Let me start by acknowledging that each small business is a unicorn. What it takes to grow your business may be very different than the strategies that have worked for me.
For example, if you own a traditional brick-and-mortar style business, like a retail store or a restaurant, your best options for scaling up may also be traditional. To grow your business, you may need significant funding and a business strategy that involves opening more locations, hiring more staff, etc.
That said, for many entrepreneurs, there are creative ways grow your business that don’t require taking on more debt or more employees.
The first step is defining “success”
As a digital strategist, I start each new client relationship by having a conversation in which I ask two big questions:
What does “success” look like to you? Can you put a dollar sum on it?
Here’s what I have learned from those conversations:
- Most people define success in terms that go far beyond money, and
- Virtually no one can readily identify exactly how much money is enough money.
If you don’t know your destination, it doesn’t matter how fast you drive. You won’t get there.
There are always opportunities to grow your business. The key is to pick strategies and tactics that align with WHAT you want to do and HOW you want to do it.
For example: I want to make more money. Who doesn’t? But for me, TIME also has significant value.
I like to travel at least a few times each year. I prioritize spending time with my partner, my children, and my friends. And I aim for a 5-day work week.
Because I equate success with having a degree of “time freedom”, I am attracted to growth strategies that don’t require me to work longer hours.
Spoiler alert: None of these ways to grow your business require you to work crazy hours. After all, I’m the author! So these strategies all match with my definition of success.
On that note…
If you’re interested in my musings on how to enjoy life NOW instead of waiting to have fun later – when you become a millionaire – check out: Work-Life Balance: 5 Ways to Let Go of the Myth and Start Enjoying Life
Now let’s jump into the practical ways to grow your business (without spending more money)!
#1. Charge more money
Let me tell you a story…
The year is 2014. At this point, my company’s sole business activity is developing content for e-learning programs, and I am drowning in work. In fact, I am exhausted and cranky and on the brink of burning out from so much work.
But I persevere. I start work earlier, end later, and work both evenings and weekends. It’s crazy! Yet when I get to my corporate year end, the numbers are oddly disappointing.
Sure, I made a little more than I did in 2013. But guess what? I also spent more because I was too busy to properly pay attention to my expenditures. And my receivables are in bad shape, with lots of clients not paying on time.
My accountant recommends taking on a full-time office manager. My husband thinks I should hire some content writers and maybe a techie of some sort. And the idea of having to find all of these people and train them – and find a bigger office space to put them all in – is OVER-WHELMING!
One evening, as I am complaining to a friend, she asks me the simplest question. She says, “What do you charge?”
I tell her.
And, with the clear vision that comes from not being brain-dead from 50+ hour work weeks, she asks, “Can you charge more?”
In that moment, I realized that I had not raised my rates in years. YEARS!!
It’s no wonder I had so much business. I was the deal of the decade.
So I raised my rates 20% that month and no one blinked. In fact, I didn’t lose a single client.
Review your rates regularly!
Over the next 24 months, I continually tweaked my fees. Existing clients remained at a preferred rate but I quoted much higher for new work.
Revenues went up and my workload actually went down!
Yes… I said DOWN!
Charging more didn’t price my company out of the market. But it did make me a bit too pricey for some smaller projects.
So instead of juggling five or six projects at a time, and having new projects coming in and out the door every month, my clientele evolved into slightly larger organizations that had larger projects (and larger budgets).
As I say, each business is a unicorn. You have to grow your business using methods that match your realities. And this may not feel like the right time for rate increases.
But if you’re well-established and you aren’t lacking for clients, I highly recommend applying the K.I.S.S. principle. Keep It Simple Stupid – and make more money by charging more money!
Remember how my accountant and my husband recommended hiring more people?
If I had taken that advice in 2014, it would have increased both my expenses and my stress load. And even with a rate increase, I’m not sure there would have been a net gain for my company.
In hindsight, I’m VERY happy that I didn’t jump to create a workforce that I might have struggled to maintain.
At some point, to grow your business you need to expand your capacity. You can’t scale up and take on more work if you have no means of completing that work on time.
For me, out-sourcing has been the ideal solution.
I know that financial management is not one of my strengths. But instead of hiring an office manager back in 2014, I out-sourced. I found a fantastic local entrepreneur whose company specializes in book-keeping and financial organization.
Since then, I never worry about expenses or receivables. My stress is lower and I have more time in the week to do the things clients pay me to do!
Out-sourcing lets you grow your business without taking on the responsibilities associated with a larger workforce.
I also use out-sourcing to expand my service offerings to clients. For example, my digital strategy recommendations often include website upgrades and the use of paid online marketing tactics.
Website design falls outside the scope of my capabilities, as does PPC advertising. So I out-source these add-on services.
I never worry about the quality because these out-sourced providers are fellow entrepreneurs. Like me, they are highly skilled in their fields and eager to grow their businesses.
For the companies I choose as suppliers, I become a valued client. And the more we work together, the more seamless our work processes become.
For my company, being able to offer add-on services directly is a competitive advantage and helps me create deeper, long-term relationships with clients.
Remember the old adage “a rising tide raises all boats”? That’s the general idea behind collaboration.
Collaborating is similar to out-sourcing in the sense that it lets you grow your business by leveraging the skillsets and expertise of other companies.
But when you out-source, you take on the role of the client and the other company becomes a service provider. This is not the case when you collaborate.
Collaborative relationships commonly involve two or more companies that are not really competitors, but may swim in the same lane.
For example, I am part of a collaborative group of female entrepreneurs in my region. We are all successful business owners and some of us work in IT and marketing. But I am the only digital strategist.
Collaborative relationships can help grow your business in many ways. Using my group as an example, here are some of the things we do:
- Promote each other via social media. This lets us leverage the combined brand presence of the group to each member’s advantage.
- Provide referrals. Word-of-mouth is the absolute BEST way to grow your business. So being referred by someone who is already in a position of trust is ideal!
- Regularly share insights and experiences, and exchange information about opportunities. (My group meets once a month)
On the surface, the things I am describing may seem like the natural consequences of good networking. But collaboration is much more than informally supporting other business owners.
Collaboration is intentional and strategic. Collaborative partners are consciously helping each other in defined ways. And there are clear, equal opportunities being created for all parties involved.
Collaborating (with effective partners) is a great way to grow your business – and develop a sense of community!
4. Seek out longer-term contracts
Project-work can be very lucrative, but you must be constantly prospecting. And while your company is busy fulfilling project mandates, the queue of incoming work may be slowly emptying.
When I relied solely on projects, I was constantly stressed. No matter how much revenue my company generated in one quarter, I was never sure we could maintain that revenue level into the next quarter.
This is the risk inherent in many service-based businesses. To grow your business, you may need to re-think your service model.
The big question to ponder is:
How can you shift at least a portion of your revenue from project-based to contract-based?
Contract-based work is not without risk. I have seen small companies become overly dependent on one or two large contracts and go bankrupt when they lose one.
But contract-based work also provides month-to-month revenue stability. So one of the smartest ways to grow your business is to create and nurture ongoing revenue streams.
To grow your business this way requires some some deep thinking…
- Name your company’s strongest skillsets and capabilities (What are you most known for?)
- Identify the biggest problems you solve for your clients
- Describe the most common gaps/challenges you notice when working on projects (When the project is complete – what problems are left unresolved for your client?)
Basically, this is out-sourcing turned inside out. You identify an area of expertise that other companies may want to out-source!
FYI: If you struggle to quickly name one thing your company does exceptionally well, you may want to peek at: How To Find Your Business Niche And Beat Your Competition.
Project-based services are usually somewhat more lucrative in the short-term but contract-based work provides much appreciated stability and more manageable time lines.
My company settled on a 60-40 split. Today, about 60% of our work is project-based and about 40% involves long-term contracts with select clients.
We do the same number of projects as we did before, so adding contract-based services allowed for 40% growth! How cool is that?!?
Conclusion: You can grow your business without breaking the bank
These strategies worked for me and I hope they work for you too. But if they aren’t the right fit for your brand, I hope they at least light a spark.
The important thing is to keep looking for every opportunity to grow your business.
Overnight success is a myth. Successful businesses most often grow through a combination of hard work and innovative thinking.