Saturday, May 19, 2018

Nothing Special (Tradecraft)

Some of my friends have been kicking around an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled The Five Stages of Small Business Growth. There are summaries of this article online, but if you own a business, you should download the PDF with all the details, especially the impact on owners. It was published in 1987, but it could have been published today. It's relevant.

The article discusses the stages of small business growth and most importantly the role and motivations of the owner during each stage. If you've felt like an NPC, Non Player Character, through your tenure as small business owner, this article helps you gain some perspective. You are the hero of this journey, at least in this article. This is important for small business owners because as you grow, the owner tends to fade into the background, a natural, as it turns out, but disconcerting development.

Your role is increasingly in the background, and your personal needs, what you want from this, are not usually part of the discussion. So you develop feelings of alienation and loss, which can lead to erratic grasping behavior or some odd expressions of disengagement (my experience, not the article). This article helps put your role into perspective so none of these stages come as a surprise. Or as one of my Buddhist teachers once told me after I complained about travel making me feel disoriented: "Well, don't get oriented."

As technical and wonky as this article may be, it draws observations about the role and motivations of owners at each stage of development. I felt like I must be the only one suffering through the Survival phase, that living like a pauper and just hoping it would fail or succeed already, was unique to my experience. Nope. Happens to every small business owner.

How about the alienation that comes from delegation in the Success phase, where I'm increasingly disengaged and money is suddenly an issue, with demands from new hobbies and the business? Happens to everyone at this stage. It's the Success-Disengagement substage, otherwise known as III-D (D is for Disengagement) with our recent expansion an attempt to move to III-G (G is for Growth), the painful and often scary, success-growth substage. That's where I am now, classification III-G, which I have to admit, makes it a little less formidable.

So I must have it all down and there are no more surprises, right? When I look at Stage IV, Take Off, I realize I may never get there. I may never get my III-G attempts to launch into a full on IV. Stage IV is incredibly rare in the game trade, but don't let the field fool you, as only 12% of small businesses ever get there.

There is no wrong answer in the stages of growth and you can languish in Survival for your entire existence, as most mom and pop stores do (according to the article). Or you can buy your house in Maui and remotely manage while chugging along in the III-G Success phase (according to the article). When you look at the staggering requirements for Stage IV, buying someone else's II at the Survival stage or a healthy III-D seems so much more palatable.

I do know of business owners in Stage IV, but they tend to be too busy to chat most of the time, with their large enterprises and high finance. I'm not sure I want to be that busy again, especially now that I'm older with a family and more to lose, and thus III-D, with occasional launches into III-G, is where I'll end up for the long term. It's where 57.9% of companies end up. Nothing special.

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