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Updated 28 Sep 2020

3 Situations where scaling your business isn’t an option

It's great to grow to the point where you're just managing managers, but that's not always feasible.

Doug and Polly White, Entrepreneur, 10 December 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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All the answers to your unique business lifestage questions

Most entrepreneurs want to grow their small operation into what we call a fully evolved, midsize business structure. We define this structure as one where the owner is managing managers who run the daily activities of the business and the employees who do the primary work of the business.

However, growing or scaling your organisation to this structure can be very difficult or even impossible in certain situations.

Related: 10 Ways competition can improve your business

If you are having these difficulties, your business probably has one or more of the following characteristics.

1. Unique skill set

If your skill set is so unique that it would be difficult to hire another person to do the primary work of the business, the enterprise is not scalable. For example, it would have been essentially impossible for Rembrandt to have scaled his business. No one else had his skills.

As a painter, Rembrandt was stuck in what we call a micro business structure, where the owner does the primary work of the enterprise. The same could be said of great composers like Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach.

Having phenomenal skills in a particular area such as these masters is an amazing gift, but it will make your enterprise almost impossible to scale.

Being a public speaker or a celebrity of any kind might well fall into the same category. This doesn’t mean that such people can’t hire people to help them.

They certainly can and many do, but when the owner has a unique skill set, he or she will nearly always have to do the primary work of the business and therefore the size of the enterprise will be limited.

2. Limited margin

Business -growth -margins

Remember, a midsize business structure is one in which the business owner is managing managers. In these cases, the owner and the managers are not doing the primary work of the business. They are overhead. Some businesses simply do not have enough margin to support this overhead.

Consider consulting to small businesses. Large corporations can pay millions of dollars for a few months of consulting work because they face problems and/or opportunities where the difference between success and failure may be hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore, it makes sense to pay a lot of money to improve the odds of success.

Small businesses don’t face issues where the swings are this large. Therefore, they neither can nor should pay these large fees for consulting services. This means that the fees small-business consultants can charge are capped.

Employees who would be capable of doing top-notch consulting work for small businesses are expensive. There is just not very much margin between what a small business can afford to pay and what you would have to pay a competent employee to do the consulting work. It is very difficult to scale such a business.

3. No benefit to size

There are some businesses where being a part of a larger company may not offer the person doing the primary work of the business enough benefit to cause him or her to remain an employee.

He or she would simply start his or her own business and capture all of the revenue themselves rather than sharing it with an employer.

Related: How successful entrepreneurs limit the downside to maximise future profits

It is difficult to scale such businesses because the people doing the primary work of the business inevitably leave to start a competitive enterprise.

Growing your business to a fully evolved midsize structure is a worthy goal, but before spending years trying to make this happen, be sure that your industry doesn’t have characteristics that will prevent you from succeeding.

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About the author

Doug and Polly White, Entrepreneur

Doug and Polly White own Whitestone Partners Inc., a management-consulting firm that specialises in helping small businesses grow profitably. They are also co-authors of Let Go to GROW, a bestselling book on why some businesses thrive and others fail to reach their potential.

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