How to Know When the Change You Need Is to Grow or to Cut Back

We can talk about how to scale all we want, but in practice, a lot of people are ambivalent towards scaling. Although we have a cultural bias that ‘all growth is good growth’, it’s not actually true. Unless you’re careful, growth can take you places you don’t want to be.

To show how this works, let’s look at a nice hobby vegetable gardener.

Fear of Scaling


Perhaps she tries to grow fruits and veggies for her whole family. But as large as her garden is to feed 5 people, she thinks to herself, I’d like to not have to use this heavy old Rototiller. I wish I could get one of those little garden tractors. But garden tractors are $10,000 so she resolves that she’ll use the extra time and effort it frees up to double the size of her garden and sell the excess at the local farmers market. It will be a bit of a sacrifice to give up her Saturdays, but it will help her pay off the tractor.

The farmers market income is good, but it could be better, so she starts marketing so that more people know where they can get their vegetables. Of course, they can’t all make it to the farmers market, so she opens a curbside stand. It’s a good way for kids to learn responsibility.

Things go well and and in only two years the tractor has been paid off. But the specter of college tuition looms in the distance. Maybe just a few more years… And she could extend her growing season with hoops houses and beat everyone to market in the spring. So she decides to order hoops. And so the enterprise grows.

Demand is not the concern. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough hours in the day to pick all produce that needs to be picked. She bribes her kids and their friends to help her out, but it’s still not enough. She loses an entire crop of beans, because she can’t pick them fast enough and they go to seed. She gets a little surly with the customers. Her husband wonders when they’ll get to enjoy the summer as a family. Surely something’s got to change.

This is the part where we scale, right?

At this point, scaling would require employees, or at the very least, seasonal labour. But can the profits support that? Probably she would have to grow an even bigger garden in order to make the numbers work. And she have to market more. Maybe she’d need more machinery. This gets her into a scale of business she never wanted, and frankly wouldn’t benefit her. She’s got a tiger by the tail and needs to figure out how to let it go.

When Growth Has No Benefit

It’s not that growth has no benefits at all. It’s just that if you only see the benefits and not the tradeoffs that come with it, you’re going to wind up growing and growing more unhappy with your business. And no one wants that.

Some people have already run into this problem and learnt their lesson. Some people have seen other people do it and are wary of making the same mistake. And some people are headed straight into it, thinking that they do want that kind of growth, and all the challenges that it entails.

If this gardener was my client, and as long as it suited her goals, I would advise her to scale back to the size of the garden the 1st year she got the tractor, sell the season extending hoop houses (they only make more work for her) and see if she could sell enough produce at an unmanned road stand. (In my area, many of these stands are run on the honour system). And donate any excess to a soup kitchen. She would still get some profit, and the donation would be a write off. No more Saturdays at the farmer’s market, but a little extra money coming in with hardly any extra effort.

When and Why To Self-Prune

People run into this problem again and again, where the next step in the growth process takes them to a level of complexity they don’t want. Sometimes they are already in the level of growth that they don’t want. It’s the people with books who don’t want to give speeches. It’s the service providers who don’t want to grow an agency. It’s the Makers who don’t want to outsource.

Most of the rhetoric revolves around giving people the confidence to take the leap — and if that’s what you want, go for it — but I want to focus on how to figure out when the trade-off isn’t worth it.

That’s why we always start with the goals– the kids, the travel, the worry-free life. That puts you on a very different road than if you want to push your limits and see how far you can take this thing. And still a different road if you’re thinking about selling someday to fund your retirement.

However, you can always start to self-prune when you hear that little voice inside you say “No. This is not what I want.” You might not know what you do want, but you have time to grow into that. Just start clipping out the parts that you don’t want anymore.

When You Get Root Bound In Your Pot

And sometimes people can go too far in the opposite direction– where they refused to grow on the basis they might not like it. They may even be doing this completely unconsciously. Or sometimes they tell themselves that they’re not making money because they don’t want to get “too big.”

Obviously, I’m a huge proponent of bonsai businesses— small-on-purpose is our watchword. But typically there’s a sweet spot, a spot where you’re big enough that you don’t worry about paying the bills, but you don’t have to manage a sprawling enterprise. Moreover, it’s not actually a bad plan to grow “too big” and then shrink back down. Especially in a service-based business (Maker businesses— not so much). After all, it’s a lot easier to know what it is you don’t like about being “too big” once you’ve tried it. And the systems that you put in place to get you to that stage are going to be just as useful when dialed back down.

In general, fear of scaling is an existential fear.

It strikes at the heart of how we see ourselves, at our vision for how we want to show up in the world, and at the idea of who we’ll be on the other side of success. Scary, unknowable stuff. And when you’re working on growth (or deciding to self-prune) you should be careful that these existential fears aren’t in the driver’s seat.