Sometimes growth happens in what feels like a blink of an eye. You turn around and boom! your children are in college, or perhaps you're approaching midlife when wasn't it just yesterday that you graduated from massage therapy school? Growing, however, for all of its twists and turns, is a completely natural phenomenon.
But what about growing your business? Like you, your business can grow, too, if that's the direction you feel like taking. A caveat: It's not as simple as hiring more people and renting a larger space.
Growing your business requires countless hours of research, sleepless nights, hard work and a pinch of good fortune. But for the brave folks who do their homework and make the leap, the gamble can pay off in spades.
Taking a Chance
Michele Merhib's growth was personal, then professional. Her guiding principle: If you believe in it, do it.
As it turns out, this mantra has served Merhib, founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage, well.
In 2000, as a recent graduate from the Coloradobased Cottonwood School of Massage Therapy, Merhib purchased a retiring massage therapist's business for $4,000, running the practice out of a local country club. But when the club decided that it no longer wanted to offer massage services, Merhib had a decision to make.
Within two years, she had opened her own location. Fairly well established and already respected, her tiny, 750-square-foot space was quickly providing 650 massages a month—and turning away clients daily.
"At that point," says Merhib, "I realized I had something and had to do something about it. We either needed to expand or introduce another location."
In 2005, as she was preparing to open a second studio, Merhib was approached by a company that wanted to franchise her studio and take her business nationwide. Even though the company had money— something that Merhib eagerly admits she was "ready for," she decided not to accept.
It just wasn't the right fit, she now reflects. Working constantly and reading business books in her spare time, Merhib realized that to really grasp success, she had to systemize things, leaning on her background in the banking industry. "If you're looking to grow, make sure you realize the value of your knowledge and experience," she says. "What you've learned is worth something; don't just give it away. Follow your gut and what's inside of you and what drives you."
It turns out to be sage advice.
Fresh off the opening of a third successful location, Merhib was approached by Fitness Together Franchise Corporation in 2006 with an offer that she couldn't pass up. Stronger and savvier after her first franchise go-around, Merhib knew what she wanted this time.
After negotiating for almost a year and "much angst over whether to remain small and independent," Merhib accepted an intellectual property agreement with Fitness Together, who received all of her knowledge and keeps her on as a consultant.
Three years later, more than 100 franchises have been sold in some 25 states. Discussing the rollercoaster ride that has been her life, Merhib sounds satisfied, but not ready to rest on her laurels.
"Sometimes staying smaller is the best decision," says Merhib. "With adding the third store, the amount of work multiplied. You've got to ask yourself, ‘Is the growth worth the headache?' Look at hiring bookkeepers, accountants. It's not all additional profit."
For Merhib, the past decade has brought much success, as well as considerable trials. The challenges of being a single mom and businessowner, an automobile accident that left her with memory loss, disagreements and "vision" disputes with key personnel.
Doing Your Homework
These are all struggles that can leave a business owner stronger—or discouraged and defeated.
Rich Sloan, cofounder and selfproclaimed chief startup-ologist at online Startupnation.com, agrees that the concept of business expansion should be carefully examined before a decision is made.
"Growing a business is something to consider if you believe that, ultimately, your quality of life will improve as a result," says Sloan. "That could be from greater pride, more profits, or just the stimulation that comes from a more complex daily challenge."
And although she has found success, Merhib says there have been bumps along the way: money spent on advertising that didn't produce a single client, learning how to effectively manage employees and creating systems that could be duplicated across the various locations.
"It's imperative," says Sloan, "to create an extremely strong company culture, with the ideals you stand for constantly reinforced and owned by all team members."
When asked what advice she might have for other business owners who are considering expansion, Merhib doesn't pause before responding: "You can't do everything for everybody," she warns. "Do what you do and do it well. Pick one thing and focus on it."
It's a recipe that has produced tremendous results, not only in her business, but also for her personally. "I had to be open to the demand and let go of my ego and ideas of what the business was supposed to be, and let it become what it is," she says. "Although the business model is not what I originally thought it might be, my intention has remained consistent."
And that appears to be wisdom to grow on.
Expanding Your Horizons
When Jill Mast founded Natural Wellness Massage Therapy seven years ago, the massage therapist and natural practitioner had no intentions of opening a spa. Funny how things unfold, she thinks, as she looks back on the situation now. She marvels at what a missed opportunity it could have been had she not taken the leap.
After five years of renting, Mast's business eventually outgrew the four walls, and she was forced to find a larger building.
Then the doctors came calling.
"A group of doctors approached me," says Mast, "and wanted me to do a medical spa." She agreed.
That's when the real work started. Mast began investigating the ins and outs of the proposal, and what it would mean for her and her growing business. Two weeks before the new equipment was set to arrive, Mast backed out of the deal because she couldn't staff the new operation. "It's hard to staff when people are already happy where they are," she says.
Instead, she decided to open a spa division—At the Well—in her existing space. Now, business is booming. Mast has divided existing rooms and added new ones. "I should have done this five years ago," she says.
"When you have a growing clientele base, it's just smart marketing to grow," Mast explains. "Not only are we continuing with therapy and everything we already did, but we now offer at least 30 additional services, bareMinerals makeup, and aesthetic services such as facials and skin care."
Sloan agrees with Mast's assessment. "If you've got more customers than you can handle," Sloan says, "or if a recent marketing effort shows that, scaled up, you could generate a great deal more business, you're poised to successfully grow your business."
Everything at Mast's spa is natural, or "eco-chic," as she puts it, chemical-free and low-odor. "When I came to town, people thought I was a witch doctor," says Mast. "Now we're trying to educate people about the importance of natural, that there's another way to do things."
Mast says the group of doctors that expressed interest in her business was an enormous credibility boost for her. Finally, she felt, her work was being taken seriously. "You have to be confident in this business," Mast says. "You don't fail if you don't try."
But be careful, warns Sloan, because unchecked growth has the potential to negatively impact customer service. "How many times have you seen a popular restaurant expand only to lose its character and quality?" he asks. "Much the same in this business. Superior customer service becomes ever more difficult when you're not on the front lines."
When expanding, Sloan cautions, consider the increase in head count, the transition into additional management responsibilities and fewer "doing the work" responsibilities, additional debt-financing requirements, increase in pace of activity, and greater fixed costs versus variable costs.
Enthusiastic but realistic, Mast did her due diligence before deciding to expand, feeling out the local business environment to make sure she had a marketable service.
"What are people looking for?" asks Mast. "What are other shops doing? Don't copy others, but come up with an original idea to separate yourself. You cannot be competitive; set yourself apart and be complementary. I have a great working relationship with every therapist in our community."
Has the move paid off for Mast?
"I've got bigger bills to pay," she laughs. But Mast believes bigger bills are all part of the process. "You've got to spend money to make money," she says. "Financially, has it paid off yet? No, but I'm OK with that. If I'm able to pay for the equipment, for the inventory, I'm OK because it will happen."
Still, she has no regrets. Mast says she's not one with a "wish I could have" mentality. "I'm in a position where, if this doesn't work, I'll sell the equipment and get on with life. Let's see what else we can make happen. I'm going to leave an empty vessel."
The bottom line for Mast is that if you don't innovate, you won't get ahead.
"No matter how small your business is," Mast says, "you can add a few extra services, and people will dig it."
And dig it, they have.