If you’re in the trades, if you’re a craftsman or an artist, or if you are the king or queen of what it is that you do, you will be tempted—your ego will push you to want to build something grand, something big, or something amazing. However, there are many of us entrepreneurs who fall into the trap of building a business that eats us alive.
I spend a lot of time talking to business owners and entrepreneurs. When people are running small organizations, they are at the front. You know, when I started my business, it was just me, a video camera, and an old laptop. That was it. I did all of the work myself. I did the selling. I did the video shooting. I did the editing. I did everything myself. When you have a craft, when you have a skill, when you have a trade—whether you’re a plumber, an electrician, a lawyer, or an accountant—no matter what it is, when you are the sole practitioner or you are the person who’s responsible for doing the work, you have two choices to grow your business. Either you scale your business to the point where you’re no longer doing the work, or you continue to be the person who’s doing the work.
A lot of us want to build these businesses where we are no longer doing the day-to-day routine, where we don’t have to go out to the client calls, where we don’t have to review the contract, where we don’t have to do all of that work. So we think growth. We think scale. We think, “How do we make this bigger?” However, it’s not the only way to run your trade or your business.
There’s this great quote that I picked up from Mike Haduck Masonry. Mike is a YouTuber. He’s like in his ’70s, and he’s a mason from Pennsylvania. I’ve been watching him for years, and I love this guy. He has a saying, “Stay small, and keep it all.” I was in business for 10 years before I ever even heard of this or thought of this: Stay small and keep it all. I hit the point in growing my business where I say, “You know, if I just get a lot smaller, I would finally be profitable. I would finally start to make some real money. I need to get a lot smaller and cut my overhead and cut my team and take on the work myself. And I’m going to make crazy amounts of money. Or I need to get a lot bigger, because getting a lot bigger in terms of revenue means that I can then pay for all of these things I’m doing.”
Mike shared a story in one of his videos where he said that there were these bricklayers from New Jersey and New York and the East Coast. They would come into his little community in Pennsylvania, thinking, “I’m going to build the world’s largest business. I’m going to be the head bricklayer. I’m going to hire all these other bricklayers. I’m going to build this empire so I don’t have to do this stuff.” And then they eat up all of the revenue and all of their cash building this empire.
I used to be part of an internet marketing franchise system, and I could remember one franchise guy I worked for. His name was Darren. He worked in Boston, and I can recall him telling me back when I was starting my business that he was running a $678,000 business—not huge, not tiny. However, being in Boston, with the cost of living and the cost of talent, they literally made no money. All of the money coming in went to pay for this infrastructure and pay for this team. He was barely making anything. I don’t know if he sold the business or closed it and let everyone go, but he moved from Boston to Pennsylvania. He’s now a one-man show outsourcing everything, and he’s finally earning the money that he should have been earning all along.
When I heard that story maybe eight or ten years ago, I was terrified that I was going to build this thing and be able to pay everyone and not able to pay myself because I wanted the big company. Yes, yes, you’re right. I have the ego. I wanted a big company. I want the team that can do the things for me so that I don’t have to do everything myself. That’s me. I have fallen into that. And lucky for me, after 13 years of growing this business, I’ve been able to achieve that for a few years. Now I don’t have to go out and do everything. I’ve got it. I’ve got a team of over 20 people who can help me. But at the back of my mind, I’ve always thought about this: “Stay small and keep it all.”
If you love what you do—your craft, your trade, whatever it is—and you’re good at it, while your ego or your vision or your dreams might say to grow that company and build that company, you have to consider staying small. And here’s why: If you are a lawyer and you love doing the things that lawyers do and you grow this really big practice, you will no longer be a lawyer. You will be a CEO or COO. You’ll be the head of HR. You’ll be hiring and firing people. You’ll be setting up systems. You will be doing the lawyer things that you would love doing as a lawyer. You’ll spend all your time running the business.
If you’re an electrician and you have dreams of growing a really large company, you’ll be negotiating leases on trucks, you’ll be making sure you have the right people, and you’ll be negotiating contracts like crazy because you have now become an electrical contracting company. You’re not spending time all day every day helping people going out on calls or doing whatever it is.
When you are a one-, two-, or three-man band (yes, you have to buy tools and invest in marketing and a few little things, but you’re staying small), you’re keeping every single dollar that comes in your business. However, if you focus only on expanding your business, guess what, you will not be making any money. All of the revenue that’s coming in will go to supporting that growth, because you had a leapfrog going from small to big.
If you find yourself thinking and feeling, “I’m small. I’m early. I want to be big,” the very best thing you can do is stay small for as long as possible because you’re going to be closer to the work. You’re going to get the customer reviews and feedback, and know what’s working and not. You’re going to learn all of the processes of the business. You’re going to have the profitability that you need to be able to invest in stock things away for marketing, for sales, for operations, for whatever it is. When you do start to grow, you are going to make all your mistakes when it’s you.
It’s tempting to want to grow really quick. It’s tempting to be all things to all people. But think about what Mike says—Mike the mason who’s in his ’70s, who’s old school. He’s able to pick his hours. He’s able to pick his days. He’s able to pick his projects. And because he does it on such a lean approach, every dollar that comes in that’s not for the materials is a dollar that he keeps.
Unless you really want that big company, unless you’re willing to really work for it and go from tiny to huge, unless you can pay for the infrastructure to do it (for me, it took five years to get to the place where that happened), stay small, keep it all, and then plan your next move for growth.