Why Smaller Can Be Better for Entrepreneurs

A new book argues that turning down growth opportunities can lead to greater success.

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Some entrepreneurs dream of turning their company into the next Apple, or becoming a household name. Others just want to love their work and support themselves and their families. Adelaide Lancaster and Amy Abrams, coauthors of The Big Enough Company and cofounders of In Good Company, a shared workspace for female business owners in New York, say that’s okay—and in fact, staying small might be preferable to rapid growth.

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That’s because growth often means outsourcing the work you enjoy most, such as creating products or services, while spending more time on tasks some consider tedious, such as building management or overseeing employees. Lancaster and Adams, who have coached women entrepreneurs for more than eight years, say they noticed clients feeling overwhelmed by business advice urging them to constantly grow and seek new opportunities. “We wanted to help people think about setting things up on their own terms,” says Lancaster. “We help them create businesses more reflective of their needs, rather than one size fits all.”

We spoke with Lancaster about why success can depend on staying small, and how she learned that lesson herself. Excerpts:

Why did you feel like entrepreneurs needed to hear that smaller can be better?

A lot of entrepreneurs start a business and think that to be successful, they have to keep growing, but then they end up giving up a lot of parts of the business that they like. So entrepreneurs would come to us less satisfied than we thought they should be. We would ask, “How can you re-engineer your business to give you more of what you want?”

To assume that growth will yield a better experience has been a faulty assumption. For the most part, we’ve seen a lot of people who have put themselves out of the role that they most enjoy, or made a lot of compromises by growing their company too big or too quickly. Our work is focused on putting people back into the driver’s seat.

Did you experience that pressure to be big in your own business?

Absolutely. When we started, we thought it would be cool to be in a lot of cities across the country. We spent a lot of time thinking about franchising and prospecting other cities. It was easy for other people to say, “This should be in other places.”

As we went down that path, it became clear that it wasn’t such a great idea. The recession hit us full-force and it was a terrible time to set up franchises. We also had questions about the viability of the business model, and more than that, we realized we would effectively be landlords to many, many people. The aspect of my job that I like the least is being a landlord. I worry about electricity, tech support. I don’t want to manage landlords either. While I’m sure it would be helpful of we had more spaces, that’s not what’s rewarding to me. So we’re just in New York. Instead, we’ve been able to focus on creating a wonderful community in New York with robust programming and a lot of teachers. I get to speak and write. But am I building a behemoth conglomerate? No.

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Do you think people believe a lot of myths about what it means to be an entrepreneur?

There’s a fantasy around how cool it will be to work from home. Some people are very productive and effective working from home; others are not. On day five you might want to throw yourself out the window and you haven’t gotten out of your pajamas yet. People underestimate how challenging it is to manage yourself and how much work goes into that. People think they would spend all their time on the product of their business, but as an entrepreneur, you need a support network to hold you accountable. Once people get that, they can recalibrate some of their expectations.

How much of people’s motivation to start their own business is financial?

The thing we’re told most often is freedom. Then you have to dig deeper into what that means. For most people, it’s in the autonomy realm. “I want to be my own boss and decide how to use my own time.” People want to find ways to put their potential to use and they feel underutilized in other employment situations. The experience of entrepreneurship really delivers on that for the most part. People are able to bring more of themselves to the table. Financially, it’s mixed: Some people are willing to take a cut to do things that are interesting to them, while others can make a lot more on their own than they could working for someone else, and the idea of a salary cap is too painful to them.

What’s your advice to an entrepreneur who is just starting out?

People can get really intimidated and focus on the wrong things. I encourage people to give themselves a period of time, whether it’s two months or a year, to figure out if this is really something they want to pursue, rather than saying, “I’m starting a business tomorrow.” Learn as much as you can and then decide whether or not you want to continue with it. You might know you want to sell product X. Do you want to do retail, wholesale, online? What should the prices be? Looking at it as a research project can help, and puts people in a much better position to decide if they want to go forward or not, all while experiencing entrepreneurship first-hand and deciding if they like it.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer