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How Does Your Business Grow?

Tuesday, April 1, 2003 - 00:00

Many shop owners scarcely notice that there are four stages to their business’ growth.

If you have been in this business for any length of time, most likely you have gone through some stages of growth. Businesses, too, have a life of their own. They start small and grow up, much like kids do. 

While leading an AMI class, I drifted away from the topic at hand and started to explain the stages that most businesses go through. I had thought long and hard about this subject after reading an article about it at my bank. Just like a child that you raise, the stages are at times awe-inspiring and other times extremely frustrating. Many shop owners approached me after that class and commented on how helpful it was to understand what had happened to their business and themselves over the years. I realized that I had hit a nerve. That’s always a great moment for an instructor. 

Proud parent: the first five years
Oh, the “newness” of it all. If you opened your own business, there is a start-up stage and it will usually last about five years. It is an exciting time. You work your butt off. It is all you can do to go home and relax. Work weekends? No problem. Nights? Heck, eating dinner is optional. 

The company is growing, and you are willing to do almost anything to keep it alive. If you get paid all the better, but many weeks all the money goes right back into the company. Everything is a challenge, but that is what you wanted. Life is great, you are exhausted, but it is that good exhaustion – a job well done. Employees come and go, and you learn how to manage someone else. You seldom wonder why you started your business. You are so busy running the shop and doing everything yourself, that you have no time to wonder about things like, “Who am I? Is this really what I want to do?” 

Getting comfortable: six to 10 years
You have learned how to make money. You might have considered joining a trade association by now. The business is starting to mature. 

The hours are set; policies are not changed every week. You might be married, and the kids need a parent at home. It looks like a business; it smells like a business. You talk like a businessman or -woman. It is a business!

You are making money. You actually get paid every week. The overhead is high, but making the payments is manageable if you have a plan and work it. 

Things go well for another five years. Life is getting good, and your outlook is very positive. You live in the future a lot when it comes to, “Why do I do this?” 

You are almost into a routine. You are smarter, older and wiser, and you feel pretty good about all the hard work. It is finally paying off, and it looks to get even better. 

The trying teens: 11 to 15 years
This is a time when the business comes into its own. Money is no longer a problem. You have procedures and policies. These were made based on your past problems and poor decisions. You have learned how to delegate, although you really can’t let go completely. 

However, the business is not your only interest in life, as you realize that things outside the shop are really important. Problems with the business that steal your time are starting to bother you. Resentment is building. 

If you have done a reasonably good job the first 10 years, life can now start to offer more than a paycheck. As you approach the 15-year mark, a critical part of your life is in front of you: “What do I do with the rest of my life?” You realize that you are no longer young. Your family is important to you, and some tough decisions must be made. What do I do with my free time? Is golf all there is? 

You may get more involved with your family or church. You might buy another business and start over again, leaving someone else to run the shop. You might just resign yourself to this and say, “I guess this is all I will ever be.” 

That is a bad road to go down. You can get very depressed and feel very lost. These shop owners are unhappy, cynical people. There is very little joy in their life. They might drop out of the local trade association. 

It is this stage that is more critical that any other. Divorce, drugs, alcohol, gambling and other problems can set in. You are at risk. 

Full realization: 16 years and older
Some shop owners will never make it here, but others do. This can be the best time of your business life. You may call this your business’ mid-life crisis. This is when you get to do what you want, when you want, on your terms. This is when you won’t put up with the whiners and complainers any more. Life takes on a new meaning. 

What you do is no longer about just benefiting you. It is more about family, community and your industry. It is when all the parts of your life can come together, and they all fit. When ethics, discipline, your values and the world can all co-exist. 
Stage four also includes the exit plan. Is it time for family to take over? Ready to retire? Big life-altering decisions are made.

For me, it was starting my training company across the street from my shop. 

Second honeymoon
Many shop owners only get to stage one and go out of business. They were the competition you used to worry about or still do. Other owners get stuck in stage two and barely make a living. Stage three is the worst of all to get stuck in as grumpy old men live there. 

If you get to stage four – few ever do – your business life gets to start over again. Yes, that is stage one, the most exciting time of all. But now you might have some cash. 

So why do we need to know this? Stages of growth are easier to accept when you understand that they happen to everyone. It is not just you; every shop owner must pass through each stage of their professional life or get stuck there. Just knowing where you are on the road will help you make the correct turn up ahead.

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