If you want to grow, don’t be what you are. Be what you aspire to be.
Entrepreneurs live in the future. If you expect to innovate and grow, you have to. But if you’re growing a business, the vast majority of your time is likely spent on countless tedious tasks in the present. So, how do you keep your eye on those aspirations of growth while you’re up to your eyebrows in the day-to-day details?
Let me share with you a simple mantra for the future that has turned out to be one of the most important pieces of business advice I’ve ever received about growing a business:
“Create a footprint larger than your shoe size.”
Yes, it sounds easy enough. But be honest: Are your actions living up to that standard?
Dreaming big, while being small
When I was building my second company, I made the dramatic shift from building software for small businesses to building a services provider for the F500. My partner and I had a unique value proposition but we were concerned–no, make that terrified– that no large corporation would hire a firm that consisted of two guys.
There was one question from prospects that we dreaded, “How large is your company?” So, we cobbled together a handful of colleagues and friends who agreed to be virtual contractors and employees and proudly proclaimed that we had a staff of about a dozen people. I’m sure we appeared incredibly green and naive –perhaps even laughable–but large companies like IBM, Battelle Labs, even Apple and Microsoft bought into our vision to eventually become clients.
While wondering where our next payroll check would come from, we created five and 10-year business plans. While we were debating the merits of spending hundreds on a laptop, we set goals to make millions. While trying to squeeze yet one more person into an already crowded office, we set up global partnerships. On top of that we invested every penny of profit in branding, advertising and direct mail. We even invited every family member and friend we could come up with to our first holiday party. We did everything we could do to create a footprint much larger than our shoe size. In large part were were just trying to convince ourselves that we were more than what we were at the time. We behaved and acted the way a company many times our size would need to act in order to be ready when the future arrived.
Looking back it seems as though those two young entrepreneurs were incredibly naive–OK, even a bit cocky. Yet we somehow grew into our aspirations, and as we did the aspirations expanded and the future started to come into focus.
Years later, as our company passed 20, then 50, and eventually 100 employees, we’d recall those early days and cringe at our audacity.
Drawn to the future
The truth is that unless you’re standing still, you are not what you are, you are what you aspire to be. Aspirations are the gravity of the future; they draw you to it as you build towards them.
“Aspirations are the gravity of the future; they draw you to it as you build towards them.”
This doesn’t mean that aspirations alone will get you to where you want to go, nor does it mean that you should constantly live in the future. What it does mean is that you need to build the organization you aspire to be long before you become that organization. Put in place the systems, practices, and attitudes that will support the company you want to be. Because once you start to scale the last thing you want to get in your way is a culture that can’t deal with growth.
And if you succeed, here is the supreme irony, which that one piece of advice and lots of hard work ultimately unveiled. When we finally had the 100-plus person company that we’d set out to build, we couldn’t wait for someone to ask us how large we were. When the opportunity came we’d say, with pride, “Well, we have over 100 people in five countries!” to which the standard response was, “Really? That’s all? I thought you were so much larger!” Yeah, it made us smile too!
Here is my wish for your future:
“Be what you aspire to be, and the future will already seem familiar to you when you arrive.”
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.