One of the most important questions in business

When I was starting my journey as an entrepreneur, I was full of dreams, hopes, aspirations. I thought I knew what I wanted. My only hope was to succeed. It never occurred to me that I needed to think more clearly about what success really meant to me.

After a handful of years, I was leading a company with sixteen full-time employees. At the time, I believed bigger was better. I was so focused on growing revenue and headcount that I could stop to consider any other path.

Growth sounds great until you want to quit your own company.

I started hating the company that I helped build. I wanted to quit the job I created for myself. I looked successful, but I knew that something was wrong. I couldn’t figure out what was causing the problem at that time. But I’ve had some years to reflect, and time is a great teacher if you listen.

During my pursuit of growth, I made a lot of mistakes. But, the chief among them was that I wanted growth for growth’s sake, and failed to grow the company in the right way. In fact, I was hasty and impatient. I hired too quickly and chose my partners poorly.

Now that I can see clearly, I wish someone would have asked me this simple question then, that could’ve saved me a lot of struggle:

What do you want out of your business?

It’s a simple question, and it forces you dig to the foundation for your business. Asking that question focuses you on your goal and purpose for the business. Not everyone wants to become a Mark Zuckerberg. Many want to be a freelancer and a family person. Both can be great. But, the point is that you should be thinking about what you want from and for your business.

But the fact is that many of us follow different voices, those that may not be true to who we are or what we want. We hear what the media tells us about what it means to be successful using words like wildly rich, fame, IPO, etc. And we forget why we started our company in first place.

We also get so wrapped up in operating the business and following the path that we think makes sense. We get swept away by aims and goals that we never really wanted or needed. Instead of owning the business, the business owns us.

We need to break free from all of those external ideas and expectations that we think others may have for us or the voices and names we hear about in the media–Bezos, Musk, etc. And we need to point our thoughts inward. I’m not saying that growth is bad. It’s not, obviously. We just need to make sure it’s what we want and not what we think others expect from us.

These past few months I’ve been meeting a number of small business owners who are starting out. And I ask them about their journey. Inevitably, they talk about how they need to grow, or that they need more work, or that they want more revenue. And, I wonder if they are at same place I was when my business just started growing—wanting growth for its own sake.

I get it. Small business is survival of the fittest in the twenty-first-century. We may be nicely dressed people carrying around smartphones and laptops instead of spears and walking around in loincloths. But really we’re all just starving cavemen looking for the next woolly mammoth to kill. We look sophisticated, but we are all just trying to survive. But, instead of getting the mammoth that can feed us for months, we usually get that scrawny rabbit that lasts a night. We’re tired of being hungry.

Often that hunger is blinding, and we can’t see that not all growth is good. I suspect that many of those burgeoning entrepreneurs I spoke with don’t realize that there is a bad kind of growth. And, they equate growth to being the solution for what they truly want, like a healthier business or a profitable one, or more free time. But, a company doesn’t need to grow quickly or greatly in order to accomplish those goals.

Asking yourself what you want out of your business gets to the heart of why you became an entrepreneur in the first place. It forces you to pause and take time to think.

What that time can produce is a vision for your business and life. If you want to grow a large enterprise business, it may require some sacrifices to family and work/life balance (hunting the mammoth can kill you; they’re huge, you know). Or maybe you just want to stay a freelancer. Regardless of what our aim is, we should have a target. And we should know if it is what we truly want to hit.  

I mean, maybe you hate the taste of mammoth. It’s just too woolly. But you love rabbits. You just wish you could get more rabbits. If that was your aim and not what seemed popular, then you could focus on creating a contraption to catch more rabbits in one day. You could be one successful caveperson.

If someone would have forced me to answer the question of what I wanted, I hope it would have slowed me down and made me think carefully. Maybe it would have forced me to sit on my own off on some river bank to watch the water flow by and dragonflies zipping over the reeds, while I asked myself that question over and over again. It might have forced me to face the truth.

It may have caused me to see that much of my ambition was about my ego. I didn’t just want to grow my company, I wanted to make myself bigger. I wanted to feel more important. I wanted to tower over other people. And as the company grew, I was becoming a bigger fool.

And, maybe, if I would have paused, I hope I would have conjured up the memory of my first client, remembering the great joy that I got from helping him create a better website for his business. I may have remembered the smile he had when I presented the finished product to him. It may have made me recall that I loved helping people and their businesses.

Today, we have a much smaller team. And, it’s exactly where I want this business to be, for now. We are profitable and growing slowly again.

Where I am now doesn’t mean that I can’t change tomorrow. Maybe there’s an opportunity that we need to seize, but requires more people. Well, we could scale up and brandish our spears and go for it.

But, it will be because it’s what we wanted for our business and not because it’s what looked good or made us feel better about ourselves.

It will be for a good kind of growth.

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