Hi, my name’s James and my business doesn’t scale. I’ve got another declaration to make up front – one many small business owners will be familiar with – I abuse pronouns on our website, in our emails, in the general conversation about our business. The business of which I speak is Kennedy City Bicycles, and it’s essentially a one man band. Well, I do see my partner Florence as very much a part of it, but then again she has her own business too (Petalon Flowers).
When I started the business I was a bit defensive about the solitude. I thought people might want to feel like their bicycle is being designed by a phalanx of industrial designers with pencils behind their ears and hewn out of metal by large men resembling Wolverine. But the longer I’ve done this, the more I’ve realised the scale of my business is actually a virtue. I meet the customers, I talk to them about what they need. I agree a design with them, build the bicycle and then service it later down the line. There is beauty in that personal interaction. My customers can say ‘James made this’.
I’ve been lucky enough that remaining small is a choice rather than a necessity. The business is premised on being a manufacturer that sells direct to customers. The reality is that our competitors are so big that I couldn’t hope to compete with them for price when it’s like for like. Instead I take out the 40% margin for Evans or Cycle Surgery, and as a result our bicycles smash theirs’ out of the park.
Many people have got to this stage before and the next step is well trodden: you start selling through distributors in way higher numbers. But despite the economies of scale these numbers achieve, one of two sacrifices have to be made in order to fulfil someone else’s margin: either the price goes up or the quality of the components goes down. Or both. What you are left with is a situation where you’re selling twice as many bicycles for slightly less profit each time but making more money overall. Theoretically the volume you can produce becomes limitless.
But who cares? You were already making enough money and you get to do what you love doing all day. You were lucky enough to have persuaded people to pay you for doing what you’d be doing in your spare time anyway. Why would you possibly give that up?
We’ve long since known Benjamin Franklin was full of shit when he said that hard work is a virtue in and of itself. We’ve realised that working 15 hour days is not the route to happiness. And surely we understand that when we’ve chosen to do something for a living that it was that thing that we chose to do, not managing other people doing it. But we are so entrenched in our ideas of what “success” is that we can’t poke our heads out of our holes and see what will really make us happy and do that.
Choosing to be small doesn’t mean a lack of ambition, it’s just a different ambition. My ambition isn’t to make my business the biggest ever. It’s to do the best job I can possibly do, to make my customers as happy as I can and to make the people I love proud of me and what I’ve made. I believe the best way to do all of those things is to stay small, making Kennedy City Bicycles a business that doesn’t – and won’t – scale. Whether it’s in their business plans or just in their imagination, I’d encourage others to consider the idea that success isn’t all about size. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with it.