Five ways to accelerate (and manage) business growth

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Many companies collapse after expanding too quickly and spending more than the new business brought in. The sales figures can be high, but the profit may not be there. Or, an unexpectedly large order may put extra pressure on employees – if they deliver a positive experience, a business can be propelled into the next stage of growth.

Accelerating growth is a top priority for most small business owners. But overseeing business expansion is as much about carefully managing a company’s growth trajectory through various inflection points than it is about big and bold ideas. It is about nurturing a learning culture, a healthy attitude towards failure, and accepting that sometimes things need to be ripped up and started from scratch. I will share my top five lessons learned during the past (almost) ten years of leading James and James Ecommerce Fulfilment.

  • 1. Question everything

Don't just blindly continue doing what you did yesterday. When a business grows, there are significant efficiencies to be gained from doing things differently than before. Often, ways of working were introduced in the past, and while they may have worked, other business processes and circumstances change all the time, requiring us to continuously question and explore alternatives.

We have sometimes seen evidence of the old-fashioned “oh, but we have always done things this way around here” attitude at James and James as well. But, by building a team of open-minded people, nurturing a culture of curiosity and empowering individuals to introduce change, such attitude is now an exception to the rule.

  • 2. Be agile

The great thing about small businesses is that they can be much more agile than large corporations. The Literary Gift Company, a one-stop-shop for book lovers and a customer of James and James, started to develop its own products early on. “As a small business, we can have an idea and get it on sale in just a couple of weeks,” says Dani Hall, Founder of The Literary Gift Company.

As a small business owner, you are also in a strong position to quickly spot shifts in demand and respond in an agile way. Following a customer enquiry asking for our support in the US, James and James set up a US fulfilment centre in just six months.

This approach, not dissimilar to agile software development, typically includes trying out a new idea quickly, seeing if it works, and then investing more resources into it to continuously iterate and improve functionalities. The first version of the new James and James website, for instance, only took two weeks to complete. It wasn’t perfect at all, but it was a start and we’ve continuously been tweaking it ever since to make it better.

  • 3. Rip things up

Be willing to throw away projects or ideas. Inevitably, some ideas will fail so you need to be ready to let go, even if you’ve invested significant amounts of money into them. In many cases, this will be cheaper in the long term. A final decision should be based on the expected ROI in the future, not on the level of investment to date.

From a team leadership and company culture point of view, it is important to recognise and reward the effort of risk taking itself, even if the final outcome is not always a success. Obviously it is unwise to keep repeating old mistakes, but trying out a new initiative and (sometimes) failing, scrapping it, learning from it and starting again is what really defines successful entrepreneurs.

  • 4.  Find a formula for success, then focus on process

This point may seem at odds with what I have just been talking about, but it is essential that successful ways of working become standardised and clearly defined. When something works really well, it would be counterproductive (and confusing for staff) to question and test it all the time.

Instead, a test conducted in a controlled environment by the most experienced staff can provide evidence if a tweak is indeed leading to an incremental improvement. The initial change might be small, say a 2% increase in productivity, but by continuously refining the process the cumulative effect will be significant.

At James and James, our current sales process is our ‘gold standard’. We have been developing it for six years and it works. New sales colleagues joining the company are encouraged to bring new ideas to the table and incrementally improve it, but only after following the standard rules to the letter for a period of three months, when they have fully mastered the process.

  • 5. If it’s not your core competence, outsource it

After professionalising their production, Shareen Akhtar, Founder of Anne Beauty recognised they needed to have a much more robust approach to their eCommerce and fulfilment.  “Processing orders at home reached breaking point.  My husband would get home from work at 7pm and we’d work solidly for the next four hours packing orders.  I’d then have to go to the Post Office every day with hundreds of bottles.  That’s when we had the conversation about outsourcing our fulfilment.  We really needed to get our life back and free up time to focus on scaling up the business.” explains Shareen.

I hear this rule of thumb very often when talking to our customers. If a product or a service is not your core selling point, or your unique differentiator, you will most likely be better off finding another company to do it. Sometimes it might be tempting to try and do everything in-house but with outsourcing or buying a product off-the-shelf you also get the added bonus of tapping into years of expertise and experience. Someone has been developing a product for a long time and it is their core competence, so why not benefit from it?