We struggle every day with the ever-present need to get bigger, then get bigger again, in order to meet our objectives and create a sustainable business.
Our business made it into the top 100 of last year’s Inc. 500 list. And we struggle every day.
Like many growing businesses, we have to consistently invest in growth even as we serve our current clients. So far, it’s worked. Three years ago, we were a team of six and mapped out a plan to grow to 10-15 people to hit our goals. Now we are a team of 22 and have mapped out a new goal: doubling, if not tripling, our size to successfully build the business we envision
This never-ending quest for growth is common across companies of all size. Growth companies, like those on the Inc. 5000 list, typically develop a strategy that requires a step-change in growth. Commonly, once these companies reach their ambition, they find a new growth imperative waiting for them at the top.
In our case, Avondale is at its heart a professional services firm – one that helps companies through strategic advice (consulting) as well as through private equity partnerships. Our key asset is deploying our people, and specifically the unique skills and capabilities of our team, to various businesses in a way that enables the growth of our clients and partners. The larger and stronger our team is, the more we are able to provide a distinctive offering to our clients and partners, and the more value we able to create for them and for ourselves.
In 2009, when we were a team of six, it was next to impossible, given our current model of partnering day-to-day with management teams, to serve more than one or two clients in a distinctive way. Sure, we could offer a report or analysis to a client and move on to the next project, but we knew that any group of smart consultants provides similar services. Our distinctiveness came from our hands-on, day-to-day partnerships. Frustratingly, we couldn’t do this with more clients without a larger team, and we couldn’t support a larger team without more clients.
So we started making a series of small, calculated bets to bring in one or two people ahead of anticipated client demand, which in each case, created the need for us to build new client relationships to fund our growth.
Now that we have a team of more than 20 people, we are in a different world. We have three or four viable and attractive business models that we are pursuing simultaneously. Each of these likely requires a team of 10-15 people, and we won’t fully be able to build these businesses until we have the people ramped up, trained, and fully serving clients and portfolio companies. We’ll have to build as we grow and grow as we build.
Our learning has been that, at every level, the size or structure we aspired to was not sustainable. If we don’t consistently invest for growth, our current business will eventually go away and we will have nothing to replace it. A never-ending growth ambition is an existential issue for us: If we don’t seek and achieve growth, we will eventually wither on the vine.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark