Founder and Chair of Business Sherpa Group
Mediaplanet sat down with the founder and Chair of Business Sherpa Group, Margo Crawford where she provides her perspective on starting a business with only herself to scaling to 50+ employees.
How were you able to grow and scale a business from the ground up? What is your biggest piece of advice for others trying to do the same?
It is no surprise that starting a business takes a great deal of nerve, endless work and some unbounded optimism. Scaling a business is a continual journey with no one path. There are many distinct phases of growth, each bringing their own challenges. In the early days of a business, the risks are extremely high and the sacrifices are quite personal, both financial and with time. When making hard choices in this uneasy but exciting period, being extremely focused on the vision of the company, its products or services, and how you intend to grow give clarity on decisions and priorities. For example, we were not interested in external investors and so intended to grow organically, meaning we had to make careful decisions on where and when to make significant investments to support the next phase of growth.
Equally important was to have a clear and articulate purpose. Purpose creates alignment around your own values and the value proposition for your customers, employees, partners, funders, and others. Our ‘why’ was the underlying story of the impact we wanted to create when we started and 15 years later continues to inspire us to create high quality services, work as a team, support each other, and grow! While there are many (many) things to do in early phases, not the least of which is to sell, establishing a clear vision and authentic purpose are foundations that will support your business as it scales and ground you through all the uncertainty and stress that is simply part of the picture.
What is a ‘smart move’ a growing business can do?
A growing business must continually balance adding costs as you grow revenues. At times the balance is skewed towards taking on additional costs before you have the revenues to afford them. These are moments where your belief in the business model gives you the confidence to move forward. For us, it was and is imperative that we have a deep understanding of our financial picture, including a detailed forecast built on well understood numbers. Knowing the margins for various services, tracking metrics that inform profit and loss, knowing and analyzing leading indicators around our growth has helped to build some predictability in our decisions particularly when we need to increase costs in order to grow. I feel that one of the smart things we have done is having a philosophy of transparency and education with the team on how our business works financially. This provides everyone with context around choices that we make and that they individually can make. It has also fostered a growth mindset in the team.
Where did the idea of Business Sherpa Group come up? What is the market gap your company is filling?
The idea of Business Sherpa Group (BSG) came from the experience of another company that I was a co-founder of. As a small company competing with large established business, we did not have the resources (time, people, money) to grow at the pace we needed. We all wore multiple hats and our core functions were compromised because of it. This is a reality for all small businesses; core business functions require expertise and focus but are often placed on the side of someone desk to do the best they can. But as a business grows, this eventually creates drag on performance.
BSG is focused on helping small and medium-sized business with the ‘side of the desk’ problem. We simplify operations by taking on the core functions with our experts becoming part of a business’ team, on an as-needed basis. This way we can eb and flow with the ever-changing needs of a small or medium business and provide the exact right amount of support. It’s sustainable and effective. We also focus on leveraging technology in all of our solution areas to enhance efficiency and improve quality.
What pain-points were unexpected as you started your business?
When I started the business, I had to do everything; spend time on business development, pursue and close leads, deliver on the work, organize and onboard others to deliver, address customer issues, do all the administrative and operational activities, etc. As the business became successful fairly quickly, me doing everything simply did not scale. It was difficult to decide where exactly I should be spending my time, and what to start delegating, and it was also hard to find the time to actually think through and make these decisions. I had to essentially slow down to manage the growth which is difficult to do when you want to capitalize on opportunities. This challenge has continued to play out in different ways over time. The lessons we have learnt is that at different phases of scaling, you have to take the time and commit to investing in your operations to support growth.
When you started, what was the position of the company in your industry?
When I started, BSG was really ahead of the curve, and perhaps even the market opportunity at the time. There were a few individuals doing contract work with a few clients, but the business model of a business operations firm servicing small and medium business simply did not exist. It essentially was a new category of business model that was just emerging back in 2008.
Now the opportunity for smaller businesses to use fractional professionals has become common and in fact a preferred strategy for core functions like finance and HR. Initially BSG focused on HR, which was my personal background, but the vision was always to have a suite of professionals to cover all core business operations roles. Today we continue to be quite unique in that we have become a one-stop shop for a small business to create their HR, finance, recruitment teams as well as addressing some strategic projects with various executive-level solutions.
How does the role of a business leader change as your business grows?
It is typical that the leadership needs in a growing business change over time. The type of leadership skills needed at formation and early growth may be very different as the business scales. This is not to say that a different leader is required, but that a leader must continue to evolve and grow to flow with and address the changing needs of the business. In early stages the leader’s line of sight is shorter; it is all about focusing on the execution of a plan to build revenues, to build awareness in the market, to build reputation, to build a customer base, etc. As the business grows, a leader must look out over a longer time horizon to see future opportunities and threats and plan strategically.
It is also important that a leader recognize their own gaps as a company needs both a visionary and a ‘doer’ and quite often these are not found in the same person. Recognizing your own gaps enables you to fill these with strengths found in other members of the team, and then work in a complementary way that leverages the strengths of all.