In small business, the owner is a big deal; their identity, personality and influence loom large . This is inevitable, with a small team (sometimes just one), total control of decisions, active involvement in operations and close contact with clients. In fact, the business owner and brand identity can easily become synonymous, either by default or intention, usually without any consideration.
This default setting, however, should be given some forethought and strategy. In the lifetime of the business, there may be points of development that you may want one or the other. The risk of letting this evolve without planning may become an impediment to growth, could result in increased difficulty in selling the business or in thwart your ability to step back from operations. It's a delicate balance that many small and growing businesses need to navigate.
There is a spectrum of levels of involvement in the identity of the business, from branding it with your name to being so omnipresent that you become it by accident.
Proud new business owners often love to plonk their name in the business brand, only too happy to be it’s embodiment. This is very common strategy for some businesses, particularly professional services businesses like accounting firms, lawyers, architects and consultants. For big firms that break through the size barrier, the name becomes synonymous with their brand, such as Ernst and Young, Deloitte, or Ellenberg Fraser.
But for most small businesses, the big consideration is the long term plans. A future exit could be impacted by this - a future new owner may not want your name on it. Likewise clients may expect you to be involved when you no longer want to be.
Level of involvement
When just starting off, business owners are hands-on delivering the service, so very close personal relationships can form and customers love getting personal attention from the owner. As the business grows, this can get tricky as you have less time and desire to maintain time at the coalface. Let’s face it, there are scarcely few employees who have your dedication, and this gets noticed. As a consultant for more than 20 years, I have seen just how attached clients get.
This is one of the biggest challenges for growing business and needs very careful and thorough planning. Have your team members involved with clients as early as possible, working alongside you so clients get to know them. Be present without doing the work and make sure that they client know that you are present and oversee delivery, with good systems that mean you don’t have to do the work. And it goes without saying, hire great people who are aligned with the brand. For your existing clients who are used to dealing with you, handing over needs to be a slow process, with the client knowing (or thinking) that you are still keeping a close eye on progress.
There are some successful businesses out there where the figurehead owner drives marketing and publicity, if not operations. Think Richard Branson at Virgin, John Bouros at Yellow Brick Road, Janine Ellis at Boost Juice, all of whom have public business personalities with their own following. Through their wider media and social media activities they have followings with benefits that flow on to their business empires, with equal emphasis on their own independent media careers. This separation for the most part protects the brand value, adding value through exposure.
For the smaller operators, often the owners are the faces on social media or media, the public speaker and spokesperson. It’s harder to separate the business from brand in this case, with many potential clients that gain interest in the business wanting to work with the owner. But, by keeping focused on the strategy this can be a valuable approach.
Behind the scenes
For businesses with big ambitions for growth, unshackling the name, operations and brand early on can provide a smoother experience in transitioning from small to medium and beyond. That means it’s own branding, stepping away from the company personality in marketing and getting other people involved in client interactions as early as possible. This has been my intended approach at The Business Plan Company, but keeping these separate is not always easy in the early stages.
Where to draw the line.
For clients of a small and medium business, there is great power in placing the owner at the centre of the brand: they have certainty in knowing who is running the business, of close relationships and personal service. The strategy ultimately depends on where you see the business going. If you intend to stay a smaller, identity-based business, then you will be intrinsic in the identity of the business. If you want to go big, there will inevitably be a transition at some point where you and the brand separate out,
There is so much value in diving the brand through a strong figurehead so in many cases it’s probably inevitable that the owner will be some part of the identity. Just need to find the balance in your business for growth and the longer-term exit strategy of the business.