Me and Seven Lads


Religious fundamentalists look away now. Dav and I lived together before we were married. That was in Chiswick. Our next door neighbours were Steve and Maureen. Steve was self-employed – he had a tyre and exhaust business in Hammersmith – but he was far from happy.

“You know, Ed,” he said to me one day. “There used to be just me and a lad and I was making a decent living. Better than decent really. Now,” he went on, “There’s me and seven lads – and a girl that does the paperwork… And I’m not making any more money. In fact, I’m making less. And I’ve got a bloody sight more aggro.”

Steve’s story is typical of thousands of frustrated business owners up and down the country. The business has expanded, and from the outside everything’s going well. But what’s really expanded are the overheads, the paperwork and the hassle. Steve’s not alone in pointing out that the bottom line might not be as healthy as when the business was ‘just me and a lad.’

On the other hand, there’s Bryan. I first met Bryan when he was at the ‘me and seven lads’ stage – and his wife did the books. Now there’s Bryan, 120 lads, a finance director, four admin staff, a house in Spain, a Ferrari – and his wife can mostly be found in Harvey Nix.

(But if it makes you feel better, Bryan’s on nine points. The Ferrari may soon become a tad irrelevant.)

So what’s the point I’m making? That Bryan’s a better businessman than Steve? Far from it – for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

The point I’m making is that no business expands smoothly. No business increases its sales and profit margins by 20% year on year, year after year. It just doesn’t happen. In my experience the graph, if it’s going up, goes up in a series of steps or plateaus. You expand, you consolidate at that level, you expand again, consolidate – and so it goes on.

And you meet problems along the way – business and psychological. Every business reaches a ‘me and 7 lads’ stage. And like Steve, that’s where you find that running a business is a lonely place (remember “The Loneliest Place in the World“?)

By now, you’d be disappointed if I didn’t mention TAB at this point. As I’ve always said, I think the feeling that ‘you’re not alone’ is one of TAB’s biggest benefits. Every business I can think of has plateau’d at some stage: what TAB gives is the chance to hear someone else say, “Yes, I know exactly where you’re coming from. That happened to us two years ago. This is what we did…”

So would TAB have turned Steve into Bryan? Would it have sent him from Hammersmith to tyre and exhaust depots stretching from one side of London to the other? I don’t know. Steve may not have wanted that.

What I am absolutely sure of is that TAB would have kept Steve’s business moving forward. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that turnover or profits have to be constantly moving upwards. Your business can be moving forward without the top or bottom line increasing – for example, you might be managing that extra time off you’ve always promised yourself.

At some stage everyone running a business (yes, me included) will come across the ‘Me and Seven Lads’ stage. And how you deal with it is probably going to be one of the defining points in your business career. But hopefully, there’ll be a few people there to help you…

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12 comments

  1. Neil Huntington · January 21, 2011

    Great ideas this week Ed and I am especially pleased that you mention time as success as well as money.

    Anyone starting out in business would do well to be clear what they value and in what order.

    My daughter is having her first swimming lesson this afternoon and I am going to be there to see those first splutterings. I’d swap that for a Ferrari any day.

    To me that’s success on my own terms, not having it prescribed to me ie. why would I want a red Ferrari? Because I see pictures in a magazine?

    • edreidyork · January 21, 2011

      Neil – a great point, but one which is missed too often. Thanks, as ever, for your comments! Ed

      Sent from my iPhone

    • edreidyork · January 21, 2011

      Neil – see comments from Rory Ryan re Ferrari – a deal to be struck there! Hope the swimming lesson was great – they’re precious moments which shouldn’t be missed (see one of my first blogs about the Nativity Play)

  2. Rich Cadden · January 21, 2011

    For me this sounds like a cross between “what you want” (on an individual basis) and then comparing “what you have achieved” (on a comparative basis).
    When you first start out in business, the enthusiazm is high, plenty of ‘blue sky thinking’ and the creative juices are flowing…..but what appears to happen (I havent got there yet) is that you become more and more intrinsically competative with others, when thats not who the challenge is against!!!!!!

    This competativeness then turns to impatience when things dont grow as quickly as you want, and then you realise thats it is because you have taken your eye off the ball. You are doing something different to what you started out wanting to do. You moved from being creative with divergent thinking, into more ‘managerial’ thinking which is convergent thinking.

    The guy with the Ferrari must have been working “ON his business”, rather than the Tyre guy, working “IN his business”. So imagine driving that Ferrari…. would you rather be driving looking forwards out of the windscreen or spend alot of time looking in the rear view mirror about what you had just past (KPI’s).

    • edreidyork · January 21, 2011

      Rich – I think KPIs can play an important role for looking forward too, but I take your point absolutely about “on” rather than “in”. As ever, easier said than done, but ALWAYS worth the effort

  3. Rich Cadden · January 21, 2011

    Also, this links back nicely with the “Oxbow Lake” blog…..as most people think in a convergent way as this is what the academic system rewards. Creative thinking is for artists, bards and dancers….isnt it?
    Definately not.

    Bring on the creative entrepreneurs 🙂

  4. Rory Ryan · January 21, 2011

    Good work Ed!
    I like the description of growth and plateaus. I vaguely remember talking about that over a beer in Florida or Spain I think? (It was late and there may have been more than one beer). I reckon as I am effectively a start up the last year has been consolidating – reputation, quality of work & finances. There is a glimmer of a growth surge coming so fingers crossed.

    In relation to time I have two things to way.
    1. I definitely have become richer in that avenue!
    2. Tell Neil Huntington that Arianna goes swimming every Monday. I’ll swap him his Ferrari to come and watch her on a Monday! 🙂

    • edreidyork · January 21, 2011

      Rory – I couldn’t possibly comment about strategic thinking and beer as a combination (though inspiration can come from a number of sources!) I’ll happily pass on the message to Neil!

    • Neil Huntington · January 24, 2011

      Thanks for the offer Rory, I haven’t got a Ferrari to swap and don’t want one either. Good luck with your business, feel free to share the name so that we can support where possible.

  5. Dave Rawlings · January 21, 2011

    According to Michael Gerber (“The E Myth”), it is a myth that most people who start small businesses are entrepreneurs. In fact, most of them are just getting away from having a boss! If that continues to be their motivation then they’re better off keeping it small and minimising the management challenge.
    If they want to grow (still paraphrasing Gerber) then they have to organise their business from day one as if it were already the large business they want it to be. That means having the essential management systems in place – even if they do everything themselves. Then they can grow without being overwhelmed and without losing sight of their business goals.
    As always it comes down to what you want and how much you want it.

    • edreidyork · January 21, 2011

      Dave – you’re absolutely right about Gerber’s assertion that the management systems have to be in place, even if you’re the one wearing multiple hats – I think the trick is to wear one hat at a time

    • Neil Huntington · January 24, 2011

      Great post Dave, certainly this is my experience as well.

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