Prison Break: 6 Key Constraints That Stop Small Businesses From Becoming Big Businesses

Recently I met a group of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) business owners who were sharing who were sharing their experiences and exchange ideas on how to grow their businesses. They were entrepreneurs at various stages of running businesses from one year to over ten years.

One lady who has been running a seemingly successful SME for over a decade brought up an interesting question that occupied most of the discussions. She asked why most SMEs struggle to grow into large enterprises. She explained that despite hard work, capital injection, strategic planning majority of SMEs are unable to break some confining walls that ensure the business remains at certain level of turnover and profitability. This happens after some years of exciting growth that plateaus at certain level. I jokingly called what he was describing the being held in the prison of smallness.

Why would theses enterprising, hardworking, passionate and ambitious entrepreneurs be held in this prison? I kept on thinking.

After evaluating my working experience with many SMEs I picked the following factors as the key constraints that combine to create this prison.

1. Unscalable Business Models.

The biggest limitation to SME growth, from my observation, has been unscalable business models.

No business can outperform its business model. A business model describes the integrated means and processes through which you are trying to achieve your business objectives- creating and delivering value to the market for profit. When the perfect combination of such means is put to the highest test they could only give a certain result at best. However hard you work your model will not get any higher results after some point. At this point we say your business model can’t be scaled any further.

Let me explain this with an example. If you were a dairy products processor you could have the following factors as some of the elements that form your business model. You keep dairy cattle, which provide all the raw milk you require. You then process and package the end products in your family run factory. You own two trucks with some delivery people who take the milk to various shops in your neighboring city. As the business keeps on growing you increase your cows, you expand your factory, buy more trucks and hire more delivery boys. But you will only be able to do this to a certain level.

At that point you won’t be able to keep more cows business and therefore your raw materials will become a constraint. The factory could only expand to a certain level and the market will only be able to absorb a certain amount of your products. However, much capital is injected into this business for expansion the business will become a prisoner of its own business model. Unless the model is changed to a scalable one, the revenues and profits of this firm will plateau.

A change in model may mean a change in how the firm gets its raw materials – from self production to buy from other dairy farmers; it may also mean selling semi-processed products to other dairy products, it may mean sourcing out its excess capacity to competitors, add other products into its fold rather than focusing on dairy products only, develop a different channel of distribution among many other factors that affect its business model.

As you evaluate your business model you need to fully appreciate all the factors that drive your business and how they relate to each other. If you are a prisoner of smallness then you need to have a thorough look into your business model.

2. Over dependence on new customers

All start up entrepreneurs have great stories of their first customers. The excitement of getting someone to believe in your product or firm is essential to keep you going in the early days of the start up. Unfortunately for most SME entrepreneurs this excitement becomes an obsession and it becomes the only purpose of all its business efforts.

It has been widely believed that the most successful business is the one that has the highest number of first time customers. This is a partial truth. I evaluate business success by the number of repeat customers, how frequent the orders are and whether they are increasing with time. As a growth strategist, marketing consultant and business owner, I know how costly and difficult it is to get a customer make the first purchase. This is incomparable to the easiness of keeping a customer and getting him to make a repeat purchase.

Many SMEs owners will agree with this logic in conversations but in practice the opposite happens. You hear and see the inscription, ‘Lose them once they make the first purchase!’ In their customer dealings. You see it in the customer service, the quality of its products and weak after sale follow-up. After a customer buys don’t ask, “How do I get the next one.” But shout to yourself, “How will I get him to come back!”

3. Flawed Marketing Mindset

For big companies marketing seem to be at the heart of everything they do. They do as much marketing as money can buy. A friend who owns a SME once told me that the market budget of a competitor was more than his company’s annual turnover (not profit). SMEs are limited in financial resources. But that is never an excuse for not marketing.

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