One of the biggest quandaries that business owners have is about growth: We all want it, but how much is right for us? There is no “one size fits all” answer to that question. We all have different goals and things that are most important to us. The type of growth that one owner would kill for might be like a prison to another. Knowing where you need to be on that growth spectrum requires self-awareness and honest meditation on your future and what you will need your business to be for you when you are older. Is window cleaning just a temporary gig? Is it simply serving a purpose until you achieve another, more important, milestone or goal? Are your business needs simple and thus prefer uncomplication rather than increased income? Then, growth beyond what comes organically is probably not very attractive. However, if your family depends on the income that comes from this business and window cleaning is what you plan to do for the rest of your life, then you need to give your growth a deeper thought. Most window cleaners do not have retirement savings. Most do not have a plan in place to keep the business going in the event of a serious injury or illness. For many single owner/operators, you hit a ceiling profit-wise that you will never be able to get past without hiring. It’s not an easy discussion. However, if you rely on your business in the ways I just mentioned, you owe it to yourself and your family to ask yourself the hard questions.

The key to finding value in business growth is to ask yourself if your business is an instrument or an asset? An instrument only works when you operate it. An asset works for you even when you are not there. An instrument is only valuable when played and may only be able to be operated by you. An asset can grow in value for you and in the eyes of potential investors/buyers.  This discussion can be a bit hard to visualize, so let’s use an orchestra as an illustration to highlight some things you can do to move your business toward becoming an asset and see if that is the right direction for your business.

1)     Hiring – If you Google “One man band,” you will find a bunch of videos of guys wearing these elaborate contraptions that allow them to play ten or more instruments in a song. Don’t get me wrong, it looks amazing and is very impressive. There are limits, however. There is a finite number of instruments that one person can have on them. They are also unable to play all the instruments at once, settling for three or four at a time. That method of being a musician will never compare to the depth of sounds that a full orchestra can provide. The conductor can stand in front of all the musicians and direct them to play in a way that complements each other and achieves the goal that the composer intended. In the same way, a successful business run by a single owner/operator is very impressive. Especially if the business has been around for a decade or more, the skill needed to accomplish that is amazing. Yet, if you have a growing family to feed, loved ones who have climbing medical expenses, or are becoming limited by your own physical condition, you will find that your business has a ceiling. On the other hand, if you are the conductor of the orchestra that is your business, you have the flexibility to use and grow it in ways that would be restricted as a single owner/operator. The music comes not from you directly but from the team you have built. In this way, your business becomes an asset that can make money apart from you, even if you are still the one that guides its growth.

2)     Systems – When the conductor leads an orchestra, that is not the only guidance they receive. Each musician has sheet music in front of them that tells them what and when to play. This keeps the different musicians playing in unison with their various types of instruments, strengths, and roles. Systems are a lot like sheet music. They help your employees know what is expected of them even when you might not be there. Often the issue plaguing owners isn’t that their employees are hard to manage; it’s that they have not received sufficient instruction on what they need to do. They are like a group of musicians, each playing the music they prefer over each other. Establishing systems provides a protocol for your employees to follow, giving them needed boundaries that allow them to utilize their best qualities to keep the whole crew unified. Establishing systems can be complicated, and it may require the assistance of a mentor or business coach. However you decide to institute them, they will allow your business to function apart from you, eliminating the need to micro-manage every aspect of what your employees are doing—just one more important step in making your business an asset. 

3)     Structure – One of the worst feelings in the world is when your favorite band breaks up. Sometimes it’s mutual; other times, it’s acrimonious. Either way, it’s just really sad to know that you will never hear new music from them ever again. Even if only one person leaves and the rest of the band stays intact, the loss of a prominent musician can severely affect the group’s success. On the other hand, orchestras are identified by their organization rather than individuals. Sure, some classical musicians may rise to stardom. Yet, if they leave to pursue a solo career, another musician fills the position, and the orchestra continues. That’s because the audience recognizes and values the group effort of the orchestra to play the classical songs they came to hear. They know that one person does not have that prominent of a role that they will affect the entirety of the experience. The same is true of your business. If you are the only person your clients ever see, you will have a difficult time selling your business if you ever need to someday. Your clients like you! They don’t want some stranger coming in and replacing their favorite window cleaner! If they are going to have to start over with a new window cleaner, they might as well pick one themselves. Also, if you are a Sole-Proprietor, you will have difficulty figuring out a value for your company. Without the clear division, an LLC or other type of Corporation gives you, your income and identity will always be intermingled. Structuring & branding the business apart from you as an individual is one way to eliminate the problem of customers associating you with your company. Certainly, let them know about your involvement and care. However, show them that what you offer is a service that gives the same quality of experience regardless of who may show up that day. This makes your business an asset regardless of whether you plan on being involved for the long term or not.

The point is that you have something special in your hands with your business, and whether it keeps its value for the long haul largely depends on how you treat it. If your needs are simple and the ceiling of a single owner-operator is comfortable enough to live under, by all means, do so. However, if you want your business to grow with your life and adjust to your changing needs, then you must do some planning. The inconvenience of managing employees and dealing with the complexities of small business ownership is worth it to have options. It’s pretty cool to go on vacation and know your business is still making money for you while you are relaxing. It is comforting to know that you can be there for your family without losing out on needed income if there is a medical emergency. And it’s reassuring to know that even if you are having difficulty carrying ladders or lasting through a day like you used to, the job will still be completed. As I said in the beginning, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. And that’s ok. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and follow the music you need to hear.

Gabriel Gutierrez