Small is beautiful – measuring what matters

By Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4

 This week, we’re celebrating 10 years as a social business at Cause4. As I reflect on where a decade has gone, with the various twists and turns of life including having two children, moving house twice and finally upping sticks to live in the country – it strikes me just how much has changed, not in my energy, ambition or commitment to the work we do, but in how different my perceptions are now about what’s important and what really constitutes a successful business.

We’re often told as entrepreneurs that bigger is best, that we should concentrate on growth at all costs and that a key measure of success is our turnover and the numbers of staff that we employ. But that approach can lead to burn out and poor mental health. And about five years in to running this business that’s probably where I was at, or close to it.

 The value of an enterprise isn’t just about finance, it’s about the quality of work, the culture we create and increasingly importantly, about whether we can make our life work through it and around it. If we get these things right, then often profitability follows anyway.It’s rather a joyful irony that if we are a bit smaller, we can often be more profitable both financially and in terms of company culture and enjoyment. For the staff at Cause4 they consistently value flexible working over any other benefit.

 I recently read EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful written in the 1970s. “Small is beautiful” was a radical challenge to the 20th century’s obsession with what Schumacher described as “gigantism”. Through movements like B Corp, we have seen niche brands like Etsy and Ben & Jerry’s looking to embrace a ‘small is beautiful’ approach, where the approach to business, the craft itself and the company culture is at the heart of their work.

These areas are becoming increasingly important. As we uncover less than savoury practices in the mega brands of the early 2000s that we once admired, such as Apple and Facebook, we can feelboth burned and burned out. It can feel hugely important to our sense of well-being to support local enterprise through initiatives like Buy Local, spending in artisan shops or at the local farmer’s market as an antidote to the horrors of big business. Or even just to work with people and companies we like and respect.

Often in bigger businesses, we can feel as employees that we areno more than an anonymous cog in a huge machine. Skill and values are no longer important – though a brand’s marketing will make much of them as drivers of the business. And we forget thatpart of feeling happier is undertaking work that we feel is of value.

As a single parent of two small children, I have learned the hard way that small really is beautiful. Cause4 is a social enterprise and B Corporation, that employs under 10 people. We grew fast in our early years and were perhaps three times the size at our biggest, but ultimately that didn’t bring satisfaction. We were often overstretched; the work wasn’t always of the quality we wantedand the culture of the organisation was nowhere near what we aspired to. We’d been hugely successful in winning awards and accolades but it felt rather empty as the motivations that were so important in setting the company up, i.e. those of taking on important causes and doing good quality work with an interesting and able team, had got lost in measures of turnover and focusing on the number of staff that we employed. A short break from the business on maternity leave with my first son, made me realise that these drivers needed to change. Now we’re smaller, but our impact is greater.

I think that often entrepreneurs yearn for work and organisationsthat fit better within our grasp and understanding, and where good human interaction and culture is key. Yet we are constantly overwhelmed by finding ourselves trapped into vast companysystems that can feel isolating and without value.

Schumacher warned against exactly the issues we are now dealing with as levels of mental illness rise, despite our increased wealth since the 70s, we are no happier. Entrepreneurship in particular isoften negatively correlated with positive mental health, which is why we now prioritize this right at the front of our organisationalCulture Plan.

 So after a decade of running a social business, my reflections onwhat it means to run a successful enterprise are this: asentrepreneurs we need to ignore the bigger is best mentality, and go back to the fundamentals of the importance of quality craft, company culture and values. Effective measurement comes from personal values and drivers and ultimately that’s what sustains businesses, rather than imposed metrics from investors, other entrepreneurs or the media.

And that is where we are. Cause4 now focuses on interesting quality work which affords us the maximum opportunity to reinvest back in our staff, training and culture. If we can take on causes we care about and juggle our home lives in a positive and flexible way, then that’s definitely good enough. Here’s to the next 10 years!

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