Measuring Growth in Your ‘Return on Lifestyle’ Business

In almost all cases, growing a business means one of the following:
– ever-increasing revenues
– ever-increasing share price
– ever-increasing customer count
– ever-increasing headcount

These are the metrics reported in the business section. These are the numbers that get everyone – the leadership team, the shareholders, early investors, the office space owners, the entire supporting ecosystem of vendors – of a given organization excited. Both when these numbers are going up and when they’re going down. Though, it’s only defined as growth when they’re going up.

I say in almost all cases, because the vast majority of the companies you and I interact with everyday are the kind of organizations measured by this definition of growth – both internally and externally. Why? Because that was their strategy from early on. Whether because the founders originally intended the company to be huge or because that’s how the investors and shareholders see a path to an exponential monetary return. The intention was to create a company as an asset of ever increasing value, that could be – eventually – sold for a profit.

Just because this is the most obvious definition of growth, it doesn’t mean it’s the only definition of growth. Nor does it mean it’s the right definition for your organization. Especially if your entire full-time staff is you (you’re a freelancer, solo practitioner, independent consultant, etc). Maybe, you have one other partner with 50% ownership. Maybe you’re the sole owner of a 10 person firm. In all these cases, your company is one of the thousands of extremely small companies. In all these cases the above definition of growth is toxic and cancerous. Especially if you have kids. Doubly-so if you’re the primary bread-winner for your family. This definition of growth will destroy your business and your most-treasured relationships. Maybe even you.

Yes, growth is just as valuable as it is to companies 10x, 100x, and 1000x your size, but what that growth looks like, is very, very different.

Growth here is more like maturity;
– an ever-increasing clarity in identity
– an ever-increasing in focus on doing your one thing amazingly well
– an ever-increasing service to that one tight niche you’re expert in,
– ever-chipping away at the waste around it.

Growth as a ruthless elimination of the fat in your business, through both automation and saying “No” frequently.

Despite the hype and the catchy title, this is what Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week is actually about. A ruthless elimination of the low value effort so you can maximize your 164-Hour Life Week.

Low value work is all the stuff that doesn’t excite you about your work. It’s up for you to decide precisely – but it’s likely paperwork, administrative stuff, maintenance stuff. All of this stuff can be automated (via a technology wholly or some sort of Mechanical Turk) or simply ignored.

Don’t want to answer the phone? There are a number of services that will do that for you.
Same for your email inbox.
Same for most every aspect of your business.

You’re not trapped by the painful parts of your business. You’re not trapped by some definition of What a Business Is Supposed To Be. It’s your business. You own it. Take control of making it serve you.

For example, about five years ago, I stopped billing my services by the hour. Hourly billing is terribly common for even the smallest professional services firm. Some clients insist on it for low level positions. Even early in my career, I found it distracted me from better serving my clients. In short, it was waste in my business. Where as some people would find a better time-tracking system, I just said, “No, I don’t do business this way”. My annual revenues since making the change have been about the same as before, so from a big company ‘growth’ measure – it was a horrible move. Yet, it has freed up so much of my time, freed up so much of my headspace, dramatically improved my client relationships, and how I feel about my work. Positive growth.

Professional service firms with fewer than 10 full-time employees are – in the most positive and fulfilling definition of the word – lifestyle companies. Their primary function is to deliver, not an ROI, but a ROL – Return on Lifestyle.

Some Ways to Measure ROL Growth:
– The business fully covers your health, dental, and retirement accounts.
– Every quarter you’ve fulfilled some crazy life goal (run a marathon, vacation in an exotic location, write a book).
– The absence of drama in your daily life is palpable.
– Rush hour traffic is more curiosity than annoyance.
– Your weekly calendar is an even mix of work, family, community, and personal commitments.
– There’s not a single active, bullshit project taken “because we need the money.”
– You’re in the best mental & physical shape of your life.

Do these metrics mean your business is somehow less of a business than those traded on the stock markets?

Yes.

Because it is.

Across every GAAP measure. The amount of paperwork you’re compelled to file is a small fraction of what they have to file. The problems your business has are a small fraction of theirs.

Unlike these businesses, your business evaporates the moment you get hit by a bus.

So what? Embrace it. Commit to it.

It doesn’t mean your business can’t have a disproportionately positive impact on the world. It can – and that positive impact will drive your demand.

If your business is so in demand that you might need to hire help. First do these things:
1. Raise your fees. (See #4)
2. Declare when you’ll take on a new client project, just like an in-demand hotel (e.g. “We’re not booking for Feb 2017”). Hold firm.
3. Be exponentially more selective.
4. Work one less day a week.
5. Stop taking on new clients or projects.

I’ve seen too many very small businesses interpret a spike in short-term demand for a long-term trend (hiring spree, move to a huge new office) only to be in a position of unwinding all of that a few, short months later. These five strategies have a far higher ROL than presuming the demand is sustainable. In fact, they actually test resilience of the demand. That doesn’t mean they’re easy strategies to employ – they’re just far easier strategies than growing your overhead.

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