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What do I have to do to grow my business?

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In my opinion ‘how do I grow my business’ is the wrong question to ask. It should be ‘what do I have to do to grow my business’. I think it is a human condition to be attracted to the idea there’s a secret five point plan of clever things we can do and everything will be all right.

This is because we are pretty good at finding answers to ‘how’ questions. ‘How do I produce a cash flow forecast’ or ‘how do I reduce production time’. 

Most book shops are awash with self-help sections that usually have five or ten point plans that promise youthful looks, fantastic weight reduction or astronomical business growth. The reality is no fairy dust that you can just sprinkle on your business and everything will be okay. It’s not about five point plans, it’s all about behavioural change and often that’s hard and usually it takes time.

Before addressing the ‘how to’ questions, try asking your top team the following question: ‘Why are we in this business’ and don’t move forward until you have an answer that everyone agrees on. A good follow up to start the search for solutions is, ‘what if we didn’t have to X’. Answers to these two questions then lead to the ‘how’ style of questions that get down to the nitty gritty. 

For more on this idea take a look at “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger. So what do I have to do to grow my business?  Don’t look for the answer; instead aim to bring about an improvement in a messy situation. Here’s the ironic part of this article, my five point plan on how to grow your business:


My favourite definition of innovation is doing anything different that would be perceived by your customer as a benefit and is sustainable within your business. How to innovate can be quite difficult to think about so a good starting point is simply to break the cycle of inactivity and try a little somewhere. Get your staff on board with the idea of innovation being ‘part of the way we do things around here’.

I find it a great challenge to ask your staff this question: “From your viewpoint, what one thing can we do now that our customers would like and won’t put us out of business?” 


Thanks to the internet, small companies have access to virtually all the information that used to be the privilege of large firms. Inbound marketing is likely to be much more effective for firms than the days of the corporate brochure. The boundary between markets and industries is blurring. Look at some of the global companies around today and try to define them. 

Amazon knows what you read, Apple knows what you buy, Facebook knows what you like, Google knows what you want and Microsoft knows where you live. These are five very different businesses, but they are all merging into universal internet suppliers. For a lot of small to medium sized companies less is often more in terms of products, services and customer segments. So for this point the question to ask is: “What if we had to reduce our product/service range, which ones would stay and why?”


Leadership is a bit like passion or love, I’m not sure what it is, but I know it when it’s done to me. Emotionally, you have to have an ability to relate to people and communicate with them.

You need to be able to articulate your vision of where the company is heading in a way that is simple, repeatable and deals with the small problems that are important to staff. If you have staff stressed at work because of the number of breakdowns, it’s no good telling them the company is going to be global leaders within five years. In the book The Hidden Leader, Dale Brubaker argues there are authentic values and beliefs that cannot be faked. 

They include:

  • Truth and honesty
  • Integrity (words and actions)
  • Keeping of promises
  • Loyalty
  • Fairness
  • Concern
  • Law abiding
  • Pursuit of excellence


New ideas seldom arrive as bolts of lightning. It’s much more likely that they happen through intervention with other people and other things. There is a saying, ‘no one ever tripped over anything whilst they were sitting down’ implying that you need to be active and in motion to give serendipity a chance to intervene.

Passion, pace and preparedness

I have been a serial entrepreneur for over 25 years and entrepreneur in residence at Lancaster University for the last six years.  During that time I have worked with hundreds of businesses and I have observed that these factors are always present in the successful companies and almost always absent from the poorer businesses.

All of the companies seem to demonstrate a passion for their product or service and appear absolutely immersed in the industry that they compete in. There is a pace about how things get done in the company and in the way they respond to almost all external stimulation. 

Finally, the successful businesses have a level of preparedness for the unexpected. All companies should be prepared for the normal trading activities that they meet day-to-day, but the really successful ones seem to have analysed all of the options about the unknown future and sought to mitigate the impact of disruptive change. It’s much more than blind luck or just guessing. It’s something about rigour, evaluation and scenario planning that involves most of the staff. 


Ian Gordon has been a serial entrepreneur for over 25 years and is entrepreneur in residence at Lancaster University. 

Find out more

Lancaster University runs the Lancashire Forum programme which supports businesses to stimulate innovation and generate business growth. Start the growth conversation by completing our online form or calling us on 0800 488 0057.


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