growth, without sufficient structural foundations, can often lead to a business collapsing. "Some scale has the opposite of economies of scale, and actually becomes more expensive as the business becomes more complex," says Allon. "It's important to restructure the model as the business grows to ensure the highest possibility of economies of scale."

Howard warns that a business structured to lose money as it grows is a poorly structured business. "Making the switch back to strong profitability after a growth phase is difficult to pull off," he says. "Yes, we all know Amazon.com eventually did it. You are not Amazon.com. Growing with a net loss is a straight road to the business graveyard."

Rich disagrees with the notion that growth in and of itself will lead to death. He believes that growth is, generally speaking, healthy. "I've seen businesses grow too quickly and not know how to deal with it, and I've seen businesses that out-grow the maturity of their management teams and get strangled by the firm hold the management team try to keep," he says, but for Rich, this is the product of a business ill-prepared for growth, rather than a product of the growth itself.

"This is why slow is often better, as opposed to scale," he says. "I remember when my son was young, and I was still his hero. I couldn't imagine him shouting at me the way I did to my folks as a teenager - I'd be destroyed. So, I asked my dad about it, he smiled and said, don't worry kiddo, they ease you into it, it all happens over time. By the time they start screaming, you're ready. That's true too for business growth. Most entrepreneurs are running their businesses as a real-time business school. You can't always rush that education."


TOP TIPS

Allon: One top tip for business owners on scale is to remain strategic by knowing what you want to create and by ensuring a healthy balance of capital resources, sufficient people skills and the appropriate support systems.

Howard: Famed business owner Ricardo Semler said "Only two things grow for the sake of growth: Businesses and tumors." Get crystal clear on why you want to grow. Once you do, find your balance between accelerating new business and the cost to manage that business.Scaling, like a scale, needs balance

Rich: Stop thinking about scale, and start thinking about solving an important problem that world has, even (especially) if they don't know it yet. It the problem is real, and big enough, you will have a scale-able business.


Matt Brown - Digital Kungfu

CEO: Digital Kungfu

Matt Brown is the Chief Excitement Officer (CEO) of Digital Kungfu, a storytelling production company that specialises in helping technology businesses generate leads, market their software products/service and build their brands. He is also the founder of the Matt Brown Show, South Africa’s favourite podcast for entrepreneurs. 
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