Opinion: failing to scale?

Neil Petch, chairman at Virtugroup, shares 10 reasons why some entrepreneurs can't grow their business
Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup
By Neil Petch
Thu 05 Apr 2018 05:04 PM

There are millions of smart business ideas out there – millions of entrepreneurs setting up companies to deliver a brilliant product or service. Dubai has more than its fair share of exciting startups, which means the culture here is ripe for business success.

Yet we hear from many business owners who have successfully set up their business but have become frustrated by their inability to grow. For one reason or another their progress has slowed and they are looking for something to kick-start them towards expansion.

In a surprising number of cases, it is the business owner who is responsible for the stagnation of the company. The inspiration, single-mindedness, perseverance and attention to detail that breathed life into the business in the first place can become the millstone that drags it down. It’s important, then, for all business owners to be aware of the traits within themselves that can lead to the arrested development of their enterprise.

Yet we hear from many business owners who have successfully set up their business but have become frustrated by their inability to grow. For one reason or another their progress has slowed and they are looking for something to kick-start them towards expansion.

In this article I have identified 10 common problems, which, individually or combined, can keep a business forever knocking on the door of expansion but never being allowed in.

1. Refusal to adapt: If you’ve launched your business on the strength of one brilliant idea and the launch has been successful, there’s a tendency to feel reluctant to make any changes to your concept in case you throw the whole thing off the rails. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ as the saying goes. But a business model that was well-suited to the small business market is unlikely to be fit for bigger things without some degree of adaptation.

If your gut instinct is telling you that change is required, or if you’re getting the same message from your team, it’s important that you listen. Open your mind to the possibilities that changes to your business model can bring and be prepared to wave goodbye to your original concept. It’s got you this far – but is it time to move on?

2. Too much involvement in the detail: It’s quite natural for anyone who has gone through the rigours of launching a business to be somewhat obsessed with the details and to feel compelled to play a hands-on role in ensuring the work continues to be done to the same standard as when you launched. These are noble sentiments but they can be restrictive. As your business becomes more established, it’s important to spend more time working on the business instead of in the business.

A good analogy is a ship. When you launch you tend to spend the majority of your time in the engine room, keeping the boilers stoked and making sure that the ship keeps moving forward.

But before very long you need to get up on the bridge and plot your course. The further your ship sails into uncharted waters, the more time you need to spend on the bridge, planning and plotting and making sure you avoid the rocks and icebergs.

3. Insufficient care when hiring: Every successful entrepreneur, from Henry Ford to Richard Branson, agrees on one thing: a business is only as good as its people. Do your employees have the talent, creativity and inclination to take your business forward? If not, it’s time you started hiring people who do.

Hiring does not sit comfortably with a lot of entrepreneurs, most of whom start out on their own and regard employing staff as a necessary evil, rather than an opportunity for the business to grow in a way that they never envisaged. If hiring doesn’t come naturally to you, seek help. There are plenty of recruitment experts out there who can help you find people who truly deserve to be part of your great adventure.

4. Number blindness: You can’t grow without money. You need money in the bank and you need a sound financial plan. For this you need a good Chief Financial Officer (CFO). If you’ve been doing the figures yourself up to this point, it’s time to hand over the books to an expert and concentrate on steering that ship. A good CFO could be your most important hire of all – not just a bean counter but a visionary who can interpret your figures, tell you where the business’ strengths and weaknesses lie and use the data to help you plan your future course.

5. Market assumptions: Most businesses launch with some idea of who their customers might be and who their competitors are but rarely do in-depth market research. They assume they know without carrying out thorough research. When the time for growth arrives, you can’t afford to go to market with a scattergun approach.

You need to be very focused and that means knowing your customers in detail – right down to what they’re talking about on social media. Similarly, the more you know about your competitors, the more you will know about your own business and what makes it different. It’s this difference that will be your route to success.

6. Control freak leadership: Growth doesn’t come from a spreadsheet, it comes from the whole culture of the company. You need your whole team to be aligned and energised towards the same goal as you, and that means sharing a bit of your power. You may have kept a tight hold of the reins as you launched but now it’s time to let go and delegate. Empower your staff and encourage their creativity. The likes of Facebook and Google help their staff to form ‘self-organising enterprises’, whereby skilled workers don’t rely on management to organise them but find their own collaborations and set their own direction. You may not be ready to take it to this extreme just yet, but the evidence shows that people can do incredible things when left to their own devices.

7. Marketing myopia: Does your company look like something you would expect to find in the big business world? Or does it look inescapably small? Branding and marketing are essential for growth. You might love that logo your brother knocked up when you launched but is it really going to cut it among the corporates? If not, swallow your pride and invest in a rebrand. From your business cards to your website and beyond, the image your business projects will have a major bearing on its chances of staying afloat in deeper waters. Be prepared to spend a significant chunk of your growth budget on marketing. If you want to be taken seriously among the big hitters, you need to look like a big hitter yourself. The time for keeping a low profile is past.

8. Shyness: A notoriously tricky one for some entrepreneurs to swallow is the need to change their own personal image. Just as the image of the business needs to be suitable for the bigger market you’re moving into, the same applies to you as its figurehead. For a lot of entrepreneurs, this is a natural progression, but many business owners never consider their own role in how the business is perceived, believing it’s all about the business, not about them.

This is folly. As you expand into bigger markets, people will take an increasing interest in who you are and what you know. You can satisfy their interest by networking, blogging and putting yourself up for public speaking engagements. This will not only showcase you as an expert in your field, it will reflect very favourably on the business and cement its perception as a big player.

9. Lack of vision: So what’s the plan? And is everyone on board? A common obstacle to business growth is the lack of a collective vision as to what you are trying to achieve. Without this, you will not get everyone pulling in the same direction, even if they want to. Take the time to set down your mission, vision and values and involve your whole team in the process. Let them share their own view of the business’ future. Perhaps there are possibilities you haven’t envisaged. With complete buy-in from all your employees, you’ll be amazed how fast your company can steam ahead to bigger and better things.

10. Fear: Business owners are courageous. They have to be. It takes courage and an appetite for risk to get any new venture off the ground. But everyone has their limit and sometimes it’s the fear of sailing into shark-infested waters that holds entrepreneurs back from doing the things they know they need to do to grow – the things I’ve listed above. But you don’t have to do this alone. Help is at hand. Whatever sector you’re in, there are consultants with experience of your market and the waters you’re moving into who can advise you, share their experience and give you the confidence you need. Don’t be afraid to use them.

Finally, if you’re feeling frustrated by the inability to grow your business, ask yourself honestly whether any of these traits apply to you. If they do, make it part of your business strategy to address them. And make use of the vast resource of experience and advice that’s out there waiting to help you. Remember, the bigger your business grows, the more people benefit.

Neil Petch is chairman at Virtugroup, a company that supports startups from establishment, all the way through to exit.

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