Friday, November 24, 2006

Business growth and preservation of quality

Today, I realized one of the key challenges facing small business: growing while preserving the quality of service.

For a business selling goods, there's mass production: leave it to the machines. But in the service industries which still require high levels of skill, this is a little trickier. It's something we've still got to figure out.

I thought of this today as I went to see Douglas, a mechanic friend of my dad. He's a good mechanic, and he set up shop for himself in Mountain View a couple of years ago. My family goes to him every time we want to fix our cars — not only because he's my dad's friend, but because he doesn't charge through the roof, because he won't charge for trivial things, and because he does a thorough job. His customers have been known to bring him pizza and other treats out of gratitude.

Every time I go to his shop, all the bays are full, with several cars queued up waiting for each bay. I asked him if he ever thought about putting up an online tool to show his schedule so his customers could know which times were less busy. In response, he told me that he recognizes the growth potential, but wanted to keep his business small so that his customers could get the best possible service.

If he were to grow, he'd have to hire more people, and it would become much harder to consistently ensure the high quality of service he's offering now.

A business can start off with a handful of great people. It can provide great service to its customers while it maintains its small size. But in order to grow, it has to somehow systematize its greatness and turn it into a process. Now I ask myself: how in the world do you systematize going above and beyond? How do you mass produce a mindset geared towards going the extra mile?

It's possible. That's how great companies come about. In their respective fields, they know how to foster greatness: being honest, thorough, and taking pride in their work. Growth is wonderful. But it's not always so easy--in some fields, it may not even be possible: how do you create a huge company defined by great mechanics or great designers? Let's step back and give credit to those who can say no to growth, to those who can stand their ground to provide something great even though it means staying small.

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