I recently spoke with a fellow MIT Innovation and Entrepreneurship bootcamper about an article I wrote about a year ago related to what is truly an entrepreneur versus a small business owner. We agree that the innovation component is key to diferenciate between someone starting a self-employement venture from an entrepreneur willing to change the world.
Our conversation also got around to the issue of extra help. When someone needs additional skills to fulfill assignments, a lot of professionals contracts with other professionals. That was interesting, we thought. Because, although many professionals are talented and able to support their growing familes, the fact that many are contracting out work raised a question for us.
"Are they trying to build a company or create a job for themselves?” we wanted to know.
In that context, we want to state that we think that we consider either choice a valid one, but one that should be a specific choice, nonethless. We work with and mentor dozens of small startups. And many start as single-person firms completing short assignments for a variety of other small or midsized companies. Most of these individuals used to hold positions with larger organizations doing essentially what they do now. Some left their jobs for the chance to build a company; some wanted more flexibility or the autonomy to choose their own assignments. Others lost their jobs and turned to freelance work out of necessity. Either way, they are now part of what we know as the gig economy.
Only in the United States there are more than 28 million small business. Of these, single-person companies are in the majority, representing three-quarters of all small businesses. These individuals, whether they planned it or not, have created a job for themselves. They will not hire employees or scale their businesses. Of course, this need not be negative. Done right, a one-person business can actually make good money. It can give the owner the flexibility to choose assignments that are interesting and fulfilling, and to enjoy the flexibility of working when and where he or she chooses.
The "micro-business" stage
A person working alone, or essentially alone, is a business category we call a "microbusiness." The defining characteristic of a micro business is that the owner or principal is doing the primary work of the business, whether that means providing PR services or baking cookies. He or she may have helpers in the form of other freelancers, vendors or assistants, but the preponderance of the revenue comes directly from the work of this principal.
The key to the success of a micro business is how well the principal does its primary work, which includes selling. We find that the biggest challenge in a micro business is finding a steady stream of work. By the way, our consulting practice is a successful micro business. We have one paid full-time employee, our marketing assistant, but we do the primary work of our business -- consulting.
The small business stage
Many people who own micro-businesses choose to stay at this size. However, if you want to build a business, you will need to grow, at least to what we call a small business structure, where the primary work is delegated to others. The owner might keep his or her hand in it, but others do the preponderance of the work. At this point, how well the principal does the primary work of the business is not nearly as important as it was when the enterprise was a micro business.
It's important to note that the role of the entrepreneur changes dramatically as a business moves from micro to small. In fact, at the point of transition, the principal has to let go of doing the very thing that made the company successful at the prior step. In a micro business, the business lives or dies based on how well the owner performs the primary work of the business. This makes sense. You have created a job, and you keep it or lose it based on how well you do the work.
But, if you choose to grow to a small business structure, success depends on how well the principal hires and manages workers. If you are the principal, your role will change. If you want to bake cakes, stay a micro business. If you want to run a bakery, you need to build a business. This is a scary step and one that can cause the principal sleepless nights.
Many people we mentor balk at this transition when they realize they will be responsible for the livelihood of others. However, to grow a business, yourself,, eventually, you will need to hire and manage employees.
Then... the midsize business stage
If you're successful at the small business stage and choose to continue to grow, you will become a midsize business. The business has transitioned from small to midsize when at least one layer of management has been inserted between the principal and those doing the primary work. The principal has gone from managing workers to managing managers. This might sound like a small change. It is not.
To effectively utilize managers, the principal must delegate decision-making authority to them. This means giving up a measure of control, which is often difficult for entrepreneurs who are used to making every significant decision in the company.
This also is the transition with which growing companies most often struggle. Letting go of some control is a scary thing for entrepreneurs, and they are right to feel trepidation. Ineffective delegation can lead to the ruin of the business -- we’ve seen it too often. To enable effective delegation, the principal will need to ensure that the appropriate infrastructure is in place. This means making certain that the business has the right managers, that processes are well-documented and that appropriate metrics are in place.
Meanwhile, if you want to create a life that has flexibility and autonomy and allows you to work when and where you like, you should probably choose to stay a micro business. As we like to say, you can create a great job for yourself. If you want to build something more, you will need to move to a small business structure. You will know that you have transitioned from micro to small when you have delegated most of the primary work of the business to others.
To truly scale a business, you will need to transition to midsize or larger. You will have done this once you've delegated day-to-day decision-making authority to a layer of managers that is between you and those doing the primary work of the businesses.
Each choice is valid and comes with its own challenges. However, we believe that it should be a conscious and specific choice. If you are unsure which direction to take, find an experienced consultant or mentor with whom to explore your options, skill sets, and desires. Then move forward with purpose in the direction that works for you.