When I first started my leadership communications company Pencil or Ink, I knew growth was key. Revenue growth to support myself, client-list growth to gain more credibility, and headcount growth—because I assumed a small business grew by becoming a large one.
Fast forward three years. I had a long client list, healthy revenue, and a new employee.
Outwardly, I had achieved growth.
Internally, I had achieved a major crisis. Growing by hiring meant investing a lot of time and money in developing my new colleague instead of doing the work I was best at. Growing my client list might have meant more revenue, but my profits (and free time) were dwindling to zero.
If this was growth, I wasn’t sure it was for me.
Ultimately, I realized that some of the assumptions I was making about growth simply aren’t true for every business. Here are some of those myths I once believed, and how I’ve since redefined growth to create a truly successful business on my own terms.
Myths I Believed About Growth
Looking back (what’s that expression about hindsight?), there were several ideas I had about growth that led me down this path.
Myth #1: Growth Requires Saying Yes to Everything
Early on, I said yes to every piece of work, even if it was only tangentially related to what I wanted to be doing. I also said yes when clients reached out asking if I could offer multiple coaches or concurrent workshops, services I hadn’t previously offered.
It felt good. “People seem to value what I do!”, I told myself. I also thought those bird-in-hand projects spelled GROWTH. And revenue was flowing, though I was sloppy about pricing and often charged too little.
But I was playing a game of hours. Mine were filled, which initially seemed like a win, but a win it was not, particularly at the rates I was charging.
I realized that, by saying yes to everything, I was effectively saying no to better opportunities, as well as to the work-life balance I set out to attain. I was also trying to compete with larger companies I simply could not compete with—for projects I didn’t necessarily want in the first place. Saying yes to everything seemed like a growth move, but I soon found myself with less and less time to spend on the work I loved doing most.
Myth #2: Growth Means Hiring Instead of Doing the Work Yourself
I hired someone to fill a role that I thought would help grow the business, but it actually shrunk it. I poured hours into coaching the person to do the type of client-facing work I did. Hours turned to weeks, weeks turned to months. As a result, I had even less time to work with clients myself.
Our margin narrowed. “Things will improve,” I told myself.
Our margin disappeared, “Soon this will be a net gain for the business,” I said.
I stopped paying myself. “Hmm,” I said.
The cashflow challenges were hard. But perhaps most significantly, I had lost what I loved about running my small business: relative autonomy, a sense of purpose, and the enjoyment that comes from loving what I do.
I still thrived on every minute of client work, but my headspace was no longer my own. It was devoted to developing a colleague, reassuring clients, and fearing for the future of a business I had worked hard to build. Clients wanted to work with me, not someone with less experience and an altogether different approach.
It’s not that hiring can never be a good growth strategy. But, looking back, I could have focused on clients, considered the broader strategy, and hired an assistant to free me up to do more of these two things.
Myth #3: Growth Means Never Turning Back
Since I had made a splash about growing, I suspected any sign of my business “un-growing” might reflect poorly on the team and on my leadership. It was uncomfortable to give voice to these challenges. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had failed, but I procrastinated on doing anything about it.
When I finally found the courage to speak up, though, my advisors and clients were supportive and aligned: It was time to make a change and rebuild the business from the ground up. And more than a few pointed out something I have no trouble seeing in others but couldn’t see in myself: that sticking with a bad situation to save face is always worse than just dealing with it head on.
What I Now Understand About Growth
After making the painful and overdue decision to let the employee go, things improved. Almost overnight. In the three wild years since then, here are the new beliefs about growth I’ve adopted.
Growth Isn’t Measured by the Number of Projects or Employees
Instead of hiring again, I shifted my business from an agency model to a consultancy. A one-woman operation with a part-time contracted administrative assistant.
I also made a commitment to stop saying yes to everything and start refining what I would take on: leadership coaching, team workshops, and offsite facilitations. Anything else, I refer out.
In doing so, I have ensured that my approach and expertise are perfect for the task, that clients know exactly how I can support them, and that I am fully invested in every client engagement—to mutual benefit. Rather than equipping someone else to do what I love, now I get to do it myself and delegate the distractions.
Since then, I have grown both revenue and profit exponentially, and I’m bringing home three times what I made in my last job. The irony isn’t lost on me: Precisely what I thought would make the business shrink is what made it grow. Reducing headcount was the first step on this high-growth trajectory: growth in impact, revenue, and client satisfaction.
I’ve also grown my time. Since making these changes and charting my own course, I’ve got some to “spare.” (In quotation marks, as it’s happily filled with family, teaching part-time, serving on a few boards, and a pandemic-born running habit.)
Growth Can Be About Doing Purposeful Work, Not All the Work
Having regained time and headspace, I was freed up to figure out purpose and strategy. If it wasn’t “growth,” what was it?
I had a light-bulb moment: When approached to provide coaching, workshops, or facilitations, I always asked why. A trend emerged: Companies aren’t looking for a coach. They’re not even looking for a facilitator. They are looking to improve their cultures. To address the human side of their strategy. Coaching and facilitation are just the means.
I realized that my work wasn’t about providing a suite of specific services; it was helping organizations address their cultures to deliver on their strategies. With this purpose as a guide, I have been able to hone how I do it, providing tailored approaches for each organization. For one client, it might be a company-wide culture analysis and targeted workshops. For another, it might be one-on-one coaching for influential leaders. I’ve even been paid to write about workplace culture and interviewed by the New York Times about office communication.
Today, all of my business is either referrals or previous clients. And notably, few of the latter are from the era in which I had an employee and said yes to everything—rather, they’re almost all from the periods in which I’ve been laser focused on my purpose and doing what I believe I do best. Rather than acting as an occasional coach or facilitator for organizations, I am a partner who connects the dots among people, culture, and strategy. Reframing my services has helped me create both a purposeful business and a sustainable one.
Growth Doesn’t Have to Look Like Everyone Else’s
In launching a business like Pencil or Ink, it was tempting to invest in a coaching accreditation. “All the other coaches have them,” I reasoned, “And it’s a shortcut to credibility.” But having been trained in-house as a coach at a previous employer and having racked up hundreds of hours of experience at leading companies, I wasn’t sure this was the right path for me. This was born out when a long-term client said, “You are not ‘all the other coaches’, Ellie.”
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I know she was right: Clients don’t hire me because they want any coach, facilitator, or consultant, they hire me because they want someone who understands culture and strategy, has a track record of success, and who brings their whole self to the task.
So instead of looking around to what everyone else is doing, I started looking into the professional development opportunities that were right for me. I ended up studying Organizational Leadership at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, thus deepening my understanding of the challenges leaders face, gaining a mastery of strategy, and expanding my cultural toolkit.
The education gained in the classroom and out has been life-changing. But there has been a coda I could never have predicted: the business school recently approached me to teach strategy and innovation part-time, alongside my role at Pencil or Ink. This was beyond my wildest dreams when I first launched the business amid the fog of postpartum depression, let alone when I was struggling with scale.
By saying no to some opportunities, refining my purpose, and focusing on impact, I’ve built something I am proud of.
And if this is growth, I’m just getting started.