Celebrating size: four reasons why it’s OK to stay small

A small fish in a big pond doesn’t sound like something to aspire to. But a small fish can swim freely and has a great deal of control in an uncrowded environment.

Most self-employed small business owners start out because they love what they do – and there’s no shame in wanting to continue that. Bottom line: it’s fine to stay small and embrace your company for what it is without focusing on getting bigger.

Here are four key benefits of staying on the small side and tips for making the most of the status quo.

1. Getting to do what you do

Gavin Walker prides himself on the fact he never keeps a client waiting. When they arrive at his hairdressing salon, he makes sure they are immediately in a chair and feel special. “I’ve owned my own business for more than 15 years,” says Walker. “I get to create the atmosphere I want.” His salon, Flow of Collaroy, usually has around just one or two additional hairdressers and no apprentices sweeping hair, a task Walker isn’t precious about doing himself.

Walker says the inspiration to set up his own business came about early in his career when he was working under someone else. One of his main takeaways was not overbooking or rushing people through a service – deliberately keeping his business on the smaller side to focus on quality over quantity. “I sell not just my hairdressing services but a lifestyle,” explains Walker. “I want people to leave here feeling great about life. The teas I offer are nourishing, the music is always uplifting and fun, that’s the vibe I want to create. I want clients to be able to ring and get an appointment because I am not overbooked. I consider all the aspects of the hairdressing experience and I manage the client volume and staffing around that.

“It’s important to me that I can do quality work. Volume isn’t important,” Walker continues. “Most bosses want you to fit in four haircuts an hour to maximise money in the till, but I work smarter, not harder. I will end up with the same money at the end of the day, but instead, I will best service the clients. Giving people the best experience is what will continue to put customers in the chair, not working my guts out in volume. I like things to be perfect too so it is nice to not have to worry that someone else won’t be maintaining the high standards that I have set.”

Walker isn't alone with eschewing growth to maintain brand proposition and purpose. “As a niche title, we are committed to balancing growth with the core values of our brand,” Frankie magazine General Manager Gaye Murray told Mumbrella. “Being the biggest magazine has never been our goal.” Frankie was established in 2004 and unlike many publications at the time, the founders Louise Bannister and Lara Burke made a deliberate decision to keep it niche.

It was a strategy that paid off, with the magazine finding a passionate core audience they now trade off. In the early days, the team (bravely but confidently) turned down advertising dollars from clients they knew weren’t a good fit for the brand overall, firmly believing that the greater good would eventually pay off, with readers and advertisers they wanted associated with the brand coming their way. It worked. The title has won Magazine of the Year at the Australian Magazine Awards more than once, and now uses their dedicated fan base as a selling point on their media kits: “Frankie isn’t just a magazine – it’s a community,” they explain. “When you advertise with Frankie, you associate with the power of the brand.”

Make it work for you: 

Setting up a plan for your business and identifying what your core values are will help you work out what your vision is. Moving forward, any time you face a hurdle or difficult choice, you can refer back to whether or not it fits in with your goals. You can find a template online to help you set it up if you're fresh to the process.

Keeping your business small can help you to maintain a stronger culture and keep your customers happy

2. You define what flexibility and success look like

“The best thing about working for myself is that I don’t have to answer to anyone else,” says Walker without hesitation. “I can target the business to myself and my goals and needs. I can work the hours I want, I can have days off when I want.”

“The big players have bigger budgets they need to reach and bigger expectations,” Frankie co-founder Louise Bannister told the Sydney Morning Herald. She has since left Frankie and established a new company, which publishes Lunch Lady magazine “My wage might not be high at this stage but there is a lot of value that comes with flexibility.”

Ryan Scanlon, founder of Need ESSENTIALS wetsuits, is another fan of taking advantage of a small business’s ability to be nimble. He worked for 20 years for the biggest surf companies both locally and globally before deciding enough was enough. He notes that he was spending all his time "under fluoro lights" and although he had the money to buy all the surf gear he wanted, he had no time to actually enjoy his life.

“I had plenty of money but I was time-poor," he explains. "I realised I was sacrificing too much for a big salary. So I quit." Scanlon says he now actively tries to live as simply as he possibly can. "I’m not trying to build an empire or be a millionaire," he told the Geelong Advertiser.

Instead, Scanlon defines his own flexible schedule around what he measures as success: living on a sailboat and travelling the world looking for waves in between work at his home base in Victoria. He’s applied the same “less is more” principles to his product – stripping back the wetsuits to the very best basics and keeping the pricing relatively lean.


Make it work for you: 

Make a list of what success looks like to you – and include all aspects of your life: work, home, health, friends, family. Stick your definition up somewhere you’ll see it every day.

Consider how you can tweak your business structure to allow you to support your version of fulfilment. Embrace digital tools like Google’s ‘G Suite’, so you can work remotely; Trello, so you can manage and track where your company is with different tasks and get a great accountant who will advise you where to cut back and areas you may be able to claim. MYOB has quoting and invoicing apps that allow you to work on the go too.

3. Being proactive and nimble

Scalon says as he moved into more senior roles, he realised he was increasingly working with unsatisfied people. He too felt he was sacrificing too much of his time for someone else’s business. He decided to set up his own business and create a product without any 'extras' - meaning no packaging, marketing, swing tags or shopfronts. His vision was simply to develop a superior product that was less expensive than big brands, at a price his customers could afford and appreciate. He’s even pleased they’ll be able to use the savings to go on better surf trips.

For his part, Walker agrees. “I am not just in it for the money,” he confirms. “I firmly believe that the money will come. I am very happy and work is a big part of that. I have created not just a job, but something that I love. I love coming to work because it’s an extension of my life. I don’t want to work stupidly and be exhausted at the end of the day. I consider my clients like friends – it’s all about lifestyle and balance. I have a philosophy that if you create a culture with hair, people will buy into the culture. They will see I am excited and passionate about it.”

Make it work for you: 

Consider what you can change because your company is smaller and how it can have a large incremental impact. Personalisation, attention to detail and small savings can all add up in the long run to creating a culture and company you’re proud of.

Play the role of a customer (or enlist a trusted and honest friend). Use your online store, visit your café, send yourself an email. Often it’s the small things – an outdated email newsletter confirmation, cheap packaging, a strange cut-off on your voicemail – that you don’t consider as part of the customer journey but constantly revisiting their experience will keep you hungry for tweaks you can make to ensure things are at their peak.


4. Less infrastructure and administration

Smaller businesses generally have less team members and with less staff comes reduced infrastructure. A team brings a host of responsibilities – salaries, benefits, insurance, policies, management. Even having others to rely on can be additional stress which occasionally backfires. If it’s just you (or even a small team), you’re less likely to have variables you can’t account for or didn’t plan on like someone not showing up, performing poorly or falling ill.

You can be also more agile and responsive if there are less people to get on board with any changes you want to implement. If you need team members or specialist services, you can bring them in as required.

Less stakeholders and red tape can also mean you can react to situations quickly, which can be a benefit. For example, if your business is competing with a bigger player in the market, you should play to your strengths. Being personal, making changes and decisions quickly, being flexible – these are all values that are harder for a big business to rapidly implement and could give you the edge.

Make it work for you: 

The bigger your business, the broader the responsibilities. However, with scale comes opportunity – know what you can offer that a larger competitor can’t and make sure you capitalise on it.

Connect with agencies and even Facebook groups that offer part time or flexible work arrangements for your industry so you have access to more resources when and if you need them.