Next week my dear colleagues at Pro Rhetoric, LLC will gather in person for the first time in two years to do our annual planning. I can’t wait. Last year we did this over Zoom, and it was functional, but only that. This year, I am determined that we’re going to plan, yes—but also have a rootin’ tootin’ good time, before, during and after our strategy sessions, and remember viscerally, one of the most important reasons we do this: each other.
Longtime Boots readers will remember that I was really, really nervous about starting my own company. I didn’t know how well my personal integrity or sense of humor or humanity would hold up now that I had “put myself in the middle of the revenue stream,” as my accountant put it at the time. I didn’t know if I’d still love to write—or would start to consider writing a waste of time. And I didn’t know whether I could hold onto my people—maintain their interest in this work, let alone my own. Cuz I didn’t want to imagine trying to run this business without them.
I think one of the greatest sources of the pressure you feel, after surviving your first panicky year in business and developing an inkling that you might get through the second, too—is from this mantra you always hear from entrepreneurs and other business leaders: “Grow or die.”
Is that really true? Or is that just a load of bullshit from coked-up big shots, trying to justify driving everyone in the organization to be faster, stronger, better, all the time.
My answer, as we sit down to plan year seven of this little company?
Yes, grow or die. You run a one-location car wash in the same way for 20 years, and you grow bitter and bored and so do your people, who turn over (and over and over and over) until everybody is indeed, dead—you included.
So yeah, grow.
But as long as you’re growing, you do not have to grow fast. In revenue, you have to grow only fast enough to keep up with everyone’s cost-of-living increases. In operations, you have to grow only fast enough to satisfy your own and your people’s need for personal growth, whatever that happens to be. In mission, you have to grow only in ways that seem natural and logical, emerging upward toward the sun and outward, toward the next tree over. The pace can (and maybe even should) be imperceptible to the naked eye.
Why? Because the moment your core customers think, “Gee, these guys are going gangbusters, they must be rolling in the dough!” they lose a little bit of the love they felt when it seemed to them that they were your symbiotic sustenance, and that you needed them as much as they needed you. If they wind up losing that feeling a little bit, you can probably afford that—but you don’t want them feeling it all at once, and you want them to see the other work you’re doing, and feel a proud part of that.
And the moment you think of any customer of yours as not worth your time or thought or love, you have to rethink your company’s whole purpose in the world. Big corporations talk about what they must do to retain society’s “permission to operate.” Small companies must be and remain in much more intimate and sincere touch with what their customers truly need from them, than that. What are they actually paying us for—and that will make them pay us again next year?
You might dismiss these as the limited musings of a molehill mogul. And obviously any comparison of Pro Rhetoric to a corporation can’t be more than metaphorical. But metaphors teach lessons too, and as small as we still are, we are not a car wash. We have a social mission that we each believe in, and in the service of that, we are growing, slow and steady. We’ve tried our hand at growing fast—consistently with our mission, but too far beyond our ken—and we have failed. I’ve forgotten that lesson more than once, and been reminded by my wise colleagues (as recently as this month) and agreed that we should stick to our knitting—and now, our needlepoint too!
I think lots of “grow-or-die” gurus need to grow at a speed to feed their egos. Others love the action, the drama, the thrill of the chase, the competition. Some are just greedy. And others are terribly empty inside.
Me? And my colleagues? We want to grow. We want to serve. We want to work! We also want to live. I don’t need to be any richer or more comfortable or better known or more highly regarded than I am now. I guess I can’t speak for my colleagues precisely, but I don’t think they do, either.
And it is that comforting and deliberate thought that I and my tiny but mighty crew take into our annual planning next week.
Yes, grow or die. But growth spurts hurt the bones, and healthy growth comes slowly, to all things.
It’s death that comes fast.