As the owner of a small marketing agency, a professional who is very often executing a one-man show as an outside consultant, I don’t often get to observe other companies’ sales pitches. I guess that one part of me has remained curious and puzzled about what is presented and how others perform at that opportunistic ‘show off your capabilities, leave an impression, and land the project’ meeting. The concern that others always execute better and that they are superior public speakers (yes, a complex of not being a native English speaker) has served as both motivation and stage fright, forces that have cancelled out one another on each occasion.
Although this has primarily fueled my curiosity and allowed me to engage in healthy discussions, I recently heard about a situation in which an agency, following an unsuccessful pitch, repeatedly asked the potential client for direct advice, ideas for improving the proposal for future purposes, and wrapping up with “what exactly did the other company propose?”. Yeah, what’s the secret formula for Coca Cola? Don’t people understand the concept of having a competitive advantage, where the whole point is that someone offers something that others don’t?
This post won’t be about competitive advantage, but about the challenges that growing businesses face even when they start with a well-defined competitive advantage. My fascination with the topic of business growth, as well as challenges that growing businesses face, started with a series of conversations and observations about the topic. Of particular interest are the central figures in the story, the founders, who just like their business started a journey of growth and adjustment, and ended up as considerably different versions of themselves.
The typical story starts with a couple of outstanding professionals who decide to start their own company. Tired of seeing injustice or inconsistency in execution, they believe that they have the right know-how and relationships to break out and do something differently. Each contributes a different set of skills and expertise, and the ultimate product(s) / service(s) has the potential for a very bright future. Not surprisingly, the business takes off:
• they are enthusiastic about what they do
• they roll up the their sleeves and actually do the work
• they know all about the company’s product(s), service(s), and processes
• they pride themselves on delivering customized solutions and knowing their customers
• they clearly define the company’s expertise
Some years later, the founders / senior management acknowledge that they have succeeded, but could exceed even their own initial expectations and grow the business even faster if they would:
• become more efficient, reprioritizing certain activities and trying to get into a routine
• outsource their work to become more productive and cost-effective
• implement new standards and consistencies (i.e., templates and frameworks)
• branch out into related areas that have high demand
So they implement a series of changes and get their business moving in the fast lane – their baby grows…a lot, like Alice in Wonderland with the ‘eat me’ cookie. Business booms, with multiple offices in emerging markets, a growing list of Fortune 500 clients, and several additional practice areas helping fuel unparalleled growth of the business. Along the way, various challenges are successfully overcome and valuable lessons learned. But, something is lost in the process – growth came with a price.
Some years later, the founders become absorbed in delivering sales pitches and proposals full-time. They realize how far they have come from more humble beginnings and, now and then, become too overconfident and even arrogant. No longer the same energetic entrepreneurs they once were, they now focus too much on efficiency and business development:
• they have lost the enthusiasm that was obvious when facing clients
• they have lost their expertise as they no longer work in the field
• they no longer know the details of their products / services, which are instead being developed, tested, and improved by others
• their business has become a mass producer of ‘customized’ products thanks to the standards and templates they have implemented
• their business has branched out into too many areas and they no longer develop proposals simply for what they do best, but offer solutions for whatever the client needs, providing at moment’s notice slides and frameworks
The most overlooked and perhaps trickiest detail when growing a business is actually growing yourself accordingly and staying true to who you are and what you do. Don’t forget the core values with which you started your venture. Don’t forget the competitive advantage that helped your business grow, and don’t forget yourself in the process, because there is some truth in growing your business, yet staying young and foolish at heart.