Whether a company is an early stage start-up or a fully developed firm, the job of the CEO is to make sure that the company is sustaining a healthy amount of growth. But how do you get there?
"Most of us will never run an IBM or a GE, but millions of us around the world run mid-sized entrepreneurial companies, some of which have the potential to become significant, lasting, and difference-making organizations," writes Keith McFarland, author of The Breakthrough Company, which surveyed 7,000 companies to see what enabled 'little firms to become big.' "But which ones? What are the characteristics that will separate those that break through from those that don't? And what can we do as leaders to help our organizations maximize their potential for breakthrough?"
There are a number of routes a business owner can take to scale his or her company's services, increase its customer base, and innovate new products. Below are a few tips on scaling a business and getting the growth necessary to stay competitive.
1. Turn your customers into salespeople.
Customer referrals can be a great way to tap into your current customer base in order to spread the word about your product or service. Roku, which makes a device that allows users to stream media to their televisions, understands this concept. Last year, the company introduced a refer-a-friend campaign. "For every friend you refer, your friend gets the lowest price on a Roku player and you get a free month of Netflix," the company explains on its site.
"We knew we had an engaged customer base that was passionate about the product, and we wanted to tap into that," Lomit Patel, Roku's senior director of direct marketing, told Inc.magazine recently.
The question becomes, then, when do you ask your customers to begin doing your marketing for you?
"When you deliver the value your customers expect and you've verified that they recognize it, they see you as a very credible, valued resource," Jeff Thull, president and CEO of Prime Resource Group, a strategy and consulting group that advises companies large and small, tells Inc.om. "For those customers, a referral is a very logical and comfortable next step in the relationship."
Dig Deeper: How to Get Customer Referrals
2. Learn to delegate.
If you're in a service business that relies on skills or knowledge that you, as the entrepreneur, are required to deliver to a customer, you'll be better off if you can teach your employees how to complete those tasks effectively. In other words, you'll need to learn to delegate, and assign responsibilities to people within your organization so you can focus on the bigger picture issues.
"As organizations grow increasingly complex, duties and responsibilities across the workforce can become less well defined," writes Robert Heller in How to Delegate. "Often it seems as though everyone is doing everyone else's job. Delegation is the manager’s key to efficiency, and benefits all."
Dig Deeper: How to Delegate Properly
3. New products for new (and current) customers.
Innovative companies understand that in order to grow, they must continue to develop new products and services.
On one hand, companies may choose to focus their time and budget on product improvements—making the current product better, like creating an iPhone 3, 4 and 5. On the other hand, a company may decide it's time to innovate on a new product altogether, and perhaps for a new type of consumer. Apple coming out with the iPad, for instance, satisfied an itch for a tablet many consumers didn't even know they had—until the product was released.
"No executive today is unaware of the strategic need for winning new products," writes Robert G. Cooper in his book, Product Leadership: Creating and Launching Superior New Products. "And so the pressure is on virtually every leadership team to deliver great new products. The new corporate motto is "innovate or die."
Dig Deeper: How to Market a Brand New Product
4. Penetrate new markets, cross state lines, and go overseas.
Expanding your company into new regions can be a lucrative, if not risky, endeavor. In some instances, the company may need to alter the product or services—its branding, pricing, advertising—in order to remain competitive in a new market.
One of the biggest challenges for small companies wanting to export is communication, says Marc Meyer, a professor of entrepreneurship at Northeastern University, especially in emerging markets like China where little is known about marketing and consumer culture "These countries are fundamentally different from Western Europe and you need to go there and do your homework, learning the local selling culture, how your product will be sold and merchandised," he says.
The Obama administration in particular has advocated for small businesses to push into global markets, and has set the goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014. Today, only about one percent of small businesses export overseas.
Dig Deeper: Thinking About Exporting Overseas?
5. Beef up on social media.
At this point, most companies understand that they need to be interacting with their customers on the Web—answering their questions on Facebook, following them on Twitter, etc.
Social blogging can be a great way to scale a small company because the mediums are often free (it doesn't cost you anything to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, etc.) and experts agree that most companies will get a solid return on investment from the time they spend interacting with customers online.
And what should you be interacting with your customers about?
"The type of discussions you ideally should have ought to be answering questions that people out there on the Internet are searching for," Adria Richards, Organic Technology Consultant and blogger, tells Inc.com. "For me, social blogging is a way to have conversations with potential customers and to draw traffic to your site."
6. Learn how tech can help you.
Automation doesn’t just mean replacing factory workers with robots.
Mike Gorsage, a partner and Technology Practice Leader for Tatum LLC., the one of the country’s largest executive services firm, says that if you’re a CEO, you better start learning how to use technology to scale your business.
"Technology can empower your organization, helping you improve efficiencies and even expand operations," he tells Inc.com. “But to use that technology well, you must balance your needs with the realities of how you do business. That means understanding not only which technology to invest in, but also how it will affect your operations and how to maximize your returns on that investment."
Dig Deeper: Scaling Your Business With Technology