Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Straightforward and Spartan: What Big Businesses Can Learn from their Smaller Brethren

King Leonidas: [turns back shouting] Spartans! What is your profession?
Spartans: HA-OOH! HA-OOH! HA-OOH!
King Leonidas: [turning to Daxos] You see, old friend? I brought more soldiers than you did.

There is an unchallenged and lazy myth that small companies generate more wealth in the economy every year than large ones. They don’t, though the real facts are much more interesting. Research shows that three per cent of all firms account for almost all private sector employment and revenue growth; and these “high impact” firms are proportionately evenly spread across all company sizes. But here’s the killer fact: 98.3% of firms in this wealth-creating sector have 20 employees or fewer, because there are simply many more smaller firms in the world.

But how can it be that smaller firms make up so much of this GDP engine, and generate just much wealth as blue chips, who have established brands, sophisticated systems, massive buying power and the pick of the brightest talent? I’ve been fortunate to observe companies from across the size spectrum, and even more fortunate to work with some that were once in the small camp and are now large. Here are four distinctions that I see in the successful smaller ones.

First is brutality. My smaller clients have a mindset in which they will habitually challenge their propositions and expect to need to reinvent their services, even in the many instances where they are the dominant player in their particular niche. They are justifiably proud of their products, but they appreciate that today’s iPod is tomorrow’s Walkman. Cannibalisation is a fact of life, and better that they do it to themselves than their competitor does it for them.

Second is straightforwardness. Here’s an example. A client I started working with eight years ago was shortly to become one of the 3 percent club of high impact firms; it quickly became the global market leader in its niche. Then, I could ask a question to one of the Directors and they would just answer it, warts-and-all, no justifications, no qualifications. Now it has joined the 97 percent of slow-growers. I re-engaged with the firm again recently. Now, the most common first response to my questions is: “can you tell me what you will do with that information?” the second most common is: “can you tell me why you need to know that?” Following this pointless dance, we get to the same questions I was going to ask anyway, only we have time now for 25% fewer of them. And the answers are now gilded with such self-justification that finding the problems necessary to improve my client’s condition takes on a whole new level of complexity.

Third is decisiveness. My smaller clients engage only my company for advice and act on about 50% of it. They are far less exhaustive in their analysis before decisions, being happy to act on 80% confidence. In contrast, larger companies often use multiple advisers and internal teams in an often futile search for perfection, and act on 10% or less of the advice they seek.

Fourth is parsimony. If you’re used to corporate life, a smaller company’s office feels like a cell. If you’re a consultant used to the corporate jet-set, a smaller company’s fees feel like a budget airline. It’s probably not in everyone’s interest for me to highlight parsimony. But those who read these posts regularly know I'm keen on saying the truth as I see it, rather than selecting the facts that suit. Besides, Ben Franklin thought parsimony was the route to wealth, and who am I to argue with him.

So: brutality, straightforwardness, decisiveness, parsimony. Leonidas would be proud.

Copyright Latitude 2009. All rights reserved.

Latitude Partners Ltd
19 Bulstrode Street, London W1U 2JN