The Bumpy Plateau

When people talk about the lifecycle of a business, they typically draw a simple bell curve. A steady rise that ultimately leads to a moment where it all begins to fall.  But that moment isn’t a moment at all. Instead of a descent, the business enters a period of many years that I call “the bumpy plateau.”

Every business starts off with passion and purpose.  Deals are made on the fly, systems are cobbled together as needed, and there is a limitless can-do attitude. As the business scales, it keeps structures loose and grows by simply adding bodies to keep up with new business (add a client, add an employee, etc.).  After a certain time, the structure that has worked for so long of can now only sustain a certain volume of business and so it levels out to a plateau.  And here is where so much of the frustration business owners deal with begins.  This is when the passion starts to bleed away because this is when you begin to spend most of your time in your business instead of on it. This is when you are dealing with increasing customer complaints, staffing issues, cash flow hiccups, and so on. What is tricky about the plateau is it never feels flat because you push ahead with a new sales focus and start to land a few new clients, but then you lose a few because the structure of the business cannot support the growth. Business grows organically in good economic times and then falls as the economy naturally dips.  So you ride and fight along that plateau for months and years, growing a little and slipping back. Bouncing along until this existence becomes all you can remember about what it is like to run your business. Each day a new battle. Some days some good news, and some days some bad news. The fun is gone and grind is all that your business becomes for you. 

Most business owners are blind to the problem.  It is like the frog, coming gently to boil, that never jumps out of the pot. The bumpy plateau does not feel painful.  But it is frustrating. You feel close to growing again and yet you never do.  Like a big tease, opportunity for the next level of your business seems just a few steps away. So you keep at it.  You bring in a marketing company, you change your branding, and you hire the sales person that is going to change your future.  They all fail.  

“So,” you think as you drive home after another stressful day, “I must not know what I am doing anymore.  I have lost my touch. This doesn’t feel like it used to.  Why do I feel like we are not getting anywhere when I am working so hard?”

What to do? Let’s get tactical:

1. Get back to basics: Figure out what your business does better than anyone else. Cut away all of the bloat and complexity that has piled up over the years. Of course it is overwhelming – akin to battling a 10-headed dragon! You did not add it all to the business in a day. Don’t expect it to all get resolved quickly. Map out everything that needs to get done, prioritize it, and then start with the first effort and get it done. I wrote an entire book on the need to get back to basics for the sole purpose of making your business fun to run. What I am describing here is the phenomenon that takes place for so many businesses.  (If you sign up for my newsletter, you will get the entire book as a PDF absolutely free – end of commercial).

2. See your business from the outside in:  My favorite saying from my book, “it is hard to read the label from inside the bottle,” is what is partly to blame here.  You simply lack perspective. You are not only stuck inside of a hurricane, you do not even know you are there. That is a human frailty and not an organizational one. When I begin to work with a client, I often feel that most of my job is to simply be a mirror.  To listen carefully to everything that is going on and then show them the picture they just painted for me. They are shocked every time. They know the dysfunctional picture to be true and yet they never saw it themselves. The same happens to me with my business. Often. Congrats, you are human.

3. Be determined to re-ignite the flame: How you feel about your business when you are stuck is not correct or true. Most people do not realize when they are depressed (not that you are, just stay with me).  The progression to depression is so slow and it lasts so long that it just becomes how a person feels. How they feel is all they know how to feel.  Unless someone comes along and tells them that they never smile like they used to, they would never realize they stopped smiling. Those adrenaline filled days when you were charging up the hill to conquer the world have been replaced and/or buried. Like that was someone else’s business. Recognize it.

“Ok, I got some perspective about my business, I am getting back to the basics, and I understand now that I am not having fun anymore.  Now what?”

1. Re-imagine: You need to redesign your business based on what you want it to be instead of where it is now.  For a simple example, let’s say you want to grow your business from 50 million in sales to 100 million in the next 5 years.  The company structure that properly manages 50 million simply cannot support a company that is properly managing 100 million.  But there is a structure that can and you have to design it.  You have to architect, in as much detail as possible, what your company looks like when it is managing 100 million in sales. Don’t just plan what it looks like at twice the size, because that just has you adding people to do more of the same. That is the process that keeps you on the plateau. So envision, vividly, what businesses are you in?  How many clients do you have?  How many people do you need to keep them happy, and what type of people did you need to bring in to get you there?  What technology is powering it all? What infrastructure will you need? 

Notice how different this structure, created from a blank canvas, differs from the business you are running today. Once you have painted that picture, then your work becomes clear on how to create the path from where you are today to that clear vision of where you want to be.  Now you can tell that marketing/PR/design firm exactly what you need them to do.  You can inspire your entire company with the new hill you want to conquer with them together.  You are no longer thinking about the type of company you wish you had.  You now have a road map on how to build the type of company you want. 

2. Get back to start-up mode: All the things we think about a start-up cause us to picture three people in a small room or garage getting ready to take the world by storm. But who says that is what a start-up needs to be?  Apple received a lot of press for claiming they act like a start-up. They have chosen to structure the company to stay that way. Some business owners may chuckle because they think a big company cannot possibly act like a start-up. Why not?  Being a start-up is as much a mindset as anything else. It is a mindset where you make decisions without endless meetings and deliberations.  Where you execute relentlessly because you want to win each and every new client.  Reconnect to what it felt like when you were starting out and bring everyone along with you since they will have forgotten as well. Figure out what parts of your day must be automated or delegated so
you can spend more and more of your days like you used to.

Again, there is a lot of hard work to do and there is no guarantee of success. Sure the economy, your competition, or the gods may work against you, but all of that would be true bouncing along that plateau as well. 

I will be blogging more about these concepts in the future, as there is a lot to think about and explore. The blocks we face because we are complex beings impact the business we run. There is simply no escaping that fact. We have traits that have created great success and we have traits that hold us back. Welcome to the club.  But you always get to decide where you go from here. 

I challenge you to go find your smile again. Start by recognizing what your businesss actually feels like to you every day. Today.


One thought on “The Bumpy Plateau

  1. IanDSmith

    Howard great scene setter for an owner to understand why he or she is in business.As one owner put it to me – my staff would be quite happy with little change, to leave things the way they are. But we just can’t do that. You need to bring passion to every day. You need to take a time out if that passion has gone. You are either moving onwards and upwards or you are declining. You are either early or late. There is an unusual opportunity to build a remarkable business over the next 5 years – don’t waste it.

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