Sales Stuck in Neutral? Why You Might Be Getting in the Way

It's a hurdle that nearly every new venture hits, at one point or another. You're growing, growing, growing and then... you stop. I've thought a lot about what exactly limits how large a business can get and, after much trial and error, I think I've found an answer: You do.

I started my research company from scratch, and we did $150,000 in revenue in our first year. I say "our" as if there was a "we," but in actual fact, the first year it was just me in a spare bedroom of a house my wife and I rented when we first got married.

The next year, we doubled to $300,000, and there really was a "we." The next year, we hit $750,000; the next, we broke through the million-dollar milestone and hit $1.5 million. The following year, we got to $2.2 million, after which we hit $3.3 million. Then suddenly we stopped growing. We couldn't get beyond the $3.3 million mark. For three consecutive years, we were stuck at $3.3 million.

I started to get frustrated. Having enjoyed a great growth trajectory, I came to expect that we would grow each year. As we became more entrenched at $3.3 million, I started working even harder, rising at 4:30 a.m. most mornings and working well past dinnertime.

Finally, I realized there were no more hours that I could personally work and that, in fact, we had reached a ceiling that we couldn't penetrate without making some fundamental changes to the way I ran my business.

Up until that point, my management style was best characterized as a funnel. Everything that flowed in from my employees eventually funneled down to me personally. I was approving every proposal, attending every key sales meeting, appeasing every angry customer, screening every new hire, and signing every check.

I was a control freak of the highest order and just couldn't let go. I constantly felt my business was one misstep away from ruin and I took it as my personal mission to direct everything.

I realized my need for control was choking my business and set out to make three difficult changes:

1. Stop customizing
First off, we switched from doing custom research, which required me to personally get involved in writing a unique proposal for each client, to having one standard research offering, which we flogged to anyone who would listen.

2. Package it
Once we standardized our offer, I created a brochure and printed 1,000 copies. I figured by sinking some money into professionally produced marketing materials, I would be less likely to change the offer -- kind of like buying a Bowflex system while watching late-night TV after polishing off a bag of Ruffles. For me, the investment in a flashy brochure meant I would actually try to stick to my plan.

3. Hire a ringer
Next I hired a talented salesperson. Her compensation ended up being more than double that of our second highest paid employee. It was a big nut for a small company, but having a sales guru helped ease the load on a number of levels: 1) She was doing a lot of the selling; 2) her customers went to her when they had a problem, so my time spent firefighting went down; 3) employees started to see her as a resource to get their questions answered if I wasn't around.

For an alcoholic, the solution is simple to say and hard to do: Stop drinking. It's a similar dilemma for the control freak. The steps above are easy to write but required years of false starts and relapses before I finally kicked my need for control.

In fact, the year I made these changes, we actually went backward, just cresting the $3 million mark further undermining my confidence. Despite my concerns, I stuck with it, sensing the changes needed time to steep. The next year we made $4.2 million. The following year, we hit $5 million and had momentum. We had finally broken through.

(photo courtesy of Flickr/cyrillicus)