When I started my business in late 1999, I spent time interviewing self-employed contacts for advice.
One mentor told me she limited herself to working with three clients at a time.
That piece of advice has been invaluable to me.
A three-client roster does not sound like much. But when you are doing in-depth research, strategy, and writing for all of them, three clients fill your docket unless you hire help.
And one thing I knew for sure – I was not starting my business to spend my time managing people. Been there, done that, and done with that.
My aspirations were to get fulfilling work I could do myself, not to build an agency.
Yes, this would limit my business. But I was clear on the lifestyle I sought.
Yet some colleagues and at least one family member questioned why I would curtail the size of my brand’s opportunity from the outset. They were sure I would change my mind when the chance to grow arose.
Cue Diana Ross.
Do You Know Where You’re Going To?
Entrepreneurs who have identified an unmet need in the market channel their excitement by jumping into the business and riding the momentum.
But to guide the momentum in the right direction, you need to know what your goals are. What will success look like for you?
It’s easy to assume success will be the quick and continuing growth of the brand you are building. Our “Show me the money!” society prizes size and speed over almost everything else.
But size and speed don’t fuel the brand nor determine its success – its purpose does.
When the initial momentum slows – as it ultimately does – business owners need a purpose to grow the brand long-term, a vision of where the brand is going.
Sometimes it takes years in the industry for business leaders to arrive at the overarching purpose of their brand.
Other times they have a purpose at the outset but lose sight of it when engulfed by their initial momentum.
“Goins, Writer” Catches Fire
Jeff Goins had held several communications roles for non-profits when he began to indulge his aspirations as a writer by starting a blog in 2013 called “Goins, Writer.”
His blog took off. He accumulated an email list of 10,000 addresses. By creating and selling short e-books that interested his audience, he bootstrapped his business from $200 in revenue to six figures in less than a year.
Marketing himself as an author, blogger, and speaker, Jeff found himself two years later at the helm of a seven-figure business with 15 employees.
Though his blog began as an outlet for his writing, once the business was booming Jeff felt compelled to keep it going.
Along with this meteoric success came a ton of stress. Jeff hated the stress and sought the advice of a business coach.
Jeff’s coach told him that to continue scaling the business he would have to act more like a CEO. He’d need to work crazy hard for two years but then he could sell the business and focus on his writing.
The coach helped him layout plans to achieve this growth which included another $600,000 in expenses, adding staff, and taking on more work.
Two years seemed a doable commitment.
Fueling the Fire Killed the Desire
For six months Jeff followed the plan. But he became miserable. He slept less, ate more, and found his love for his work greatly diminished.
Moreover, the thought of another 18 months of long work hours squeezing out time with his children, who were four years old and six months, felt like a staggering cost to him.
Feeling distraught, he sought the counsel of entrepreneurial friends and mentors, including Seth Godin.
Godin peppered Jeff with questions about his business and his reason for being in business.
When Jeff said he started his business because he wanted freedom, Seth replied, “Don’t build a business because you want freedom. Build a business because you want to run a business.”
Seth then laid out two possible paths:
- Assume the CEO role and continue to scale the business, building it to eight or nine figures and then selling it.
- Keep the business the same size and shift the focus to profitability instead of revenue growth. Aim to save half of each year’s profits to allow him more free time to focus on writing.
Right-Sizing the Business to Fit Your Life
The concept of right-sizing a business was new to Jeff but he liked that option better.
Though it was painful, he let go of key team members and canceled contracts with talented freelancers. He cut unnecessary expenses.
Most importantly, Jeff changed his vision of what success would mean for him and how he measured it.
Realizing that interacting directly with customers and getting to know them was what he enjoyed most, Jeff decided to shift from serving 17,500 readers via online products to focusing on 100 customers each year with more in-depth engagements.
Greater happiness, increased time to write, and more freedom indicated he had made the right decision.
By September 1, 2017 Jeff reported that his top-line revenue had not grown much but profits had tripled. One month his company hit a 70 percent profit margin.
With a lean team of three employees, Jeff now enjoys his work and feels like he has the life he wants to live.
His advice to entrepreneurs stressed out over scaling their businesses:
“If you feel like you’re losing, change the game you’re playing. Hanging out with my entrepreneur friends always made me feel small and insignificant until I realized we were really playing different games.”
“Sometimes, you don’t need to grow to get what you really want…. For me, that meant having a business but not feeling the pressure to scale it. It meant being content with where I am and focusing on what I want, which is to be a great writer and spend time with my family.”
Jeff’s brand is classified as a lifestyle business.
Lifestyle Businesses Are Not Brands in Adolescence
Though their income and size plateau, lifestyle businesses are not brands in adolescence.
A lifestyle business is structured to fit the owner’s lifestyle. A lifestyle-business brand is capped deliberately at a size that achieves the owner’s goals.
The notion of a lifestyle business is little known and counterintuitive to many business owners in capitalist countries, especially the United States.
In a society fascinated by Shark Tank and obsessed with “unicorns,” ventures that reach a valuation of $1 billion, the prevailing wisdom is if your brand isn’t growing, it’s shrinking or dying.
But many businesses flying under the radar are lifestyle businesses that allow their owners to pay their bills, put food on the table, have shelter, and have a high quality of life. Quality of life is the focus, not quantity of money.
Lifestyle Businesses Enable Brand Control
Owners also choose the lifestyle business model to retain control of the business.
Stacy DeBroff founded her consulting firm Mom Central in 2007. By 2015, her firm had made the Inc. 5000 list five years in a row and was taking in $8 million in annual revenue.
Now called Influence Central, the brand hit a turning point. Stacy realized that to grow further would require outside capital. She had no interest in diluting her ownership or altering her vision to accommodate investors wanting input.
Instead she kept her team lean and focused, taking only projects that were a good fit. Influence Central remains self-funding. (You can read more about Stacy’s deft brand management in my new book this winter.)
Is Your Brand a Lifestyle Business?
“If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.” ― Anna Quindlen
Depending on your values and how you want to spend your time, there are several reasons you might want to designate your brand as a lifestyle business:
You want to build your business around your life but not have it be your life. You have a business that affords you a good living and leaves time for pursuits you enjoy, like Jeff Goins. Your business isn’t your aspiration.
You don’t want to dilute your equity. You have self-funded as far as you can and have created an enduring brand like Stacy Debroff’s Influence Central. Taking outside capital does not interest you. You have enough business to sustain your brand and do not want the pressure that comes from investors’ influence and expectations.
You want to take your time building your business. You are in no hurry and have the time to build relationships. This works well if your family has more than one income, if you have saved money in advance, or if you have come into some money from a buyout.
You want to spend your work time working, not managing. This could mean you are a solo entrepreneur (like me!) or that you have a lean team that you deliberately keep small.
You don’t have dreams of conquering your industry but have a niche you do well and want to keep at. Like Jeff serving 100 customers in-depth instead of 17,500 remotely.
Crafting your definition of success and knowing what you want for your business and your life makes it all easier and more enjoyable.
Cue The Clash.
Should I Stay or Should I Grow?
My first moment of truth came about three years into my business when my work load threatened to overwhelm what I could accomplish alone.
I hired an intern for a short stint and got through it.
I’ve stuck with my solo approach, continuing to do all the research, analysis, insights development, consulting, and writing myself. I’ve collaborated with other consultants from time to time, but I have not hired staff.
You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a docket of three clients at a time.
The focus has brought long-term engagements with several clients – years-long in some cases.
I’ve enjoyed the relationships my focus has allowed me to build. Many clients have become friends.
I’ve learned so much.
Over 20 years my portfolio has grown to include dozens of clients.
And because I knew what my goals were and structured the business accordingly, I’ve been successful.
How about you? Is your business aligned with your goals?
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