Leadership & Productivity

Is your SME an awkward teenager?

8 min read

13 August 2019

Businesses are like humans. They grow (and stall) all the time. Is yours at that tricky teenage stage?

Businesses typically go through a whole range of ages and stages on their path to success. One of the most interesting of those is the one that could be referred to as the “awkward teenager” phase.

You’re no longer a start-up bootstrapping every last decision, but not yet at a level where you could feasibly claim to be one of the bigger brands in your space.

When you reach this stage depends upon what sector you are in, but typically your business would have a turnover of between £1m and £49m.

How to identify an ‘SME teenager’

More important than your revenue is whether you can identify with any of the traits common to teenagers and many mid-sized businesses: They suffer unpredictable growth spurts and occasional breakouts; they’re occasionally noncommunicative, sometimes think no one understands them, and have started to “sleep in”.

Here we look at each trait and how to deal with it, so it works for you not against you.

1. Unpredictable growth spurts

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Can you handle the tricky ‘teenage stage’ in your SME’s growth cycle?

We’d all love to surf the gentle wave of a predictable growth curve, but the reality is we don’t always have that luxury.

That said, “teenager” businesses are ideally positioned to capitalise on this. They have more resource and structure than smaller start-ups but are still agile enough to respond to dramatic shifts effectively, unlike their larger corporate siblings.

Make it work for you

Don’t wait for the wave. Create simple, easy to execute scale-up plans ahead of time to quickly respond to and make use of demand spikes.

Then try and anticipate when the next one will come, based on analysis of past data. You can also use this data to pinpoint when on the uptick you ran out of marketing or delivery resources and had to back off. This information forms a reporting marker that triggers your scale-up plan in enough time to avoid having to back off.

2. Breakouts

A teenager brand has outgrown the crazy “oh wow, everything is leaking and there’s not enough duct tape in the world” reality of a start-up. But they’re not so far out of the woods that the wheels don’t come off in some areas, some of the time.

Losing key people, having a competitor steal a march, legal challenges from larger rivals, there are lots of things that can upset your equilibrium.

We like to call these breakouts, because much like teenage spots, they can make your mid-sized brand look a little less perfect for a while but, effectively treated, they’re unlikely to cause any long-term damage.

Make it work for you

Create a method of triaging your breakouts. Something simple so you can quickly assess the potential damage. You might want to look at:

• Scale: How big is the actual problem in its subject/nature?

• Scope: How far does the effect of the problem continue? A team, the whole business, your whole customer base?

• Duration: How long is it likely to be an issue for if we respond appropriately?

3. Communication

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Have you reviewed your company’s communication levels recently?

Often, we see mid-sized brands that haven’t shaken off their start-up mentality and it hampers their growth. They’re still in that bootstrap mindset where cheapest is best; marketing is conducted as a reactive and often improperly measured activity.

It’s worth noting that this is rarely the fault of the marketer, they are usually fighting for autonomy against an owner or founding group.

Make it work for you

Check that your marketing budget is appropriate for your size and market situation. Then check that you have a marketer of sufficient skill and seniority to be entrusted with this budget.

Finally, get out of their way and reduce your input to holding them accountable for helping the brand to prosper and grow market share.

4. Understanding

We’ve all heard that immortal line from teenagers “you just don’t understand!” – mid-sized brands can feel a bit like that too.

They’re not tiny, excited nippers bouncing atop brightly coloured beanbags scattered around their tiny serviced office, nor are they yet big enough not to feel a little intimidated going toe-to-toe with the large corporate “grown-ups”.

It’s an awkward phase and one best managed by spending time with people who really where you are.

Make it work for you

Find partners and customers who really understand the stage you’re at right now. Businesses who work with businesses like yours are better placed to support you through the inevitable growing pains as you journey towards the big leagues.

And you’re more likely to retain customers whose expectations match what you’re currently able to offer, rather than chasing the dream business you’re just not ready for, only to crash and burn on the delivery.

5. Sleeping in

We often say how mid-sized brands should use their relative agility to pivot around their bigger rivals. And it’s true that they both can and should. But they need to guard against the inroads that scaling up tends to make in this dynamism.

The bigger your brand gets and the more like a big company you become, you’ll necessarily add more layers of people, processes and systems to help you run effectively as you scale.

The danger is that, when not properly implemented and managed, these things can slow you down and lead to your business “sleeping in” whilst your smaller start-up rivals are already up and cracking.

Make it work for you

Most businesses put a huge amount of time and effort into evaluating and planning a change before they implement it.

What far fewer do is evaluate whether the expected benefits of the change are fully realised and even fewer than that actually go on to reverse changes that don’t live up to expectations. Those who do all 3 stay far nimbler for far longer than their similarly sized rivals.