Businesses start so simply. Like little glowing embryos of ideas that pop into our minds in the car or in the shower or while we’re slaving away at someone else’s office. In that moment—that simple solution state—businesses are perfect.
But then we go and muck them all up.
Entrepreneurs have a tendency to overcomplicate. Because one idea leads to another, and then to another, and to another. What starts as a beautiful foundation turns into a misshapen skyscraper with tunnels and bridges and a parking garage that cars cannot easily escape.
Well, it's ironic, but as our businesses scale, they become less scalable.
I call it DFS: Dumb Founder Syndrome. We dumbly react to everything. We react to customers, building more and more choices to appeal to more and more people. We react to employees, building more and more policies and adopting more and more suggestions. We react to competitors, and to investors, to blogs and to books, to friends and to family. And eventually our businesses take all day to manage, or worse, they manage us.
Luckily, there’s a fix. Scale your business back to simple.
Here’s how I suggest you go about it.
Simplify Your Offering
This month, I’m staying in Vancouver with my family. When we first decided to make the trip, I went to Airbnb, did a quick search, and found hundreds of listings. And, you know what I did? I closed my browser. It was too overwhelming. Too many choices.
A month later, I tried again. All the places my wife had bookmarked had been snapped up, so with only a handful of places left to choose from, I easily made a selection.
Now, think about your business. Do you have hundreds of choices? Do you overwhelm your customers with options, and make their purchase complicated? Do your emails not get returned, because you’ve asked too many questions? Think about how to simplify your offering to help a customer move forward more easily.
If you’re honest with yourself, you probably aren’t the best at everything you offer, either. So, cut back to your core, and turn down the rest.
Remember, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, his first move was to cut 70 per cent of their product line. Your offering is probably overdue for some cuts, too.
Simplify Your Messaging
If you’ve been in business for a while, I bet your messaging has evolved and grown more complex over time. Here’s a way to test how easy it is for audiences to understand your messaging: can your parents describe what you do in one sentence?
If not, use this simple formula to get back to the basics:
We offer [category of products/services] to [target customers] to help them [main benefit].
Here are some examples of how I would use this formula to shape the messaging of my businesses:
As a small business consultant, I help busy entrepreneurs organize chaos and get things done so they have more time to do what they love.
My online meeting software helps teams organize meetings and streamline progress.
I’m also a partner in another business that offers unlimited graphic design to small business owners and marketers, saving them time and making their jobs easier.
When you scale your messaging back to its simplest form, these things aren’t hard to explain. As an added bonus, if you can slim down your messaging, your referability will go through the roof.
Simplify Your Pricing
When you’re scaling up, it’s easy to Frankenstein your pricing with add-ons, up-sells, custom payment terms, deposits, and fees of all kinds.
Imagine if Starbucks not only charged you for what you order, but also for the duration of time you’re in the store, a paper cup surcharge, a barista training fee, a fee to use the restroom, and an additional charge for sitting in any leather chair. You’d probably go to Starbucks less often, wouldn’t you?
So, considering your most common purchases, what charges can you build into your pricing to make things appear simpler for your customers?
Also, pay special attention to how you’re charging. The simplest ways to bill are flat-rate (one price, one time), a-la-carte (many prices, one time), and subscription or installment (one price, many times).
Simplify Your Experience
If it’s easy to understand what you do, easy to pick the right product or service, and easy to pay you for it, the next factor to consider is your customer’s actual experience working with you.
Whether your customer interactions are short (like a coffee shop) or long (like a marketing agency), there are bound to be some opportunities for better experience design. Start by mapping out each step in your customer process with a tool like LucidChart, or download the free Customer Journey Canvas from This Is Service Design Thinking.
Each interaction with your customer should be intentional and add value to their experience. Look for every opportunity to add convenience. With my business, I reasoned that accepting credit cards and billing automatically was a better experience for my clients, regardless of the extra 2.9 per cent cost to me.
Simplify Your Training
There’s a hidden consequence to building a complex business. If your business is hard to explain, your people will be hard to train.
Think about that.
If your business has grown too complicated, not only are you losing possible customers and making it hard to deliver your product or service, you’re also making it hard to train and retain employees. Simpler businesses mean simpler jobs. Simpler jobs mean more energy is available for innovation, business development, or other proactive and productive activities.
I recently worked with a moving and storage company that dealt with the difficult task of training an outside call center to sell and support their lineup of products. Training was a grueling process, but it was only a symptom of everything else that needed to be fixed first.
So what did they do? They cut 40 per cent of their service offering. They created a new marketing site with cleaner messaging. They consolidated their pricing tiers, and included a popular up-sell in the standard pricing. They developed a new checkout process to make the customer experience easier. And then, they didn’t need the call center anymore.
Hit Reset and Start Again
Before I left home for Vancouver, I had my landscaper come by to take a look at my yard. My wife and I travel quite a bit, so admittedly, I’ve neglected the property. The shrubs were overtaking my house, my grass was mostly dead, and spring flowers were mixed with fallen branches that didn’t survive winter.
My landscaper’s suggestion was to turn off the water, let the grass die, and prune all of the bushes down to the ground. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Well, he assured me everything would grow back cleaner and more beautiful than before.
Similarly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with your business, look for opportunities to simplify areas of your business back to their original core. It’s likely they’ll grow back more beautiful than before, and scale beyond their current limitations.
Once you scale your business back to simple, you'll find it easier to scale it back up, well beyond any of its previous limitations.