Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success without Growing Big

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While most of the business world worships size and constant growth, Big Vision, Small Business celebrates the art-and power-of small. Based on interviews with more than seventy small-business owners and on her own experiences as a successful small-business entrepreneur, Jamie Walters shows how a business can stay small and remain vital, healthy, and rewarding. If you long to run a successful, socially conscious enterprise as one element of a fulfilling personal life, Big Vision, Small Business shows you how. Covering growth options and small-enterprise advantages, inspired visioning, communication, and right-relationship, mindset issues and expectation management, and wisdom and mastery practices, Big Vision, Small Business is a must-read for every entrepreneur and futurist. Walters defines for keys essential to creating a small business with a big vision: Creating alternatives to the dominant definition of "growth Learning the art of visioning big Creating "right relationships" with employees, customers, and others Overcoming the common stumbling blocks, such as money, risk, competition, and success.

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Chapter 1: Finding Quality in the Land of Quantity

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FINDING EVIDENCE of quantity worship isn’t difficult, even in the midst of so-called small-business advocates. Take, for example, Small Business Week, an event sponsored in May 2000 by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). After referencing some of the contributions made by small businesses to our economy, the organization’s Web site went on to list the selection criteria for Small Business Person of the Year, emphasizing growth in the number of employees and increase in sales or unit volume as indicators of success. The SBA also has defined as “small” those businesses with up to 500 employees, a size most owners of truly small businesses consider very comfortably midsized, or even large.2

In a smaller but no less insidious example, one of the business owners interviewed for this book was named employer of the year by a statewide professional association in recognition of his employee relations practices. In the press release announcing the honor, the association representative referred to the award-winning business as “a small but growing firm,” as if the small group that warranted such recognition in the first place wasn’t quite enough. Seemingly trivial, perhaps, but language matters because it reflects deeply held assumptions and perpetuates an inappropriately narrow view of small business. These examples are just two indications of our culture’s unhealthy and often thoughtless bias toward big.

 

Chapter 2: Appreciating the Power of Small Enterprise

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WE LIVE IN A CULTURE that engages in what E. F. Schumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful, referred to as the “idolatry of large size.” Despite this, many enterprise owners still opt to keep their organizations small in size and big in vision and craftsmanship. Others, however, succumb to the myth that adding locations, employees, and revenues is the only route to growth and success, even if such a course conflicts with other lifestyle goals or the founding vision of the enterprise. Many even pursue quantitative growth, though it ultimately results not just in the erosion of their vision but in the failure of their company as well. Why? And what choices exist to help make growth-related decisions more deliberate and thoughtful?

One problem is rooted, again, in our assumptions. We assume that, because politicians talk about “helping small business” and large corporations create advertisements extolling the virtues of small business, we have a culture in which people actually demonstrate appreciation for the challenges and contributions of individual small enterprises. We too easily mistake the talk about small business being the engine of the economy, or the buzz about how the smallest businesses consistently create more jobs than their colossal brethren, or that woman-owned companies alone employ more people than the Fortune 500, or the enormous richness of the small-business market, for actual appreciation of small business.

 

Chapter 3: Which is Better, Big or Small?

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FOR A MORE DELIBERATE consideration of what growth can and should mean for an individual business and its owner, you might begin with an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of small versus large organizations. This seems an obvious point, but it’s amazing how frequently business owners overlook this consideration in the face of external pressure to add people, revenues, production capacities, or locations. In truth, opting to have fewer employees or one location is the perfect choice for some small-business owners, while growing in size is a necessity for others. Big-vision small-business owners make sure they’re not just aware of but building upon the strengths associated with small-size enterprise, just as they know about and work around the disadvantages. Indeed, they view this very exercise as an opportunity for qualitative growth. So what makes them decide to revel in small size? And at what cost and benefit?

The advantages of small-scale organizations or groups are matters of quality and depth—of vision, relationships, communication, adaptability, evolution, creativity, and contribution. And quality of life. Qualitative excellence—that master-craftsman level of refinement—goes to the very heart of what’s more possible in a small group.

 

Chapter 4: Moving from Quantitative Growth to Qualitative Evolution

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BIG-VISION SMALL-BUSINESS owners seek a definition of growth perhaps more aligned with evolution than quantitative expansion, focusing more on questions such as “How?” and “Why?” (versus “How big?”). Requirements for ongoing qualitative growth and mastery include having a clear, idealistic vision; a bridge between vision and action; an emphasis on creating right relationships; and a strong “supporting cast” of wisdom and mastery practices that both inspire and sustain.

But how do we begin to challenge our limited perception about the ways an organization can grow, much less challenge society by embracing a definition of growth or entrepreneurship that is outside the celebrated norm? We can start with a few prevailing definitions, strip them of common associations with size, and adapt them to meet the needs of a big-vision small-business owner—an entrepreneur who opts for deep refinement in the tradition of the master craftsman.

For example, in his 1999 Leader to Leader article, “The Growth Imperative,” author and University of Michigan professor Noel Tichy emphasizes that leaders can find opportunities for growth in several areas: finding new ways to serve existing companies, finding new customers for existing products and services, or identifying new products or services for a new set of customers.14 Though Tichy is talking mainly about large corporations that might routinely create new divisions to accommodate such growth, these categories are relevant to the big-vision small-business owner, who can plot out an evolutionary pathway to introduce these new ways of thinking and working.

 

Chapter 5: Profiles in Growth

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DID YOU EVER WISH you could step for a brief time from your world into someone else’s small-business reality, just to gauge how others go about making crucial decisions, find out what they do when they make mistakes, or learn something you could use to refine your approach to your own business? Here’s your chance. In this section, you’ll meet four big-vision small-business owners—Stephen Marcus, Tony Canaletich, Shelby Putnam Tupper, and Nina Ummel. The profiles are snapshots into their experiences with and insights gained from growth that confronted or eluded them at some point on their journeys as business owners. Since each business owner’s story is unique, the profiles vary in length and composition.

And yet there are similarities, too, in that the challenges they faced deepened their experience and knowledge base, demanded clarification of their vision and reasons for being in business, and altered their perspectives about growth. By sharing their stories, they help all big-vision small-business aspirants view their own enterprises and journeys with greater clarity, patience, inspiration, and wisdom.

 

Chapter 6: Vision in the Smallest Enterprises

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AS A YOUNG MAN, mythologist Joseph Campbell reportedly wrote in his journal, “Business, as I have seen it so far, reduces living men to dull machines, that go on from day to day working at stupid tasks with not the slightest idea of what they’re working for.”1 A big-vision small business requires a clear, inspiring, high-reaching vision that guides and sustains the big-vision business owner on his or her journey. But what does vision mean to this entrepreneur when it is compared to the standard and somewhat staid vision or mission statements that are routine in most organizations? How formal does the inspired-visioning process, and correlated planning, have to be so that the visionary small enterprise doesn’t become “a dull machine”?

Visioning and planning can, at least to many small-business owners, seem the domain of large corporations, where legions of people are hired to do just that. In most corporations, vision statements tend to be simple descriptions of quantitative goals—with most being far from visionary. As for organizational planning, the traditional parameters often come from professors in university business schools who consult to large entrepreneurial ventures or multinational corporations. On the bookshelves of your local bookstore or library, many of the books on planning are geared to these larger companies and seem to carry an assumption that such big-company planning processes are appropriate for small enterprises as well. But most of these resources don’t speak to the unique needs of the business comprised of two to thirty people. For big-vision small-business owners, traditional visioning and business plan models can seem uncomfortably similar to wearing an ill-fitting shoe.

 

Chapter 7: Twelve Priorities of Big-Vision Small Businesseses

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BEFORE MOVING INTO a discussion of what vision might mean in a big-vision small business, it’s helpful to review some of the priorities that such owners have for their enterprises. The priorities speak to how the business owner wants others to experience his enterprise, how the organization affects the community or world at large, and what greater purpose the activities of the enterprise support. That the enterprise is small in size and more independent in ownership increases the likelihood that the priorities can be put into practice more deeply and sustainably in comparison to what’s possible—and necessary—in a large firm that’s more quantitative in focus.

Unlike many companies that seem to have a significant gap between espoused principles and actual decisions and effects, big-vision small-business owners may opt to limit quantitative growth, turn away a profitable account, or forego entry into a hot new market if it means casting aside their business’s core values or the larger mission to which the enterprise contributes. Interviewees for this book aspired to some if not all of the following guiding principles in their day-to-day decision making.

 

Chapter 8: The Guiding Vision

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IF WE HAVE A CLEAR IDEA but it stems solely from external success factors or advice, we may very well end up with a seemingly successful business that we aren’t passionate about or a business that never takes off for the same lack of passion. If our vision is murky or misplaced, then the results tend to be so as well. In a big-vision small enterprise, a misaligned or unclear vision is a drag on the motivation and inspiration that’s needed to propel a group past mediocrity and into the extraordinary. Creating a clear, inspiring vision—and revisiting it as often as necessary—provides a solid foundation from which to launch the enterprise’s activities, or to which we can return when confusion rules the day and we need that grounding in our original guiding vision.

As do many who endeavor to create a big-vision small enterprise, I know this only too well from my own experience as the founder of Ivy Sea, Inc., a boutique organizational consulting firm that specializes in helping clients create sustainable practices for inspired leadership, respectful communication, and more effective ways of working together.

 

Chapter 9: Vision Profile: The Cat Doctor

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KATH’REN BAY AND ALEXIS Higdon co-founded The Cat Doctor in Boise, Idaho, to provide veterinary care in a welcoming, comfortable environment for felines and their humans. But the road to their big-vision small-business dream was rocky, making the clarity and strength of their founding vision a crucially important beacon for their journey.

Higdon had worked in veterinary clinics from the age of seventeen, doing everything from cleaning kennels to operating the front desk. While in her thirties, she became a veterinary technician and at age 45 completed her doctorate in veterinary medicine. She and Bay envisioned creating the ultimate in health and hospitality for cats by incorporating several of the 12 big-vision priorities into the operation of the clinic they would launch.

“We wanted a place that looked like you were going to Grandma’s house, and in working only with cats you can have casual antique furniture and area rugs with hardwood floors,” says Bay. With very specific business and lifestyle priorities in mind, the two scoured demographic information on the city’s neighborhoods to find one area that suited their needs. Then, after a two-year search for the perfect location, Higdon and Bay bought a 50-year-old Boise farmhouse and established Idaho’s first cats-only old-fashioned veterinary hospital and hotel. Compared to the challenges that would follow in the coming year, finding the right city and location in which to manifest their vision would seem easy.

 

Chapter 10: To Plan or Not to Plan

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Chapter 11: Approaches to Visioning and Planning

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OVER THE YEARS, I’ve come to prefer specific types of visioning or planning processes that are dynamic and appropriate for smaller vision-driven organizations, whether they’re just starting up or needing transformation or an inspiration boost. As a result, I’ve refined a “vision-to-action” model that I’ve found helpful in yielding a creative, energizing visioning experience as well as a more practical bridge to planning and action.

Most other visioning and planning approaches I’ve seen too often segregate visioning from planning, with the only link being the appearance of a vision and mission statement at the beginning of a more detailed quantitative plan. Many also lack a mixture of appropriate visual, kinesthetic, and auditory exercises that help make the experience more creative and motivating. Such approaches may be applicable to certain situations or organizations, but they weren’t appropriate for ours, Ivy Sea, Inc., nor were they for many of the groups with whom we’ve worked to identify that core of vision and clarity from which all planning should spring.

 

Chapter 12: Right Relationship As a Pathway for Qualitative Growth

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A FRIEND AND FELLOW business owner frequently says, only half joking, that her business would be great if it were not for her employees and customers. Given that her business has been successful for a decade and she has both a unique work environment and distinguishing service ethic, not to mention a 100 percent referral and repeat rate, she clearly means no disrespect. What she does mean is that her primary challenges of business ownership arise when her desire to foster good relationships collides with the reality that she, her employees, and customers are human beings who don’t always behave perfectly. It’s a classic case of aiming for high ideals in an imperfect world of psyches, egos, and bottom lines.

For big-vision small-business owners, relationships are not just a key component of the plan to differentiate their business from competing firms but a centerpiece of the vision and a prime opportunity for qualitative growth. Right relationships—whether with staff members, clients, vendors, or the community—require conscious decision making, skillful communication, and more than a little commitment to service and personal development. Such a level of relationship goes beyond the norms or minimum standards for employee relations or customer service. In addition to increasing the likelihood of enjoyable projects and repeat business or referrals, right relationship can in itself be a practice of one’s personal mission in the world of work that leads to organizational and personal mastery, as well as spiritual growth.

 

Chapter 13: Golden Rules for Right Relationships

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MANY PEOPLE, and many time-honored religions and life philosophies, have their own unique prescriptions for creating and sustaining right relationships. One factor that can distinguish big-vision small enterprises from other organizations is a conscious commitment to setting and reaching a higher standard in relationship. What are the practices that help these visionary small enterprises to far exceed the norms? There are a few golden rules that, if honored, can help to provide a foundation for refining the quality of our interpersonal skillfulness and our relationships with others. The purpose? To better leverage this opportunity for qualitative growth and develop an inherent strength of smaller enterprise. Without observing these practices, it’s not possible to have a big-vision small business. We’ll explore the ways that a visionary small enterprise might consider and integrate these concepts later in the section.

Paying others extraordinary respect and acting from a place of thoughtfulness requires that we’re not caught up in perpetual stress, frustration, anger, self-absorption, or ignorance. “Know thyself” isn’t an abstraction but rather truly wise advice. Of course, if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it, and we’d have a great deal fewer ego collisions in the world. Many people aren’t aware of their own personality masks, or “shadow side,” so other people live at the mercy of their moods. The good news? Life is, or can be, a journey toward increased skillfulness, and the payoff can be gradual rather than delayed. Better yet, since this moment, right now, is all that really exists—the past being behind us and the future not yet real—it’s never too late and one is never “too old” to become mindful of the moment or to enrich the quality of our days and our relationships.

 

Chapter 14: Creating Right Relationships with Employees

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ONE FRUSTRATION commonly voiced by small-business owners throughout the country is how to find the right people for their small, entrepreneurial, multiple hat-wearing companies. The more specific the vision and its delivery, the less likely it is that just anyone will fit within the organizational culture, particularly in firms that are more a matter of personality type and specialized knowledge than straightforward routine. And so it is with recruitment for a big-vision small business that sets a high bar for right relationship and qualitative growth. How might we incorporate right-relationship principles at the very beginning of our relationships with employees so that we increase the likelihood of making matches with kindred spirits?

While we all know, unfortunately, that a great interview does not necessarily make for a great fit, being as clear as possible before and during the interview can help a business owner bypass a few obvious mismatches. The keys to more effective recruitment include the level of clarity you have about your needs and the type of individual that might be best suited to them, what questions you ask, what information you share, how well you listen, and of course, how well you discern and apply the lessons of the past.

 

Chapter 15: Maintaining Right Relationships with Employees

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FOR THOSE WHO DOUBT the practicality of nurturing right relationships in the workplace, there are many studies connecting such efforts with bottom-line performance. A pleasant, productive workplace is key to employee satisfaction, and employee attitudes are critical to factors such as sales, profitability, customer loyalty, and employee turnover. For example, a Gallup survey of more than 100,000 employees across 12 industries showed the link between communication-related issues—employees knowing their roles, feeling important to the vision and mission of the organization, having a good relationship with their supervisor, being recognized for their work—and organizational success.3

Another study by the same group showed that employees are four times more likely to leave the organization if they have a bad manager; and interpersonal and communication issues have been directly linked with management effectiveness and employee satisfaction.4 The bottom line: pay attention to those operational areas formerly referred to as “soft issues,” or you’ll be in for some hard, expensive lessons. The good news? Because of their compact size, inspiring vision, and high ideals for making a positive impact on the world in some way, big-vision small enterprises have the potential to excel in these areas. How can you maintain right relationships with the people who help you bring your vision to life? By raising the bar for performance in organizational communication and culture, right from the beginning.

 

Chapter 16: Creating Right Relationships with Customers

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MAINTAINING STRONG, integrity-based relationships with clients is no different than maintaining right relationships with anyone else. There are large corporations, such as Nordstrom, and Hewlett-Packard with their “HP Way,” that subscribe to high ideals for employee relations and customer service. Such companies set the benchmark for other larger organizations, particularly when contrasted with less impressive corporate performance norms. In a big-vision small business, customer relationship can be cultivated to a higher degree of personalization and mastery than in companies whose intense focus on fast growth and high profit margins renders relationship a lesser priority.

A big-vision small-business owner sees relationship cultivation from the perspective of a master craftsman, so that the possibilities take her and her group to a level well beyond simple jargon masking the mediocre. A customer relationship can be strengthened by communicating skillfully and respectfully; checking in on progress, performance, and expectations regularly; delivering quality products and services that match the client’s expectations; following through on promises or being up-front about why you can’t; providing excellent response when things go wrong; and being thoughtful about ways to increase the value of your services to the client without unduly increasing costs or ignoring your own bottom line.

 

Chapter 17: Maintaining Right Relationships with Customers

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YOU HAVE SURELY had experiences with a company for which the clear priority was getting, not keeping, your business. You know the usual clues revealing a lack of respect for the customer—long wait times, overworked customer-service representatives, lack of empowerment to solve problems, late or unavailable merchandise, messes left behind by workers, inaccessible account representatives.

Worse, there is that emerging trend Civilization magazine called “prosuming,” where you “let your customers work for you,” doing the work formerly done by paid employees. The article pointed to software, banking, and express-delivery industries, where customers are doing more online and by telephone (checking their accounts, paying bills, placing orders, and the like), as spearheading this new trend.8 Such approaches are suited to very large enterprises that rely on technology and efficiency processes to sustain massive size and hyperaggressive growth rates.

Perhaps needless to say, for big-vision small-business owners, the prosumer model of customer relations seems both unethical and undesirable. So how can you apply the big-vision standard for right relationship in a way that leverages the potential advantages of small enterprise and benefits everyone involved?

 

Chapter 18: Wisdom and Mastery in Business

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WHAT DO WISDOM, faith, and mastery have to do with small business? If you’ve gleaned anything from the preceding chapters, you know at least one thing: taking the qualitative growth, big-vision small-business path can be very challenging and thus requires inspiration, faith, mastery, and wisdom—sometimes in very large doses.

While life as an employee includes the more trying moments that can broaden perspective, wisdom, and skillfulness, someone else ultimately holds the responsibility for ensuring that the business remains viable (and for seeing that the garbage cans get emptied). A small-business owner, in contrast, has many of the same personal and professional responsibilities as his employees yet also walks the bottom line as the enterprise’s primary investor, decision maker, risk taker, and accountability holder. Add the higher standards and ideals of creating and sustaining a business aligned with big-vision priorities and practices, and the crowd begins to thin.

This is why a big-vision small enterprise can be a powerful vehicle for personal, professional, and spiritual development. Most wisdom and mastery schools include right relationship, right view or vision, compassionate communication, courage, service to others, and other big-vision principles among their primary tenets. To emphasize them as points of excellence and distinction in your business is to make them high priorities for refinement and development. This section begins an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between wisdom, mastery, and big-vision small business and how that relationship offers fertile ground for qualitative growth.

 

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