Does Your Business Really Have to Grow to Survive?

Last Updated Jul 29, 2010 1:33 PM EDT

It's conventional business wisdom that if your company is not growing, it's dying. When you run a small business that competes with much bigger rivals, it's easy to think that you, too, need to expand in order to survive. But Excalibur Screwbolts, a small British manufacturer, has proven that staying small -- and, more importantly, staying authentic -- is one way to beat out big-time competitors.

Excalibur is a classic tale of an entrepreneur inventing a product to solve his own headache. Charlie Bickford's struggle to find the right fixing solution for a construction job led him to invent the Excalibur Screwbolt, a high-strength twin helix threaded anchor that can be screwed directly into hard materials like concrete, brick and steel. One of his first projects, in 1991, was for Buckingham Palace stables, and last year that royal connection came full circle when Excalibur Screwbolts won a Queen's Award for Enterprise. Bickford's invention has now served an impressive range of engineering projects from the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland.

The Excalibur revolutionized bolt fixing in the construction industry, and as a result it's been copied by every major bolt manufacturer. Despite these threats from much bigger companies, Excalibur has endured, in part due to Bickford's personal approach to running a small business:

  • Keep the integrity and personality of the owner at the heart of the business. Bickford is a down-to-earth managing director. He may be the inventor, but at age 74 he still leads the company, answers the phones, and deals with customers.
  • Avoid over expansion: remain small and manageable. Excalibur may not be the biggest, but they are confident they offer the original and best product on the market.
  • Trade on your home-grown credentials. Excalibur tried outsourcing some manufacturing to Asia, but recently the firm brought its bolt production back to the UK. Not only does it save on import taxes, but "British-designed and British-made" is a key selling point.
  • Keep cool under pressure from competitors. Bickford kept his nerve when others started copying his products; it just spurred him on to innovate new ones to stay ahead of the game.
  • Stay true to your core strengths. Excalibur's product developments are twists on the same unique selling point of the original invention: the twin helix threaded anchor remains their key intellectual property.
With its unassuming office and warehouse down a rural lane, Excalibur might sound like an unexpected role model for business in 2010. But if you're trying to compete against behemoths, your biggest asset may be your small size and commitment to quality and personal service.