SME tips: how to diagnose and treat business growing pains

Anna Roberts

May 2017 ⋅ 7 min read

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Business growth is universally seen as a Good Thing. You can expand your team, offer new and improved products and services, and make a bigger impact. A larger pay cheque doesn't hurt, either.

While growth is undeniably a positive for every entrepreneur, it's not without its risks.

In particular, rapid growth can cause significant growing pains.

Not sure if your business is suffering? See if you have any of the following symptoms...

Admin Overload

Photo of a messy desk with stacks of paper and folders

Paperwork is an inescapable side-effect of running a business. It’s easily managed at first, when you have few (or no) employees, but after a certain point, admin work becomes overwhelming. You might have already hired an employee to help process paperwork, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. Your current approach hardly seems sustainable, but you don’t have the time to step back and figure out what’s going wrong.

You may not know the source of your paperwork problems, but your office staff will. If you don’t have the time to fully review your current admin systems, distribute a Google Form to the relevant office staff and ask for any feedback on how paperwork is handled.

After a few days, look at the responses. Note the problem areas and arrange a brief meeting with the relevant team(s) to plan your next actions. These might include:

  • Implementing software
  • Upgrading hardware
  • Hiring more staff
  • Training
  • Outsourcing

Research your options, and trust your staff to help you build solutions to your admin burden.

Long Term Plan

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Sure, you have a business plan that’s a couple of years old with your objectives, targets, and a competitor analysis all included, but it's hardly relevant now.

You’re no longer certain that the business is headed in the right direction because you’ve got day-to-day tasks to handle that require your immediate attention - you don’t have the luxury of looking to the future.

However, it’s clear that if the business is to continue to thrive, you have to amend your plans.

To find the time to step back from working in the business, you need to entrust tasks with employees.

That might mean hiring staff, or training existing employees. Alternatively, your problem might be a simple case of micromanagement. Take an honest look at your management style and take a step back if you think you’re guilty of being a micromanager!

In short, do whatever it takes to work on your business rather than in it. Short term survival counts for nothing if you know that you’ll struggle in the long term.

Recruitment Problems

Photo of empty office desks and chairs

When you were a job seeker, it may have seemed that there were hundreds of applicants vying for every role you wanted.

When you’re the company doing the hiring, you’ll soon find out that most of those applicants don’t meet even half of the role’s requirements.

Finding high-quality job candidates isn’t easy - particularly if you’re a small business that doesn’t have the brand following of a bigger business.

You may be struggling to find any suitable candidates at all if the position is specialist and if you’re located away from large labour markets.

But recruitment delays can be extremely costly, holding back your business and scuppering growth plans.

To ease these growing pains, you’ll need to pinpoint the source of the problem, such as:

  • The content of your job adverts
  • Where you’re posting job adverts
  • How you’re promoting job vacancies
  • The salary and benefits you offer
  • The reputation of your business
  • Your company’s location/transport links/parking situation

Invest some time into resolving these issues, as they’ll only become more damaging as your business hires at a greater rate.

The first four bullet points are the easiest to resolve - they’re a simple matter of reviewing your current approach, and making the necessary changes.

Building the reputation of your business is a bigger challenge.

We recommend starting by revamping your careers page so that it better reflects the benefits of working at your company. Add profiles of your current staff, a video tour of your office and details of the benefits and perks you offer employees. Start sharing more behind-the-scenes info, photos and video on social media.

It’ll take time to build your ‘employer brand’ - so the sooner you begin, the better!

As for your office’s location and transport situation, be upfront about its limitations in your job ads and on your website.

There’s no point trying to disguise the fact that you’re 20 miles away from the nearest railway station or parking on-site costs £10 a day. Consider setting up a car share or cycle-to-work scheme and be sure to advertise it on your careers page. In the long term, consider an office move.

Cash Flow Issues

Photo of a layer of neatly aligned pound coins

Depending on how your costs are distributed, periods of rapid growth may put significant pressure on your cash flow. Slow-paying clients exacerbate this problem. Of overall business failures, it’s estimated that between 80 and 90% are as a result of cash flow problems.

Once you’re suffering from cash flow difficulties, every business decision seems to revolve around whether or not there’s enough money in the bank - which seems ridiculous when your growth is so strong.

Prevention is preferable to cure when it comes to issues of this kind, but there’s plenty you can do to ease cash flow pressures, such as:

  • Negotiate payment plans with HMRC and utilities companies
  • Delay payments to suppliers
  • Sell stock at a discount
  • Encourage clients to pay via BACS (instead of cheque)

It’s a tricky balance - you don’t want to gain a reputation as a late payer, either. Check out our previous post on cash flow management for more tips.

Lack of Focus

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Now that your business has grown, you’re struggling to maintain full visibility of everything that’s going on. Some employees are working on projects that don’t align with the company’s plans, your brand values are being ignored, and no-one’s quite sure of what everyone else is meant to be doing.

This loss of focus often happens during rapid growth, particularly when many new employees are added to the roster. As a senior manager (or the founder) of the business, you must recognise that your company’s brand, culture, values and aims could all become diluted during growth.

Take the time to redefine your goals and brand values, and communicate them with all employees. Lead by example and consider your brand when making business decisions, big or small.

To keep employees engaged in your company and its goals, be transparent about what you’re trying to achieve, and how you plan to achieve it. Show employees their role in meeting the company’s wider goals.

Finally, assess whether all projects and teams in the business are actively contributing to these same goals. If not, think about how to change that.


Photo of a stressed employee sitting in a booth with a laptop

Working long days has become the norm. Your company’s growth means endless meetings with clients, employees, managers and third parties. You never leave the office earlier than 7, and on the weekends you work from home. You can’t remember the last day you had off, and don’t feel able to have a weekend to yourself - let alone a holiday.

You might have expected this workload when starting up the business, but now you’re several years in and have hired plenty of people, you thought that work would have levelled off.

It hasn’t.

If you’re in this position, you need to find a way to revert to a less stressful schedule - or else your health will suffer.

Most importantly, trust your employees to handle important business tasks for you. You can’t possibly expect to manage every aspect of your business as you did at the start. If you don’t think your current employees are up to the task, either train them or hire staff who are capable.

Take a step back and admit that you need to start delegating if you’re to ever regain any semblance work-life balance.


Close-up photo of an office worker writing on a pad while on the phone

As your business has grown, miscommunication has become increasingly commonplace. Sometimes it’s not clear who’s assigned to certain tasks, leading to delays or duplicated work. This might extend to confusion over rotas or annual leave, as well as disciplinary matters.

Miscommunication isn’t always costly, but as your business grows, so do the stakes.

There are many different forms of miscommunication. Aside from obvious problems such as ignored voicemail messages and overlapping email chains, you might also fail to communicate clearly in other ways, such as defining employee job roles and policies.

Now that your business is larger, you can’t manage roles and policies on an ad hoc basis. Speak to a legal expert to help you with your policies, and redefine employee job descriptions.

Think about using Slack to cut down on emails, and planning tools like Trello and Basecamp to manage projects. You’ll never completely eliminate miscommunication, but you can certainly reduce it.

Final thoughts

Business growth is exhilarating and satisfying, but if you don’t prepare for growing pains, your growth won’t last long. Diagnose and treat your business growing pains to maintain momentum and secure a prosperous future for your company!

Want more tips and advice? Check out our business growth archives for more articles like this!