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The next shell up

As your organisation grows you’ll discover yourself passing through awkward, vulnerable seeming inbetween stages, like when you’re…

  • Too big to operate out of your house but too small to afford an office;
  • Too big for everyone to be involved in everything but too small for truly specialised teams;
  • Big enough to need a good accountant / media person / office manager but too small to be able to afford one;
  • Big enough for formal job descriptions and operations processes but too small to actually set them up and train people to run them or to manage them with adequate rigor;
  • Big enough that it isn’t possible to have the same intensity of relationship with everyone in the team, but small enough for it to feel like you should.

(There are lots of these – add your favourite below.)

Ways forward

As you grumble about growing pains, its worth noting first that these are good problems to have. Growth is often uncomfortable, but it’s a lot better than the alternatives.

There are three main ways forward in these situations:

Wait and see

Hold off on the change (and expense) and live with the discomfort of a too-small office / team / X.

This should probably be your default response to the first pangs of discomfort in most situations.

Accountants are one exception to this: it’s worth finding one earlier than you think you need one, because your books are probably in a worse state than you think.

Find a halfway house

You might be able to take a half-step: specialised software, part-timers, office sharing or subletting let you get most of the benefits of stepping up with lower cost or shared risk.

Step out

And there are times when you need to step up, trusting that growth will follow.

In some cases – like spending time, effort and money on registrations that allow you to compete for particular types of work – where stepping up produces a qualitative change in what’s possible. These are usually worth it.

In most cases though, there is wisdom in thrift, and you should hold on longer than feels ideal. It’s time to step up (and shoulder the cost) when the value of the change is unambiguous. Don’t move until you should can see your team – and especially your customers – chomping at the bit, such that the new capacity is quickly taken advantage of, and new costs quickly shared.

The sign it’s time

One last sign to watch out for is when the only thing holding you back is fear of change itself, or (worse) no idea of how change is even possible.

In these situations, it’s time to go looking for trouble – the only alternative is one day discovering that you’re stuck in your shell.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...