WisBusiness: Consultant Offers ‘Irrefutable’ Ways to Grow a Small Business

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE – Steven Little gave his ”seven irrefutable rules of small business growth” and much more to the breakfast session of the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference Friday at the Hyatt.

“They’re irrefutable not because you can’t, but because why would you want to?” said Little, who travels the country talking about small business growth and demographic changes for business.

Little’s seven rules are as follows: 1) have a sense of purpose, 2) develop outstanding market intelligence, 3) effective growth planning, 4) customer-driven processes, 5) the power of technology, 6) hiring and retaining the best and the brightest and 7) seeing the future more clearly.

“I learned some of these by building three fast-growth businesses myself, but even more by studying, along with Inc. Magazine, what some companies have done to grow,” said Little, who is a senior consultant to Inc.

Little cited former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden as one of his heroes in the area of sense of purpose. From Wooden and others, he learned to have bigger reasons for getting up in the morning than just profit.

“Wealth accumulation alone will not sustain you for five to 10 years,” Little said.

Market intelligence means developing the knack to “recognize and adapt to changes in the marketplace,” according to Little.

Any effective plan for “sustainable growth” – a rate of around 20 percent per year in Little’s estimation – needs to be well-communicated and regularly updated.

Little said that many companies get farther away from their customers as they grow, but to do so is very harmful.

“An anthropologist once told me that tool-using humanoids have been on this earth for 2 million years,” Little said in setting up his section on the power of technology. He praised technology, but warned the audience to not “let your system make you stupid.” Any technology must help the entrepreneur adapt to change and communicate well in the information age.

Hiring and retaining the best and the brightest employees become “the job” if you grow, Little said. “Employee retention equals customer retention equals growth,” he said.

Be “slow to hire” and “quicker to fire,” Little advised. “You don’t do anybody a favor by keeping somebody on who obviously is not working out,” he added.

“We can’t train for brain, but we can test for the best,” Little said. “I always operated under the premise that if they reported to me they had to be smarter than me.”

Little spent the most time on his “seeing the future” section. He said entrepreneurs need to at least see the “obvious” so they can adapt to the “unexpected.”

Katrina and its effects should have been foreseen, for example, since 32 hurricanes hit land in the Gulf region from 1950 to 2004. High gas prices also should not have taken people by surprise since “they’ve been paying $5 a gallon in Europe for years,” Little said.

Several population shifts in the world will affect how business is done, Little said. For example, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities of more than 1 million population, yet in the U.S. young people are moving into urban areas while older people with more spendable income are moving to smaller towns. “In the U.S., the population with spendable income is decentralizing.”

Under a title of “grayfication,” Little pointed out that the definition of “older” has changed and that companies might soon have productive 80-year-old workers. “Do you want to know what 60 looks like?” Little said, then showing an ad with actress Jaclyn Smith in it. She is 60.

Little pointed out that 70 percent of spending is done by people over 50. “The life expectancies just keep going up,” he added.

“Green = Gold” was another point made. “I’m a political agnostic yet a business realist,” Little said. “This is a done deal. You can grow by being conscious about a sustainable future.”

Little also pointed out that China will become more of a factor in global business. In 2000, there were 5 million cars in China. By 2012, there will be 50 million.

“There would be more but they can’t make rubber fast enough for the tires,” Little said. “China can either be your worst enemy or best friend depending on how you respond.”

Adapting to a rapidly diversifying population right here in the U.S. is another key, according to Little. “It’s my opinion is that the best business plan is ‘All Men Are Created Equal’,” he said. “I believe that 500 years from now America will be known for that, and you can grow if you adapt to it.”

Near his conclusion, Little told the story of the orb weaver spider and the dwarf goat of Nigeria. Scientists took a gene from the spider that allows it to make the strongest silk fiber in the world and implanted it in the goat. From the milk substance, a prototype vest was made that is stronger than anything on the market.

“My 15-year-old son told me about that,” he said. “My only response was ‘Wow.’ The world is changing, and you can grow with it.”

Little is the author of a book by the same title as his presentation. He is working on another at this time when he is not traveling the country.

His presentation kicked off the second day of the conference. Later in the day, Mark Heesen of the National Venture Capital Association was scheduled to address a luncheon. At that event, the annual “Seize the Day” award will be announced.

Sessions on franchising in Wisconsin, angel networks and other finances and other topics rounded out the day.