There are few things that make me question a LinkedIn connection request more than the overuse of words like “growth” and “scale” in someone’s profile. These people are often members of the Cult of Growth, which seems to be so popular on LinkedIn. I see enough of their regurgitated sermons without engaging with their DMs about “Ten Exxing your business” and asking me about my “Growth Goals”.

I struggle with their message because I believe that growth should never be a goal for owner-run businesses. Growth is a tool we can use to help us achieve our goals, but having growth as a goal in itself is a questionable way to think for the leaders of most businesses. Yet, when I talk to business owners about their business goals, the majority will start their response by talking about multiplying either revenue or headcount. Often both. Classic growth goals… and meaningless for most of us.

Where does this growth focus come from?

Growth makes sense as a goal when the owners of a business are removed from its month-to-month operations. When I invest in a business as a shareholder, I want to see a return on that investment either in terms of dividends or share price growth (ideally both!). Share price growth offers the biggest opportunity for substantial returns and, within certain ethical boundaries, I am not overly concerned with how that growth is achieved. Thus, it makes perfect sense that an organisation primarily serving remote shareholders is focused on growth.

However, businesses with a remote shareholder-focused model are a tiny minority. When we think of business success, we tend to think of the flagship PLCs, but they make up less than 0.1% of over 5 million registered companies in the UK. For the vast majority of the remaining 99.9%, which are often small, owner-run businesses, the value of their shares has little to no impact on the day-to-day lives of their owners. Share value only becomes a factor if the business is sold, which in itself is much rarer than most people realise. Even in those cases where the business is sold, the owners have often earned far more through salary and dividends during the life of the company than they do from the sale of the equity.

I attribute this growth obsession to four main causes:

  1. Most business books and courses are written with large shareholder-owned businesses in mind, despite being read by owner-run companies.
  2. Press and politicians always focus on that large 0.1% of businesses, with small businesses under-represented.
  3. There is an industry making money from selling the dream of growth (which includes a lot of #1).
  4. It’s more convenient to focus on something less meaningful but easier to measure than to do the difficult work of setting more meaningful goals.

None of this is to suggest that growth is bad. If my goals relate to profit, then that might require revenue growth. If I want to remove myself from the day-to-day operations, then I may need a bigger team, which also likely means larger revenues. In these cases, though, growth is a tool to achieve a more meaningful goal rather than the goal itself.

Setting More Meaningful Goals

The first three factors above are difficult for us to control, so let’s look at what I mean by the fourth and what we can do about it. I suspect that a lot of people simply set growth goals because they’ve never taken the time to think about and set better ones. The first three factors lead us to believe that this is what goals look like, so we pluck an arbitrary number out of the air and set that as our target. Being arbitrary and essentially meaningless to us, these goals predictably fail to have much meaningful impact. So, what’s a better way?

The greatest benefit to owning the business you work in is being able to align that business with the life you want, yet many of us fail to do that. Rather than building a business that will deliver what the owners want from life, they build one that is aligned with arbitrary growth goals, then wonder why they don’t have the money, freedom, or happiness that they dreamt of. It’s painfully common for me to have conversations with business owners where they describe what they personally want from their lives, then immediately describe a business plan that takes them in the polar opposite direction.

Setting meaningful goals for owner-run businesses starts with understanding what the owners want from life. When I work with clients, I’ll often get them to write a description of how they see life in five years’ time. We’ll drill into these imagined futures, putting meat on the bones of the dream, turning vague ideas into concrete numbers: How much will mortgage payments be on that dream house? How many weeks per year will those holidays take? What would the team need to look like to support that vision of your working week? I then like to work with the business owner to build a picture of what the business would need to look like in order to support that future.

It’s a process I would encourage anyone to do. The aim is to create a costed model for a future version of the business that can support the life the owners want; a version of the business worth aiming for. This usually involves growth. It often involves selling the business at some point in the future. Neither are goals though, just tools available in our arsenal to achieve more meaningful outcomes.

The idea isn’t to create an unmovable vision of the future that you can’t adapt and change. I review my own five-year view every few months, thinking it through further, adding and changing a few details each time.

Even meaningful goals mean nothing without a plan

With a credible and meaningful future business in mind, the next step is to create a plan that will get you there. The approach to follow here is to step backwards from that five-year vision and have credible, sustainable, and achievable milestones along the path to that goal. I tend to use two-year and one-year milestones, then break that one-year view down into quarterly steps. Doing that is where the work really starts, but it is also where this article ends. If you find the approach interesting, let me know in the LinkedIn comments, and I might write about the planning part as a follow-up.

The takeaway, though, is that we business owners are uniquely privileged in being able to build our businesses to support the lives we want. Why waste that on instead chasing someone else’s goals?

Helping business owners create and execute on a plan that aligns business and life goals is absolutely the best part of my job. If you run a digital agency and would like some help doing this, I’d love to have a conversation about that with you.

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