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Grow to the Next Plateau
by Bill Collier

It's been said that the hardest task in sports is hitting a fast ball. Clearly, the folks who say this have never tried hitting a golf ball.

Anyway, here’s my nomination for the most difficult task in small business: Growing to the next level when you have fewer than 5 employees.

Consider ... if you have twenty employees and add one, that's only a 5% increase in headcount and payroll expense. If you have ten and add one, that's a 10% increase. But, if you only have four employees, adding one is a whopping 25% increase. What if you're the one and only person in your new company? Bringing your first employee on board is a 100% increase in headcount and payroll expense.

Most start-up and very small companies are long on things to do and short on people. The owner is frequently overwhelmed, is involved in all aspects of the business, and is in constant "fire fighting" mode. Help is desperately needed, but there isn't time to figure out how to best use another person, and there usually isn't enough money for the additional payroll. (Heck, the owner is usually underpaid at this stage of a company's growth.)

Sound like your situation?

As you make your business plans for yet another year, resolve to avoid disappointment and finally get on track. Growing beyond this awkward "adolescent" stage is tough. It's sort of like a NASA rocket building up the speed to overcome the Earth's gravity. Once in space, it's smooth sailing. But, an incredible amount of energy is needed to get to that point. And so it is with growing your small company.

Here are some ideas for getting up to "escape velocity":

First, Work Your Tail Off

What? This advice from the author of a book on having a life outside your company? Yep. I wish I had better news.

When your business is in its infancy, there's no shortcut and no substitute for good, old-fashioned effort. If you want to someday enjoy the fruits of your labor, there first must be some labor. Make sure that you make the most of every available minute.

The trap some folks fall into is letting this approach become a long-term way of life. Work hard but have a plan for eventually pulling back, so that soon you're working on the business rather than in the business.

Promote Your Business Like Crazy

Getting your business up to "critical mass" takes a major sales and marketing effort. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Everybody sells. One of the main responsibilities for you and for every single employee is to attract and retain customers.
  • Perform at least one significant sales or marketing task every single day. There are roughly 250 business days (allowing for holidays) per year. If you follow this advice, growth will happen. Do more than one a day and things will happen even faster. Discipline yourself and set aside the time.


Create "comic book simple" procedures for as many business processes as you can. Follow them yourself, and lay the groundwork for future employees to use them also.

While you're at it, create simple job descriptions for each major role, even if you're filling all of them.

These two tasks will make hiring decisions and new employee training immensely easier and more efficient.

Use Free and Low-Cost Help

Consider hiring high school "co-op" students or college interns. Pay an entry-level wage. Develop a relationship with the faculty and advisors at your nearby schools, and have them watch for good prospects for you. Chances are, these will be short-term employees, but you never know. You might hire some long-term staff members right out of school.

What about family? Does your spouse have skills and time to spare? How about your kids or your cousin Elmer? Look close to home before going out on the street for help.

Use Part-Time Help

Stay-at-home Moms and retirees are frequently looking for part-time work with flexible hours. So, be flexible.

You need a full-time employee? Why not hire two part-timers to share one job? (Hint: Part-timers usually get limited or no fringe benefits.)

Farm Out Assembly Work

If some of your work involves light manufacturing or assembly, can you send it out to a sheltered workshop? The cost is generally very reasonable, and you'll feel good about doing it.

Borrow Money for Hiring

Sometimes, the only way to afford growth is to fund it with short-term loans. Arrange for a line of credit with your bank. Don’t think in terms of paying this sort of loan off over a long timeframe. The balance should go up and down weekly as you “sweep” money between this account and your checking account.

Yes, this is a risk. Even if your company doesn’t grow you still have to repay this money. So, approach it with a healthy mix of caution and confidence, and execute a well-thought-out plan.

As you get bigger – 6, 8, 10 employees and beyond – challenges remain, but you’ll have enough people for delegating and separation of duties for more efficiency. That’s when the real fun begins, so don’t give up or you’ll miss the best part. Stay positive. Keep your small business dreams alive by growing in spite of the challenges.

Bill Collier is a St. Louis-based business coach, consultant and speaker. He is the author of the book “How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner … and Still Have a Life.” His website is, and his email is

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