Is Your Business Going Through Puberty?

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Reprinted from Chris Mittelstaedt’s column Eureka on

You know those awkward growing pains? They happen to companies, too. Prepare for the inevitable changes with these tips.
Change for a young business in a competitive market is a lot like puberty—you know it will come, but not necessarily when or where it will manifest first. As Peter Brady liked to sing, "When it's time to change you've got to rearrange..." Understanding what your business needs to do to adapt to the changes forced upon you is a key component for success.

Recently I talked with Chris Husband, CFO of CleanScapes, who told me the story of the Seattle business's maturity from a small exterior cleaning service to a larger garbage collection company that was recently acquired by Recology, Inc.

For CleanScapes, business puberty hit after four years of cleaning the outside of Seattle buildings in blighted urban areas. Founder Chris Martin noticed that the large number of trash dumpsters in the alleys around Pioneer Square made the historic part of Seattle look, well, trashy. Recognizing a pain point that was larger than CleanScapes exterior cleaning business, the company proposed a unique solution that would transform its entire operation.

By offering pay-as-you-throw trash collection to this part of Seattle, merchants could simply pay for the collection of what they set out each day, rather than keeping a messy dumpster clogging up their alleyways. While pay-as-you-throw wasn't a new concept, it was new to Seattle, so it required a bit of education to get all of the relevant parties on board. But in the end, the city was happy because dumpster trash wasn't left for days to stink up the alleyways. Plus, the removal of the dumpsters erased a public eyesore. Merchants also found value in that they paid for their true use, rather than trying to gauge what size dumpster they needed.

Every growing business goes through transition periods that can feel uncomfortable—especially when those changes involve adapting a strategy that was once seen as key to your success. Here are three common growing pains scenarios and how to use them to transform your business:

“I see our opportunity differently now.”

Do you see pain points that don't yet have a solution? Do you find yourself saying, "if only we could solve that problem..." Once you've been deep in an industry and understand the way it functions—and, more importantly, malfunctions—it's natural to start to see  larger opportunities. (If you're not seeing them, you're probably not taking enough time to reevaluate whether or not the business you are in is the one you should be in.)

If you do see a problem that others haven't solved yet and you think the solution is a much bigger opportunity than your current strategy/services/products, you absolutely must set aside time to take the idea seriously and embrace the potential for a radical transformation of your business.

“I'm not differentiated.”

Are you functioning in an environment in which there really isn't much difference between you and your competitors? Disruptive innovation—new approaches to old problems—is a market differentiator. If your competition is solving problems the same way you are, then you need to start looking for new ideas that create greater efficiency and value—especially if your business is successful at the present moment.

Don't be complacent. Remember the rule of change—it is constant. Nothing is permanent and no one and no business is irreplaceable. Stay vigilant for new evolutions.

“I know this change is necessary... but is the market ready for it?”

The success of your evolution largely depends on whether or not the market is ready for it. And this is where testing comes in. You want to try something on a small scale before you launch to the wider world.

The key to doing this well? When you test your idea, don't "sell" it people; you don't want to convince them, you want to gather honest feedback. They'll tell you if they like your idea and are ready for it. If you have a product that is difficult to test, then see which parts you can break off and test independently. If it's capital intensive and the risks are high, try to get clients to sign up and make commitments first.

Whatever you do you need to find a way to gauge your ability to bridge that gap between what you see as the next logical step in your business, and what customers will actually buy. Just remember, it's a fact of life that your business is going to change. Hopefully it won't go through the equivalent of Greg Brady's fringe-jacket-and-beaded-door-phase—but if it does you'll be ready for it.


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