dear strictly business: is there anything wrong with keeping my business small?
When it comes to small business, size does matter.
Welcome to our Dear Strictly Business advice column, where you ask the questions and we hunt down the answers. Got a burning question? Feel free to send it our way.
If you’re a successful small-business owner, you’ll inevitably reach a point where you have to decide how big (or small) you want your business to be. You can usually tell you’ve reached this fork in the road when you’re smashing your sales targets and the demand for your products or services is higher than you can keep up with. Of course, these are good problems to have – but which path should you take? The one that leads to further growth and expansion (and potential world domination)? Or the quieter route of maintaining a smaller operation – at least for the next little while. The answer is different for every business, but for Kristy Barber, founder and owner of fashion label Kuwaii, and Kym Purtell, founder and creative director of babywear and bedding brand Halcyon Nights, the choice was clear: stay small.
Kristy was fresh out of fashion school when she won a competition and started Kuwaii. Three stores and 13 years later, Kristy is running a successful fashion business. “I never had any sort of idea how big it would be,” she admits. “I think that was partially from starting quite young, and my goals and aspirations were more for the kind of products I wanted to make. I wasn't really someone who was super-driven to follow a path of corporate success, but at the same time, the business has been successful over the years.”
Focused on sustainability and a less-is-more ethos, Kristy was always intent on offering an alternative to fast fashion. She describes Kuwaii’s growth as “organic” – there was no grand plan; she simply chose to pursue her slow-fashion philosophy over strategy. Staying small over the years means that all of Kuwaii’s products can be manufactured within 15 kilometres of the brand’s Melbourne head office. It also allows Kristy to retain a strong relationship with her makers, something she admits is integral to their model and only possible by limiting the scope of her business.
“After the third store, there was definitely a feeling that it was enough,” Kristy says. “As you grow as an owner-operated small business, even with a team of 14 or 15 people to help, things get more complicated. And it’s really hard to stay true to your original, pure ideas. Not that we would ever think of going offshore, but everything becomes a little harder to manage and a little more difficult to control when you get bigger. And it gets a lot more stressful.”
In contrast to Kristy’s beginnings, Kym started Halcyon Nights with a distinct vision for growth. “The intention was to develop an online presence and a wholesale market,” she says. “Something I could start from home and take from there.” But she always knew what her limit was. And while scaling up is often presented as necessary in order to boost your profit margins, Kym believes otherwise. “I think that people are fixated on making things big in order to monetise their efforts. But I don’t think it works that way. A larger organisation doesn’t always mean more profits. I would prefer to work smart and be targeted in my approach.” For Kym, sticking to a small, trusted team of like-minded individuals pays off. “Being smaller allows you to make quick decisions and adapt to changing market conditions.”
Kristy and Kym also reckon that staying small can help you achieve that ever-elusive work-life balance. “From the outset I’ve always wanted to keep things manageable and enjoyable,” Kym says. “That was a conscious choice.” Kristy agrees: “It’s a funny thing, because a business’s point in capitalism is to grow. And ever since I’ve had a business, I’ve always been asked, ‘What’s next? What are your plans for the future? How big do you want to be?’ But it came to a point where I was like, ‘Hold on, it’s not about how big I want to be but how small can I be to make this work for me – to have some kind of work-life balance, but also keep my team happy, and my makers happy.”
Kym highlights the importance of mapping out your goals. “Be clear about your intentions to start with. Ask yourself what you really want, then create a financial plan to see if it fits together.” Kristy concedes that realistically, small-business owners can’t plan for everything. She recommends a slightly different approach when it comes to business growth and work-life balance. “I think you have to go through a cycle of what not to do before you learn to balance things a bit better,” she says. “But I don’t think I’m the spokesperson for balance. Even I’m still working on that life-long project.”
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