Leadership & Productivity
Small is beautiful – let’s redefine how we measure entrepreneurial success
5 min read
02 April 2019
We’re told as entrepreneurs that bigger is best, that we should concentrate on growth at all costs and that a key measure of success is turnover and the number of staff that we employ. But that approach can lead to misery, burn out and poor mental health. Here's my own story about growth, expectations, ego and the lessons I learned as a CEO of a growing business.
The value of an enterprise isn’t just about finance, it’s about the quality of work, the culture we create and whether we can make our life work through it and around it. If we get those things right, then often profitability follows anyway.
I recently read EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful written in the 1970s. “Small is beautiful” was a radical challenge to the 20th century’s obsession with what Schumacher described as “gigantism”.
Through movements like B-Corp, we have seen niche brands like Etsy and Ben & Jerry’s looking to embrace a ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy, where the approach to business, the craft itself and the company culture is at the heart of their work.
‘Thoughtful’ ways of doing business
As we uncover less than savoury practices in the mega brands of the early 2000s that we once admired, such as Apple and Facebook, we’re feeling both burned and burned out. It can feel hugely important to our sense of well-being to support local enterprise through initiatives like ‘buy local’, or to spend time in artisan shops or at the local farmer’s market as an antidote to the horrors of big business.
Modern organisations have stripped the satisfaction out of work
As an employee they feel no more than an anonymous cog in a huge machine. Skill and values are no longer important – though a brand’s marketing will make much of them as drivers of the business. And most importantly we forget the importance of human relationships and that part of feeling happier is undertaking work that we feel is of value.
As a single parent of two young children, running a small business that is now coming up to its 10-year anniversary – I have learned the hard way that small really is beautiful.
My own entrepreneurial story
Cause4 is a social enterprise and B-Corporation, that employs under 10 people. We grew fast in our early years and were perhaps three times the size at our biggest, but ultimately that didn’t bring satisfaction. We were overstretched, the work wasn’t of the quality we wanted, and the culture of the organisation was nowhere near what we aspired to.
We’d been hugely successful in winning awards and accolades, but it felt empty
The motivations that were so important in setting the company up, such as taking on important causes and doing good quality work with an interesting and able team, had got lost in measures of turnover and an obsession with the number of staff that we employed.
I think that often entrepreneurs yearn for work and organisations that fit within our control and understanding, and where good human interaction and culture is key. Yet we are constantly overwhelmed by finding ourselves trapped into vast company systems that are both corrupting and corrupt.
Despite our increased wealth since the 70s, we are no happier. Schumacher warned against exactly these issues and levels of mental illness are rising. Entrepreneurship can negatively impact mental health. We need to ignore the ‘bigger is best’ mentality, and go back to the fundamentals of valuing human relationships. It’s this that informs how we manage our environment and ultimately get happier.
The lessons I learned
Cause4 is now smaller, but it’s more profitable, allowing us to reinvest back in our staff, training and culture. We’re clearer of our measures of success and they are certainly not about turnover and numbers of staff! If we can do good quality work, take on causes we care about and juggle our home lives in a positive way, then that’s good enough.