The owners of HomeMade Pizza Co., a local Chicago pizza joint I used to frequent, had a great concept. They made ready-to-bake pizzas that you'd buy at one of their shops and then bring home to finish cooking yourself. Their particularly clever premise was that the pizza was always freshly made but then served perfectly hot because it came out of your oven. Plus, your kitchen would smell great, and you'd have a sense of being a part of the process.
Two brothers-in-law founded the chain in 1997. They grew it slowly and carefully. About a decade later, they landed some big investors who then brought in new leadership who decided the company needed to scale. Suddenly, HomeMade Pizza expanded from some 20 stores to almost 40. It took on too much debt. Sales couldn't keep up with growth. And then, in 2014, literally overnight, HomeMade Pizza shut down all its stores. Accelerated growth killed the business.
This is hardly an isolated tale. A company where people love to work, where customers love a product, where the culture is a big attraction, is cruising along until something suddenly changes. Leadership decides to "take it to the next level" (whatever that means) and every no is replaced by a yes.
I've seen small businesses turn into terrible midsize or big ones because they let their desire to achieve some arbitrary metric get the best of them. Whatever is compromised as a result doesn't matter anymore, as long as the company is growing. It's all too common, especially in technology, where growth is a sexy story for potential investors, the press, even a founder's ego. It takes a lot of strength not to get seduced.
I believe if you start a business with the intent of making it huge, you're already prioritizing the wrong thing. Size is important, but it's a byproduct of a whole bunch of other things that are worth way more of your mental energy--customers, service, quality. Success isn't about being the biggest. It's about letting the right size find you.
So what is the cost of getting big? At Basecamp, we've asked ourselves this question many times. We could have hundreds of employees, but we've said no--let's keep our team as small as possible while still increasing our customer count, revenue, and profit. We want to know every employee's name, we want to know how everyone's feeling, and we don't want to add the unnecessary layers of complexity that come with a company that has a lot more people.
I never set out to have 50 employees, the number we've hovered at for a while. I always wanted us to be the "right size," which means not hiring ahead of what's required but as needs arise. Not making moves in anticipation of what could be, but instead making decisions according to what is. Growing carefully, methodically, never getting in front of ourselves. Never putting ourselves in a position to have to compromise what we believe in. We could brute force our way to faster growth and more employees, but we've always said no to steroids.
I'd love to see more businesses take this approach--intentionally rightsizing themselves. Hit a number that feels good and say, "Let's stick around here." It doesn't mean they can't grow, but that they are in control of their growth. Maybe they'll move from $8 million in revenue to $10 million and then to $12 million over the next few years, but they won't be obsessed with "going for it" or "going big or going home." How about just going?