How to compete with the big fish

Just because you’re the size of a minnow, it doesn’t mean that you have to have such fatalistic views. With a clear and honest understanding of the marketplace, you can still find a niche for yourself and thrive as a result. You do not have to play the same game as everyone else (get bigger, borrow more money, buy out the competition). You can choose how you play the game.

Consultants, accountants, bankers and business schools all tell us that thriving companies grow their profits and revenues year-on-year (and if you aren’t doing it then you feel like you must be failing).

But bigger isn’t necessarily better.

You could reject the pressures of endless growth and instead focus on being the best at what you do, creating a great workplace, legendary customer service, and a sense of community (both locally and in the workplace).

Here are six attributes of small giants:

1) The founders/leaders recognise the full range of choices they have about the type of company they could create. They haven’t accepted the standard menu as given.

2) They have allowed themselves to question the usual definitions of success in business and to imagine possibilities other than the ones all of us are familiar with.

3) The leaders have overcome the enormous pressures on successful companies to take the paths they had not chosen and did not necessarily want to follow.

4) Each company has an extraordinarily intimate relationship with the local community, with customers and suppliers, and in the workplace.

5) Because they are privately owned, they have the freedom to develop their own management systems and practices.

6) The leaders had unbridled, limitless passion for their business and their service/product.

We currently have a number of clients who endlessly beat themselves up because they are not achieving year-on-year exponential growth…

* Maybe the growth lifestyle doesn’t suit them?

* Maybe their business hadn’t been designed to grow?

* Maybe you don’t want to sacrifice all you have created to create a Frankenstein’s monster?

    * Maybe there’s more to life than selling the business for a huge profit?

    Take, for example, a small, moderately successful care home group in the Midlands. The business had grown organically but found the competition from nationwide groups harder and harder to beat. To win new residents, it was simply cutting prices. It was a road to nowhere. The owner-director had the right caring and entrepreneurial instincts, and his team were good at running the homes day-to-day, but had no real direction, strategy or plan for growth – nor experience of doing it.

    The big decision was whether to “milk the cow” or grow the herd: the consensus was that growth was the only realistic strategy – but not by playing the same game as the rest. The key recommendation was to position the business as a caring, “family” business in contrast to the efficiency-and-facilities positioning of the “big guys”, and from this three core campaigns were born:

    * Home From Home Care: Focusing on residents feeling at home, and being treated like family – just what you’d want for your mum. A home, not a hotel.

    * Fair Prices: A from-the-heart campaign by the owner-director about how people deserve a fair price for care, and not to be ripped off by the financially-driven market leaders with dividends to pay their shareholders. Lots of media traction.

    * Care Home In The Community: As a means of recruiting prospective residents, and ensuring current residents stay in touch, a range of initiatives were developed. These included a minibus for use by the local community as well as residents, and a Silver Stars awards scheme with local media rewarding contributions to, and achievements by, older people.

      And the results? The care home is attracting new visitors which means prices can float up a little. Net profits have increased from ten per cent to close to 20 per cent in 18 months. The “Home From Home Care” experience is being reproduced in new homes, and an accelerated programme of new home openings has started. The group has a clear strategy, identity and profit performance, so is becoming an attractive acquisition target. As a result, the owner will be able to choose the next steps on his own terms.

      This is a simple example of a smaller/independent business using its size and agility to compete with the big boys and come out on top. Remember: you, too, can design your business to give you what you want.

      Robert Craven spent five years running training and consultancy programmes for entrepreneurial businesses at Warwick Business School. He is a keynote speaker and the author of business bestsellers Kick-Start Your Business (foreword by Sir Richard Branson) and Bright Marketing. He now runs The Directors’ Centre and is described by the Financial Times as “the entrepreneurship guru”. For further information, contact Robert Craven on 01225 851044, or visit

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