Small fires

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Photo by Allison Titcomb

This month, Charlie Gilkey and I hosted our fifth Lift Off Retreat with a small group of extraordinary entrepreneurs.

We spent four days at the secluded Saguaro Lake Ranch where we had deep conversation, and took deep action, about  business model design.

At the end of the retreat, as we were wrapping up with final thoughts, I had tears streaming down my face from hearing the tender and heartfelt words participants shared with each other. It was as if time and space shifted slightly for a moment, and we were in a special and very sacred zone with each other. Trust was deep. Connection was tight.

I flashed back on the many times that I have gotten advice to “go bigger” and “scale” something like Lift Off. I have gotten recommendations to live stream the event, or videotape the whole thing so I could share it as a digital product.

But I would always get uncomfortable with the ideas, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because some things are meant to stay small.

Charlie Gilkey describes this in terms he learned from his grandfather: build a small fire and sit close to it.

In today’s business climate, there is such huge focus on scaling, churning, exploding and rocketing sales that we often forget that “going big” is not a “one size fits all” answer. Jonathan fields just wrote a great post about this where he quotes Amy Hoy’s term of “entreporn” for the media’s obsession with startups scaling at all costs.

We glorify “going big” without stopping to think about if it makes sense a) for us as individuals b) for our business c) for our customers.

 To scale or not to scale; questions for your business

For each part of your business, ask yourself:

  1. Should this business line scale? Why?
    Is it truly a unique business opportunity that fits your strengths, meets a deep need in the market, and contains true economic opportunity, or are you just doing it because you think you should?
  2. How will it feel to deliver it at a bigger scale?
    What will the actual work feel like? Will you feel the same level of passion and enthusiasm for the work if it gets much bigger? Will scaling amplify your superpowers or diminish them?
  3. What time, resources, energy and attention will it require to scale?
    Are you prepared to invest what it takes to scale in a sustainable way? If not, how can you make a plan to do so?
  4. Will scaling get me closer to my personal and business goals?
    What are your personal and business goals? Have you thought through your business model and made clear decisions about the mission, vision and values of your business?
  5. Does it fit with my definition of success?
    I am always skeptical when I hear someone say “I will be happy when I … (sell my first 1,000 books) (make a million dollars) (meet the man of my dreams).” What about your happiness right here, right now? My friend Brooke Castillo wrote a powerful post about choices she has made to forgo some amazing opportunities (appear on Oprah, get a television show, get a book deal) to pursue her own unique version of success.

There is nothing wrong with big

There are certain parts of my business that I want to scale way up:

  • Big idea books that spread like an ideavirus. I would be happy to sell millions of copies of my books. 🙂
  • Larger speaking engagements to feel the pulse of a large crowd when sharing big ideas that get them thinking, and inspired to act.
  • Expanding the market for my core digital courses that have the capability of helping hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs.
  • Sponsorships for free content so I can spend time creating killer, useful content for entrepreneurs without having to spend half my time launching products.

 There are no right answers

Choose the business growth path that makes sense for you. Take your time with your decisions. Think through the implications of your decisions. Then whatever the outcome, stand proudly behind your results.

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12 Responses to “Small fires”

  1. Fadi El-Eter says:

    Hi Pam,

    My business is growing now – and I really have to scale up. The problem at this moment if I scale, then I have to hire more employees – something I cannot afford at the moment.

    On the other hand, if I don’t scale, then the growth potential of my company will be adversely affected.

    It’s a dilemma…

  2. Love this, Pam. I’ll throw a variation of question #5 into the mix that helps me out when deciding about the “right size” of a venture…I ask myself a question given to me years ago by a medical intuitive and shaman:
    “Is this mine to do?”
    Then I hush.
    And wait for what I may have been pretending not to know.
    No fail, the question and it’s answer send me in the direction that my heart is leading me to follow.
    I’m currently pondering just that question. Thanks for championing “small” when it is right.

  3. Pamela says:

    I can’t wait for the book Bob! Scaling with intention is so fantastic, and so hard to do! I know you will do an amazing job explaining how to do it.

    I have never been one to blindly follow mainstream advice. Some of it works wonderfully well for certain people, but is really terrible for others.

    I find it kind of comical that some folks who long to escape the confines of their cubicles end up creating companies whose main goal is to … add cubicles. 🙂

  4. Bob Sutton says:


    My colleague Huggy Rao and I are really into scaling these days — we are teaching a course on it, doing talks, and writing a book — but one thing we are starting to notice is captured in your fantastic post: Leaders often feel the pressure or impulse so scale even though they don’t quite consider the trade-offs. I have worked with several companies where one days the CEO looks up and realizes that he or she doesn’t really know — and can’t even recognize — most of the people in the company. And even when organizations get to 15 or 20 people, the load on the boss is quite high. Yes, as you say, it can be good but not every leader or organization benefits from it — financially or emotionally.

  5. fas says:

    As you said there are no right answers but the happiness will be there when you sell 1000 books 😉

    • Pamela says:

      That’s funny Fas — I would indeed be happy to sell a million books, but know that selling a million books will not make me happy. Being happy will. 🙂

  6. Beth says:

    Pam, thank you for these fantastic questions! My tiny tiny biz is showing real potential for growth in the next couple of years and I was just doing some strategic planning this week around the idea of scaling up. I felt great about the vision I came up with and the answers I have to your questions in this post totally give me even more confidence to move forward. I will be saving this post as a reference for my future ventures as well!

    So helpful. Thank you.

    • Pamela says:

      I am so glad the questions helped Beth! So often we just fall into business strategy (just like careers) without questioning any assumptions. I can’t wait to watch you scale in just the way that fits your life and biz.

  7. Lizzie Larock says:

    I love this, Pam. I keep beating myself for not wanting to be bigger. But I’m a boutique, not a Walmart, an Indie film, not a blockbuster. I want to go deeper, not bigger. Oh but selling a few million books WOULD be kinda sorta way cool.

    • Pamela says:

      No beating up required Lizzie! Being a great indie brand does NOT preclude you from selling a few million books! I am counting on it! 😉

  8. I have met so many amazing, inspiring people while traveling across South America (They have all given me so much to write about:)). I have learned so much from them, it is incredible how with little they have, they are able to GIVE so much!! Some of them have actually made HUGE differences in the world and to human nature. Sounds pretty big, huh? They never saw the need to turn it into something more than it is, why? It just wouldn’t be the same, the warmth, the closeness, the true core value would be taken away, it just was not worth it. I agree, there is nothing wrong with BIG, it all depends on what BIG means to each of us.

    Like the saying goes: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it:)

    • Pamela says:

      I found the same thing Antonia, when I lived in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. The power of one strong connection is deep. We forget that in our insatiable quest for MORE MORE MORE!