What small companies can learn from big ones

Jürg Widmer Probst

What small companies can learn from big ones

Jurg Widmer

Sometimes, it can feel like the world of big business is obsessed with the small. We fall in love with the story of individual entrepreneurs, building their tiny companies from scratch, driven only by a powerful vision and a great idea that they believe can one day transform the market. There is something pure, and exciting about it. And then there is the cult of the start up – a powerful sense that these small, highly driven companies (often empowered by new advances in technology) are doing things the right way, and that if we can only sprinkle some of that start up magic dust on our own out-sized companies, we’ll soon find the path to success.

Which may all be right – there is indeed something very special about the culture and the ways of working of small, young businesses. But these kinds of companies don’t have the monopoly on getting things right in business – on the contrary, they often get things badly wrong. And one of the biggest issues for small companies is that the margins are so much tighter, and the risks so much higher, that it is sometimes actually much harder for them to try new things than it is for the bigger companies. A failed system or process might be a minor a setback for a large corporation, but it could be fatal for a business with only five people relying on it for their livelihoods. So, with that in mind, here are our thoughts on what small businesses can learn from what the bigger ones do well.

Good systems and processes really do matter

These are the kinds of things that might not feel like a priority in the white heat of the early days of a company. There is too much to do, and there are not many people available, so tasks are often just taken on by anyone and everyone. And in some ways this can be a powerful force for good in a small company – it forges a sense of everyone being in it together for a common purpose. It can also mean that people don’t tend to work in silos and have shared skills, meaning that if you lose one person you don’t lose the only person who knows how to do the job.

But it is also an ultimately unsustainable way of working, that can quickly become chaotic and unfocused if you’re not careful. So, establish firm, clear systems and processes early on, and communicate who is responsible for them.

Invest in people

The best big companies understand that it is their people who are their most valuable asset. This understanding is manifested in the investment that they make in a number of areas, and there are some important takeaways for smaller companies here too. The first is that they look after the people they have. Again, small companies can become pressure cookers, with people working long, hard hours. The big companies who succeed realise that reward and recognition is crucial – it keeps people engaged, and it helps them to see the purpose in what they do every day.

The second point is that they also recruit the right people – not necessarily with just the right skills. Clearly, skills are important (of course, a new veterinary practice needs qualified vets), but it is crucial that the people you recruit fit in with the values and culture of your business. So how do you do this?

It’s never too early to develop a strong brand identity

The key to this is to have a strong brand – internally and externally. It’s what both your customers and your employees will buy into, and what will tie them emotionally to your business, to its long term benefit.

Of course, many small, young companies have a strong culture and identity – it’s what makes them so attractive to many people – but we’d say that it important to start to try and formalise this loose sense of identity into something a little more concrete as soon as you can. So, take the time to get everyone together to think about who you are as a business and why you’re doing what you do – and then get these thoughts down in black and white into a set of vision and values for the business.

Once you’re clear about who you are as a business – as most bigger companies are – you’ll find that you’re also so much clearer about other aspects of your business, such as how you can transform your customers’ lives, and how everyone in your company can contribute to that journey.



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