Saturday, October 22, 2011

SCALE: A Roundtable Discussion On Growing Businesses


This past Thursday, Akira Morita and his wife Dipika Kohli, owners of Design Kompany, hosted a roundtable discussion on growing businesses. The event, which took place in downtown Durham, sought to explore the growing business. When should a business grow? When is it best to remain as is? What is the difference between "growth" and "scale"?

In this article, I will introduce the seven panelists and share my thoughts on the event.

Panelists
Jay Mebane, Co-owner/CFO of Thundershirt
Emily Bloom, Regional Director at the Durham office of Viget Labs
Ann May Woodward, Director of Scrap Exchange
Sean Lilly Wilson, Founder of Fullsteam Brewery
Aaron Averill, Owner of Zone Five
Vandana Dake, Alliance Architecture
Neil Lancia, A Small Orange

My Thoughts On The Event
As we left the roundtable discussion, Akira asked us to share our thoughts on the event. Let this entry serve as my response.

What is the single most important thing you heard tonight?
The most memorable thing I heard tonight came from Jay Mebane when he said, "Giving up control means hiring the right people. Hire slowly and fire quickly."

Having owned a couple of businesses in my life, I realized quickly that I cannot do it alone. At some point, I am going to run out of time, skills, and other valuable resources. When this happens, I need assistance from others. This is when one has to let go of controlling everything.

At North Carolina Central University, where I lead a team of talented web developers, I am learning how to let go and trust in other people's abilities. Prior to this opportunity, I had a hard time delegating work to others. I think it was difficult because I had to ask others for help. It also meant following up on requests and  insuring that the final product met my expectations within the time given.

I'm getting better.

As the Polemarch (president) for Smithfield Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., I get the opportunity to lead in a different capacity. With 23 active members, I am tasked with providing a service to members and the community. I am also responsible for creating memorable experiences where brotherhood is encouraged and developed. All of this and more comes to life through the hands, hearts, and minds of chapter members, not through my own efforts.

With the recent growth of our chapter, I am learning the importance of having the right people on board. Author James Collins once wrote that leaders have to get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off. I couldn't agree more.

What's the most interesting thing you heard tonight?
The most interesting thing I heard came from Sean Lilly Wilson. When asked about scaling his brewery, he said, "Scaling means maintaining the culture." One fear that Sean deals with is growing too quickly and losing the culture that made his business a success. What if Sean were to move to Charlotte, would Fullsteam still be the same company? 

Emily Bloom, in a one-on-one conversation, defined scale similarly. She explained how the owners of Vignet Labs, based out of Falls Church, VA, have expanded the company into various locations. With each location, the culture has an opportunity to change because the people there are different. While Falls Church may be lively and fun, Durham's location is a little more relaxed. "Is this bad? No, it's just different." Bloom explains.

In thinking about scale, my mind races to the Room 3026 Live community. Having been on-air since early 2010, we have an awesome group of listeners that engage every single day. It's amazing!

However, I recall a conversation I had with them on the subject of growing the community. Some were afraid that increasing the listeners would ultimately change the community's culture.

On days where we have well known guests on the show, our chat room is practically unrecognizable. There are new names and plenty of opinions that differ from the norm. For me, it's exciting. Although, I recognize how disruptive it can be for the loyal listeners. 

The challenge with scale, as I see it, is maintaining that culture so the spirit of its founders remains.

What do you wish we'd asked that we didn't?
The event was scheduled for 1.5 hours. In hindsight, not many questions were asked. I recall hearing two official questions: 1) How big do you consider your company to be (small, medium, or big)? How big would you like your company to be? 2) How long can you operate at a loss?

For me, I would have liked more rapid questioning and involvement from the audience. With 25 attendees, it would have been advantageous to pull from people with various levels of experience. Too many were quiet.

How did you enjoy this discussion?
Overall, I enjoyed the experience. As I sat there and listened to the discussion, I realized how much I missed these live events. In college, and even in certain high school classes, I enjoyed panel, town hall, brown bag, and roundtable talks.

With online chat rooms, Facebook walls, and Twitter feeds, I forgot the value of basic face-to-face interactions. This event inspired me to consider taking my online radio show into the real world. For that, I am grateful. 

In closing, I would like to thank the panelists, Akira, and Dipika for their contributions. To view my interview with Akira and Dipika, check out the video below.

If you cannot see the video, click here.

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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