As entrepreneurs, we like to swing for the fences. We are romanced by big deals and technologies that change the world. If only it were that easy.

Only .004 percent of companies ever achieve $100 million in sales. Even fewer reach the lofty status of unicorn (tech companies reaching a $1 billion valuation). According to CB Insights there are only 310 of them in existence today.

As a strategy consultant, I have worked with over 140 companies, many of them expansive mid-market companies. On occasion, entrepreneurs have expected me to provide a magic bullet--a key to the universe that will unleash their value, in hopes that they too can achieve standing as a Private Titan.

My world is not one of mystical creatures or magic bullets, but of painstaking work, patience and perseverance. To build a scalable company comes down to four or five key decisions over the course of a company's life cycle.

Here are five key steps to growing a brand to scale:

1. Manage your growth portfolio.

It's well-known in Silicon Valley that the most valuable companies (such as Google) dedicate a portion of investments to disruptive innovation. Research reveals that successful growth companies blend core, adjacent, and disruptive strategies, knowing that 70 percent of enterprise value comes from innovations that could take five years or more to build.   

In parallel, they focus on operating their business well and growing into new market adjacencies. One of my clients built over $100 million valuation in about three years by winning new contracts, acquiring companies in three new verticals and building out new technologies (including AI) to make their platform more valuable. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to reinvent the business you are already in.

2. Stay above the fray.

In my experience, most companies make one or two major bets when they launch, and then they fall into a trap where they become operational. After all, companies eventually need to make money (at least that's what I'm told).

Entrepreneurs often make one of the following mistakes:

  1. They become operators and lose touch with the artistry that made them great, or;
  2. They become perpetrators of founder's syndrome, making all the decisions and leaving their teams powerless to improve the business. 

In any business, there are those that need to be focused on the operations, and those that are dedicated to research and development of new products and improvements that have a lengthy time horizon for return on investment. When one person tries to do both, they get sucked into the vortex of daily operations, which impedes innovation and growth.

3. Know thy market.

My experience is that companies that latch onto growing markets (or those that make markets) gain the most traction. It's almost impossible to build value in a shrinking market. When a market is contracting, the only way to grow revenue is to take it from someone else, usually at a lower price.

Always--and I mean always--know the growth rate of every market segment you wish to participate in. If the prognosis is for a market to contract, get out posthaste. The one exception is if you have a long-tail strategy and want to take advantage of the bloodshed at the end, selling niche products to small customers.

4. Make big bets.

Every year or two, growing companies make a wager of some significance. One of my clients who tripled in size and sold for 11 times mandated that our strategic planning process had at least one major investment every year--a strategic wager that would move the needle on valuation.

Don't be overly focused on revenue and profit if enterprise value is your endgame. Make decisions that are accretive to enterprise value.

5. Include acquisitions in your plan.

It's hard to build scale on organic growth alone. Acquisitions often fail, but companies who are tooled to complete acquisitions grow faster. Using the lens of the growth portfolio, you can bolt on companies that are similar to you, buy into new segments or buy expertise that you don't have.

In considering acquisitions, consider buying in thirds. That is, seek out companies which are about a third of your size. Of course, this is convenient advice as you can only buy companies that are for sale and they may not fit neatly in a size parameter. But, a company about a third your size is digestible and moves the needle in terms of size.

It's just as much work to buy a company 10 percent of your size as one that is 30 percent. Merging two equals builds size but introduces cultural problems as both sides want to prevail in terms of values, vision, etc.

Building enterprise value is a formula, not a magic bullet. Be in it for the long haul.

Published on: Feb 6, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.