Are you Building a Big But Dumb Business?

Have we got our head in the sand over employment?

Have we got our head in the sand over employment?

Tom Farmer, the entrepreneur who made his money with Quick Fit, a tyres and exhausts retailer and fitter, says that the bigger you are – the dumber you are.

In Mr Farmer’s view ‘the reason governments are dumb is because they are so big’.

So size is a real problem for both businesses and institutions.

Therefore, Tom Farmer is an advocate of the low employee business, which grows by outsourcing all the other services.

In a similar way, many entrepreneurs see their businesses become more vulnerable once they reach 50 staff than they were at 5. Why?

Simple, with a team of 5, you the entrepreneur, know exactly what is going on. Once your business reaches 50 you don’t know any of the detail and are entirely in the hands of your managers – who you may or may not be able to oversee and manage effectively.

The management issue you face with a team of 50 staff and perhaps 5 key managers is this ‘do I intervene and undermine my manager, or do I step back and let my manager get on with it?’.

It is also quite likely that whilst your managers had the skill to run a team of three or four people, they may no longer have the ability or experience to structure and lead a team of ten.

Tom Farmer says that when Quick Fit grew from 40 to 240 centres they discovered they didn’t have the management skills to run the larger business.

So what is the solution?

Your company both needs to grow by hiring talented managers and yet, at the same time, it doesn’t want to increase its size and become ‘big but dumb’.

So, adding growth by using outsiders, interim managers or freelancers is the solution. When new people come into the business they tend to have a fresh appraoch. Generally, good quality freelancers bring excitement with them for the new project and long term staff get invigorated by new influence.

Don’t forget that freelancers will recently have been working in other similar or comparable businesses or departments and therefore can share some of the good and bad things that they have experienced.

In this way, your business will become more efficient and more cost effective and you can avoid the loss of control by keeping your core team to less than 10 or 20 people – at least until your business has grown substantially.

And the measure is…

So, as with all things in business, we need to decide what we want to measure to ensure that we don’t become Big But Dumb. And the way to do this is to measure

….annual revenue per full time employee.

If, as your business grows, you generate more revenue per employee – then you are becoming smarter!

Whereas, on the other hand, if as you grow your annual revenue per employee declines, then you are becoming Big But Dumb.

The trouble is that when your margins slip in a Big But Dumb business, it is very hard to cut costs without also cutting profit margin and therefore your business quickly falls into trouble.

Whereas, if you build your business with a constantly increasing revenue per employee, then you will be able to react to market changes faster and smarter.


So, the conclusion, if you are still with me, is that you should only increase your full time headcount when your revenue justifies it. If your goal is to achieve £100k of revenue per full time employee, then until you have £100k of revenue you will remain an entirely freelance team. When you get to £1m you will have 10 employees and at this point, you might decide to raise the goal to £150k per employee. So no more hires until you reach £1.65m – the rest coming from expanded use of freelance, contract staff and agencies.

A goal of £150k revenue per employee will ensure your business is smart, fleet footed and able to react to the market and take advantage. And, of course, you will be heavily dependent on your ability to hire and contract with the best freelance talent in the market place.

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Leader. Speaker. Trainer. Helping snr execs and entrepreneurs achieve their business and funding goals.

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3 Responses to “Are you Building a Big But Dumb Business?”

  1. Neil Lewis says:

    Okay, I admit, this is what I did – as my first business grew – it grew faster in headcount than revenue. The revenue per employee fell and when it got to 60 staff and the market turned – it had a real problem finding profit and closed a couple of years later. What should I have done? Well, if we’d tracked revenue per employee, we would have stopped the decent into Big But Dumb and we would have had a smaller (head count) but more profitable and stronger business.

    hmmm – won’t make that mistake next time!

  2. […] let’s go back to our piece on how to successful entrepeneurs can build a smart business. The essence of a successful business is an increase (over time) of revenue per employee. This […]

  3. […] Simple,  set a revenue per employee goal – because this goal is about creating a sustainable strong business that is low stress to manage and as a result is a lot more fun for the shareholder/ business partners. Don’t set a fixed value goal. […]

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