Small Biz Advice: Getting Big Without Selling Out



Dear Holly,

I started my small business for a reason–I wanted to be in control and create a unique atmosphere. I own a coffee shop and have seen a lot of success; but now I’m feeling conflicted about the future.

I’ve read that you encourage people to grow, but what about all of us who want to stay true to the reason we started our business in the first place—that small business is better than a corporation.

I’ve had some interest from outside investors who like my product and want to bring it to a larger market. We’re talking about opening a few more stores, and selling the beans retail at the coffee shops and in other grocery stores as well.

The problem I’m having is that part of me feels like I’m selling out in this transition. If I’m suddenly running a small corporation, can I still retain the soul of my business?

I like being a small, solo enterprise, but I’m also excited that there’s such a demand for my product that I could grow. I feel super conflicted about how to proceed and reconcile this in my mind.

Any advice you have about how to make this decision would be really helpful.

Thank you,

Scared to Sell Out

Dear Scared to Sell Out,

This is a question that I know so many small business owners grapple with in their lifetime. First of all, you’re lucky that this is a problem you’re facing. It means that you’ve run your business successfully enough to even be able to consider growing. So, you should feel really good about what you’ve done thus far. Not everyone gets to this point.

You’re right, I do encourage everyone to grow, but the key point to understand is that the definition of growth is not one size fits all. Growth doesn’t have to mean opening another store; it simply means evolving. There are literally hundreds of ways a business can grow. The problem is that we simply think too narrowly about the possibilities and keep ourselves from creating an honest plan for the future.

The reason evolution is important is because it gives you direction and every business needs a direction. It’s a key component to motivation. You must be headed towards a certain goal or you and your staff will lose motivation and that will impact your productivity, your customer service, and the quality of the product.

So, first, think about what growth means to you. Does it mean opening new stores and selling beans in big grocery stores? Or does it simply mean creating a new coffee beverage, or creating a retail product, or starting classes at your shop, or hosting a coffee book club? I can’t answer how you should grow. In order to know how to grow, you must have your long-term vision established and your guiding principles set. So if you have skipped those steps, don’t make another decision without defining them first. Trust me, if you don’t take the time to do this, you’ll regret the decisions you make and the direction you take.

Finally, you had mentioned that you worry that if you grow, you’ll be selling out and that small business is better than a corporation. I’m going to ask you to really take some time to think about why you believe these statements to be true. These are pretty judgmental statements and you want to make sure that you are thinking this through for yourself and not just hopping on a bandwagon.

What exactly would you be “selling out” if you opened another store? If you mean that your investors would be asking you to compromise your values to grow, then it’s certainly not a good idea. However, if you just think the *idea* of growth is selling out, then you’re not making a wise choice. What if you could expand while maintaining the uniqueness and controlling the trajectory? It’s not impossible it just takes a leader who is vigilant. Staying in line with the values of the company takes clarity, courage, great communication, and a ton of persistence. If the idea of taking on that role makes you uncomfortable, then it may not be the direction you want to head, but if it inspires you, then take the leap.

Be careful and take the time to really think about what you truly believe and what you truly want. No great business was built off assumptions, and just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t have a significant influence in changing the idea of what it means to grow.

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Want valuable insights into how to grow your business? Email Holly to set up a time to talk at or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How. You can also enroll in her Business Growth program starting Jan. 13.

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