The last 23 years of working with, reconstructing, and observing small businesses in all sorts of situations has resulted in a pile of insights on many areas of business. A common fact or is the desire to grow, even when in the darkest times, almost all businesses aspire to grow. This is not ego, or self-delusion, it is simply a general acknowledgement that to stand still is to be overtaken.

Grow or get trampled.

The common factor of those that have successfully grown is that they do not follow any recipe, there is no guaranteed growth map, but it is clear that they have all combined some common elements in different ways to succeed.

Be different.

Every successful business I have seen has done something different to those around them, with whom they compete on a day to day basis. Being part of the crowd results at best, at being on the top of the ‘average’ range. Differentiation in the manner that they deliver value to their customers is perhaps  the most common element of success I have seen. It need not be a major thing at first glance, but combined with some of the following elements, differentiation becomes a powerful driver of growth.

Great product.

As the old advertising  saying goes, ‘The customer is not stupid, she is your wife’ . There is no situation where an average product can sustain above average performance. All the clichés and PR gloss in the world will not do any more than get a first sale, after that the product has to deliver value greater than available alternatives. It is the form of that value that differs dramatically, and value does not always mean technical quality, it means fit for purpose.

Growth is a relentless master.

Growth never happens in isolation of focus, effort and commitment. Every sustainable growth business I have seen, or read about, has somewhere in its DNA, a focus on growth, in a way that seizes opportunity, makes it work, learns from what does not work, and goes again. It can apply this focus while ensuring that the every-day operations, the ones that pay the bills today, are well taken care of.

Marketing is shaped by the need.

Too often marketing is seen as a formulaic process that just requires the appropriate level of investment and capability to be successful. Wrong. Every situation requires a differing mix of marketing elements, and there are no two situations where the template will just ‘work’. Just ‘doing marketing’ will not lead to growth, the marketing has to be connected to the intended customers viscerally or it just becomes another of the millions of messages to which we are all subjected every day.

Find a niche and own it.

Whether you are the corner store of Apple, you cannot be all things to all people, in one way or another, you need to focus on those to whom you can deliver superior value. The evaluation of your target niche, the motivations of those at the bottom of the niche who are likely to be your best, stickiest, long term customers, then delivering value to them, is a key to growth. Once you have consolidated your niche, widen it a bit, seek adjacencies, look for novel uses of your capabilities in other niches, but never forget the niche.

Growth is long term.

Nothing useful happens overnight. Growth happens as a result of patience, commitment, and an ability to remain focussed on the goals, even when the short term stuff looks dark, or there is some compelling distraction. While it is fine to experiment, sustainable growth comes from building smaller success over time, not from frequent changes in direction. When looked at in hindsight, successful growth always has some elements of compounding small success present. Remember the fable of  the wise adviser who wanted nothing but compounding grains of rice on his chessboard, each square having double the grains of rice of the previous.

Seek leverage.

Identifying the means by which you can apply leverage to the assets you can deploy always pays dividends. Often this means combining your marketing with the behaviour  drivers of those in your niche to deliver some unique value, bit just as often is means ensuring that the basic processes that deliver the cash every day are robust, and repeatable. Having Standard Operating Procedures that are a part of  the operational DNA saves huge amounts of time and energy better applied to activities outside the mundane . Successful growth engines always have their core processes working well, and those growth activities seeking the points of greatest leverage.

Insights not data.

These days we run the risk of being overwhelmed with data, unlike when I started in business, when quality data was a rare beast, hard won. Today there is just so much data that the real skill is sorting it out and finding the hidden gems that offer insights you can leverage.  Data guru Avinash Kaushik calls it ‘data puking’ which is in my view a fine description. The metaphor I use is going into a library, without any idea what you might be looking for. You end up overwhelmed by the choice, with little chance of finding the right book.

Recognise your ecosystem.

What makes successful businesses successful is an ability to mix and match the best options for  their target customers, in ways that best deliver leverage for both parties. Growth is a two way street, no business can be sustainably successful unless their customers and suppliers are also successful. The task is to make the pie bigger so everyone benefits, not to take a bigger share of a static pie.

No silver bullets.

Growth comes from hard work, focus, determination, commitment, and not from luck or circumstances. My old dad used to say, the harder I work  the luckier I get. And that has been echoed by every successful person I have ever come across. It is never left to chance, it is a managed, deliberate process of making choices between alternative applications of limited available resources, being proved right more often than not, and learning from the times when you are wrong.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is clarity. We are in a world that is intensively competitive for the attention of those we may be able to serve. It does not matter if you are the corner store, or a multinational, your marketing challenge is to gain, then hold attention of those we can best serve, while we relate to them the reasons their best interests are best served, their challenges overcome, by working with you. The first test is to ask a few of your employees, close friends, and current customers what problem you solve, looking for a consistent and clear response. In its absence you have some work to do.

A lot of this is common sense, an increasingly rare thing in a complex world.