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…