There are a lot of great, well researched, business life cycle models available and this blog is not aiming to usurp them. My simple analogy is to demonstrate the importance of staying connected.
I’ve built my business on three core values courage, connection and contribution – although I certainly didn’t know that when I started (my infancy phase) and even a decade in, during adolescence, I probably couldn’t have articulated it. As it has matured, and is starting to move into its legacy phase, everything we do as a business has to pass the values test. This is mostly an unconscious neural process and when it is a conscious test, that in itself, is usually a warning that something is off – it isn’t really connected or congruent.
It is this true connection with my business values, mission and legacy that has enabled me (and my business) to weather rough times, change course when necessary and embrace the journey. It is also this connection with a bigger vision that has enabled me to grow and mature as a business.
My vision is for a world where we are each brave enough to act on the things that matter to us. We contribute to this a number of ways through education, particularly neuroscience, through mentoring, though coaching and with practical support – and all that we do has to lead towards a braver world.
I believe your business has four phases – we don’t all move through all four and, unlike human life phases, it is quite possible to regress as well as progress. These four phases are pregnancy, infancy, adolescence and maturity.
There are clear functions and activities that belong in each phase. Each of these phases tests your courage, your commitment and your connection with yourself, your goals and your greater purpose. Each of these phases bring you their own rewards and challenges.
Phase one – Pregnancy
This is the incubation and growth of your business idea. It’s getting it to take its first breath. This is a period of anticipation, of investing in your idea, of preparation for birth. Do the right stuff and you give your business the best change of thriving. The right stuff includes a birth plan – what are you delivering, how are you going to start, where are your first customers coming from, what are your hopes and dreams for your baby?
Every parent knows you can only plan so far, as you enter the birth phase things can change rapidly and unexpectedly, you may have to adjust course to survive, it may take longer or be harder than you’d hoped, and this is just the beginning. The thing is you may never feel fully prepared – especially if it is your first, or you may feel totally prepared – only to find you have prepared the wrong stuff.
At some point you have to give birth, you can’t just keep preparing, over thinking, or waiting for everything to be perfect – if you want a business you have to start.
Phase two – Infancy
This is exciting and often terrifying at the same time. It will probably have you eagerly looking for and ticking off early milestones – things like going live online – whether that be website or social profiles, your first client, going into profit. You’ll also hit some not so welcome milestones, your first complaint (we all get them), sleepless nights because life isn’t tracking with your plan or your ideal. Then there’s the isolation because looking after your business feels all-consuming, especially when your friends or family without a business just don’t get how hard it can feel. They don’t understand that, just like being a new parent, in your head, your self-worth, your confidence, your very identity are completely wrapped up in your success. Somehow you are it, your business is about you – if you don’t do it ‘it’ doesn’t happen!
It can be very tempting at this stage to slip back to the pregnancy phase, you had control, they were your ideas you felt really connected. The reality is much more messy. In my experience business infancy is trial and error, and there is likely to be more error than success – even if you follow models and rules. My advice, get comfortable with failure – it is part of growth, stay nimble enough to adapt to your baby’s needs and – the critical bit, stay in control. There may be the odd emergency where your circumstances determine your actions, but most of the time stick to your core values, do what you believe in and own your business – don’t let it own you.
The only way through this phase is to put the effort in, establish what works and what doesn’t and do more of what works – provided it brings you satisfaction and a sense of contribution. If it doesn’t you may want to return to the pregnancy phase – you have more of an ideal what to expect second time around.
Phase three – Adolescence
This is scary stuff, your beautiful baby is developing a life of its own, you are not making all the decisions – there are external influences at play. You’ve had to get help in order to keep growing, this might be outsourcing admin, it might be marketing or sales help, tech support, more people making your product or delivering client work. Here’s the real rub, none of this help does stuff exactly how you would, they have their own expertise, ideas or ways of behaving – you are on a crash course in managing many moving parts as well as probably taking a bit of a profit dip because you are paying for help.
This is one of the most painful stages for a business, it is where many small business owners circle back to infancy. You’ve forgotten those all-consuming first few years, you remember the control, the confidence from the routines you’d developed and the glory of being all things to all people. Settling back into late infancy is incredibly common. You know how to make a reasonable living, you know who your clients are and it kind of feels comfortable and successful.
The other common characteristic of adolescence is believing you are indestructible – this is also true of adolescent businesses, you take on too much, diversify too widely, and expand too fast, believing you can do anything – or everything. This has been the undoing of many well known young businesses. My advice, introduce something, consolidate, introduce the next thing consolidate and so on – you can add in pretty much anything you want to, but not all at the same time and not without knowledge and experience.
Surviving adolescence is about purpose, it is about connecting with your values, and knowing what you are prepared to do and what you are not prepared to do to make the contribution you want to make. Then you just have to get courageous enough to hold the hell on and grow into the person and business you are meant to be.
Phase four – Maturity and Legacy
Just because you grow older doesn’t mean you mature. A mature business understands its journey, how it got to where it is and how to reproduce itself. This might be by way of continued expansion, it might be by way of diversity – this very much depends on the you as the business owner and what you want to contribute. What is for certain is that a mature business has systems, it doesn’t rely on you for daily operations. You and your business have to have grown through the first three phases to get here.
Most businesses do not get here. They get stuck and circle back or they settle. The businesses that make it here are birthed and nurtured by people who are connected to their own values, to their mission and to the people their business serves. They know what impact they want their business to have – they understand legacy. I don’t mean all these businesses have to be huge and world changing, but I do absolutely believe all of these businesses have an impact on their chosen bit of the world – the thing that matters to the you as the business owner, your legacy.
It is this perceived impact that attracts great team members – they connect with the mission, they want to be part of what the business stands for, not just what it does. Sure, people come to work for a pay check – but in the small business world, I believe most who just want a pay check are in adolescent business, employees in mature business got there because they are connected, their values align, they are there for the mission.
People increasingly make values driven choices, your clients make value driven choices, so if you are not already, get clear about what your business values are, about what you really stand for, and about your impact, then use these to connect. I’d love to hear about where you think you are on your business journey, if you’ve found yourself stuck in a particular phase – or even recognise yourself circling back. I’d also love to know about your legacy, the more we know about each other the more we are able to help one another.