business growth

Does Size Matter? Planning a Successful Transition from a Small to Large Business

Business growth is always a hot topic. And lately, we’ve been having a lot of conversations with clients and potential clients about how to grow. But what really stands out is that the challenges are not so much about growing per se. They’re more about how to grow smart.

You see, when a small business is absolutely killing it, it runs the risk of outgrowing the (super helpful) “small business” designation. Suddenly, the issues are all about translating what is working well at this level to the next level and the translation is almost never one-to-one. And for businesses that work with federal, state, or local government offices there is even more to think about. It’s not unlike learning to play 3-dimensional chess.  

Yes, there are better and worse ways to move from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. So, let’s talk about how to do it well.

Mini Case Study

For instance, consider the following typical business growth scenario:

I’m a federal 8(a) or certified small business in my key market areas and I’ve been so successful that I’m about to graduate from “small business” to “large business” in the eyes of my customers. This is awesome because I’ve figured out my market and I’m on an incredible growth trajectory. BUT—How do I preserve the “special sauce” of being a small business while I grow? How do I maintain my growth trajectory? How should I think about shifting my marketing and sales strategy?

These are tough questions. But the good news is that many successful businesses have survived this kind of transition with flying colors. You can do it too. All it takes is a strong transition strategy.

Oh, and…start early! The surest way to business growth success is giving your team the time and space they need to figure things out. This is just good leadership: giving your team the tools they need to plan for the many aspects of your business that will shift as you move to a bigger playing field.

Big Picture Questions

The following questions will serve you well as you make the transition from a small player to competing on bigger and bigger stages:

1. Where do you want to be?

You’re growing. That’s AWESOME! But what is your vision for success in 1 to 3 years? It might be tempting to plan further out, like 5 or 10 years, but I’m not a huge fan of going beyond 3 years. There’s just so much that can change in your business, the market, the competitive set, technology, etc.

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t have a long term view. But when you sit down to think about your investment strategy and near terms actions, it’s best to keep 90% of it focused within a rolling 3-year timeframe.

So, where do you want to be? Start there and work backward.

2. Who are you? What do you want to be known for?

And as for your special sauce, this is a great time to get clear about it. Keep in mind sometimes what we think is our special sauce isn’t really that special to our customers and partners. This means talk to your clients, your business partners, your employees…ask almost anyone you can think of what makes your business really unique. Ask them to get specific.

Also, steer clear of boilerplate marketing speak and boring platitudes. For example, way too many businesses say, “our people are our differentiator.” But the fact that EVERYONE says this means it’s not true. No business worth their salt is going out there and hiring unqualified people. It should go without saying that you’re hiring the best and brightest that you can get your hands on!

So, what is it about what you do with your team that makes you unique? For your customers, it could be that you always return their calls quickly. Or that you have a process for onboarding that allows them to hit the ground running. For your investors, maybe you’re offering the chance to expand their portfolios in a particular direction.

3. What do we need to get there?

Are there gaps in talent, technology, or process that you will need to fill in the next few years? Have you thought about all the ways that business growth will require your team members to step up their games? Are you prepared to support leadership as they learn how their jobs and relationships will change?

One of the key aspects of a successful transition is being open to seeing shortcomings and accepting where creative solutions are needed. If you aren’t actively seeking constructive criticism along this journey, you are asking to be blindsided. So, start assembling that team of rivals and ask them to be brutally honest.

Think About What the Future Looks Like

One of the best pieces of business advice I’ve heard is “dress for the job you want.” This is another way to say put yourself in the mindset of where you want to be. When a business is transitioning to become a bigger and (hopefully) better version of itself, the same principle applies.

Here are some ways to put yourself and your team in the mindset of where you want to be:

Identify your audience: Now that you’re moving up, your customer set may change. You may be working with new clients who have larger budgets (and expectations that go along with those big numbers). Even your current customers’ perceptions will likely shift as you graduate from small business to large business. Identify their priorities and tailor your sales and marketing approach to their needs.

Shift your competitive set: As you grow, your competitors change too. This is particularly true when moving from a small business that benefits from set-aside budgets and contracts to a large business that is competing in a full and open market.

As you think about your new competitive set, take a good hard look at:

  • Your competitors’ current client lists, testimonials, reviews.
  • How they characterize and position their service and product offerings?
  • How they market themselves (e.g., website, public statements, corporate overview, social media, thought leadership pieces, etc.).

You aren’t doing any of this because you want to copy or steal their ideas. But to stand out from the crowd, you need to know what your crowd looks like. It’s also good to assess what your clients are used to seeing and hearing so that you can stand apart while communicating in the language they understand.

Also, consider the following:

  • Define success carefully. Consider the ideal goal, but also what, at a minimum, will count as a win. Be generous.
  • Do your market research. Don’t skimp on this step! Rushing into a big change without doing the right research sets everyone up for failure.
  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Transformation affects every level of your organization. Make sure you identify leaders early in the process and give them what they need to execute their specific missions. Also, look for any gaps in communication across departments. Strategize about how to create more cooperation.

Consider your proof points: Always keep in mind that business growth is an indication that what you’re doing is working. It can feel overwhelming in the process, but if you stick to what you know, that can really help you feel more grounded. Refer back to your track record of solid performance and great results whenever necessary. Also, work with your team to establish reasonable proof points to help you assess your growth roadmap going forward.

Be yourself: Finally, it can be easy to forget who you are in this process of reinventing yourself. So remember to continually reevaluate your messaging. Make sure all of your communications reflect your company’s credibility, self-worth, and core values.

If you are asking some of these questions about business growth or anticipate moving from a small to larger business in the future, my team and I would love to help with the transition. Contact us to schedule your consultation and find out more about how we enable your transformation.

Photo credit: rawpixel.com

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