Back at the start of it all, (October 2006), Swish Design was just me – Kelly.
Let’s call that iteration of the business Swish 1.0.
I’d set myself up in a little 3m x 3m space at my previous employer and revelled in the fact that everything was on me. I set my hours. I chose which clients I worked with and what services I provided. I charged what I wanted to charge. And, because I did a good job for people, my business grew quickly off the back of word of mouth.
In fairly short time there was too much work for one person. (Especially when that one person was also doing all the daily admin, accounting and marketing in addition to all the billable work). So, I took on a part-timer and the business evolved into Swish 1.1.
Within two years I had two staff in addition to myself (Swish 1.2!) and had very much outgrown that little 3m x 3m space. It was time to cut the apron strings and go find a place of our own. We moved to West Perth, and because I was pregnant (Swish 1.2.1?!) I needed to get another designer into the system before I went off to have my baby.
Before long we were Swish 1.3.1
Me having a baby did not slow down the business’ growth at all. Probably because I took zero days off. (Much to the horror of my clients, I was sending invoices and doing bits of work from the hospital.) Crazy? Maybe. But when you’re the owner of a rapidly growing business, you kind of do what you have to do.
Unsurprisingly, after 18 months of combining the running of a high-growth business with being a new mum, I fell apart. At that point in time, I wanted Swish 1.3.1 to become Swish 0. Yep, I was ready to shut everything down because it had all become too hard. I didn’t want to be running a business anymore. I just wanted to be a graphic designer.
At this point, my husband Anthony (who was on long service from his teaching job), suggested he take over the running of the business. Initially, I laughed. He wasn’t a designer! How could he run a design business?
As it turns out, he could run it very well.
Anthony never ended up going back to teaching and the business evolved again.
Our clients were telling us they wanted us to take care of everything for them. (i.e. not just design, but printing, consulting, SEO, marketing, copywriting, strategy.) So we did what any other business would do in that position. We worked really hard to grow our in-house capabilities to match the demand.
Somewhere between 2013 and 2015, we transitioned from being a boutique design business into a full-service agency.
As our operating costs (staff, contractors, software, hardware, rent) spiralled upwards, so too did the amount we needed to charge for our services to stay viable. The more we charged, the more our clients expected (and rightly so). The more our clients expected, the more people we had to hire to deliver on those expectations.
By the end of 2017, we were seriously burnt out from how hard we were having to push ourselves to stay in the black. This wasn’t an unusual situation – we’d found ourselves burnt out many times over the prior 11 years. For various reasons, at those previous points in time, we didn’t have the option to do anything other than push on.
This time, however, we did have options. Our office lease was coming up for renewal and for the first time ever, we considered the fact that we weren’t obliged to renew it.
An office, something that had always been the status symbol of a ‘real business’, was becoming less and less relevant in 2018. More than half our clients weren’t in Perth so had never been to our office anyway, and the ones who were in Perth had only visited once or twice. More than half our team weren’t in Perth and already worked remotely from home. With two kids at school, I’d also been working from home 2-3 days a week for the past year.
As we considered running the business with a fully remote setup, we also saw an opportunity to simplify our service offering. Our core strength has always been that we’re really great designers – as great at website design as we are at print design (most people are one or the other because they’re such different forms of design).
Could we return to operating in our very specific zone of genius?
We could only try.
2018 saw us make some big changes
We made the tough decision to let some staff members go.
We stopped taking on jobs outside our zone of genius.
After 11 years of relentless growth, we didn’t just put the brakes on. We intentionally ungrew the business. And while it would have been nice to snap our fingers and see our latest evolution take hold, the truth is, it’s taken all year to get to where we are now: Swish 3.0.
As it turns out, we still have an office – we have rooms at 1060 Hay St in West Perth – because we still need to meet with each other and our Perth-based clients. While we can work from there, we seldom do because working from home saves us at least an hour in the car each day and allows Anthony, in particular, to do things he’d never been able to do before, like drop off or pick up the kids from school and help coach our son’s sport teams.
Ungrowing the business has also released Anthony and me from the day-to-day business operations and freed us up to pursue our own professional evolutions: Anthony with his business efficiency consulting, and me with my writing, ghostwriting and editorial work.
But, perhaps most importantly, ungrowing our business has allowed us to really delight our clients at the level we aspire to again because we’re doing only what we’re really, really great at. Which, of course, has made the business less stressful and more profitable.
Steps to ungrowing your business
If you’re in the same position we found ourselves in a year ago, with a business that’s a bit unwieldy, stressful to run and where you’re operating outside your zone of genius more often than not, here are our tips for ungrowing.
1. First ask, should we ungrow?
Or should we push on and try to make the business in its current iteration more profitable and easier to run via better staffing, systems and processes?
For us, we felt we already had solid staffing, systems and processes in place – but the business just wasn’t delivering us the lifestyle we desired. Plus, we had other ventures we both wanted to pursue professionally.
For you, the answer might be different depending on your professional and lifestyle goals.
2. Be willing to make hard decisions
We had to let staff go as part of the ungrowing process and this was incredibly difficult because we were keenly aware of the effect our decision would have on those people’s day-to-day lives. In the end, however, we had to be selfish and make the best decision for ourselves. We felt ok doing this as we’d been making decisions in favour of our staff for many years.
3. Understand ungrowing a business takes as much work as growing one
The first six months of this year were quite insane for us both. In letting staff go, we had to absorb their workloads and sort through a few things before we could redistribute those workloads internally. Moving out of an office that had previously accommodated six staff and a boardroom also took a huge amount of physical and emotional energy.
4. There has to be a market for your zone of genius
It was one thing to decide, ‘Hey we’re going to refocus our efforts on print design, web design and web development only’. It was another for the market to say, ‘Yes, we need those things from you.’
We took a big risk in discontinuing ancillary services we had previously provided (like digital marketing, SEO, marketing consulting etc) and telling clients, ‘No, we only do these specific things now.’ Could we generate enough of an income off just the things we were good at? I’m not sure we can answer that with 100% certainty yet, but so far, so good.
5. Have a backup plan
Ungrowing your business is a risk that involves stress and potential financial instability. Your personal tolerance for those two things will determine just how much of a backup plan you need.
Anthony and my tolerance for stress and financial instability is low (given we have a young family to support). Something that enabled us to take that risk was the fact that we had other ventures that could be ramped up if our Swish 3.0 experiment failed.
When you’re a business owner, it’s so easy to get caught up thinking that business growth should only ever occur in one direction. The prevailing message out there is ‘scale or die’. But if you’ve been at this business thing for a while and your business isn’t delivering the lifestyle you hoped it would, maybe it’s time to consider going the other way.
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