Why did it take a global pandemic to realise that staying small is growth?

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

It is 60 years since Julian Koenig wrote the copy for Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’ campaign, which took the VW Beetle across the Atlantic to compete with the muscle cars which dominated the US market. It was brave to do the opposite of what was expected. A small compact offer versus a traditional big model.

‘Small’ is often treated as counter-intuitive in business.

The imperative seems to be to scale ‘up’. Build, build, build your (‘small’) business, grow bigger, think bigger, act bigger.

We spent nearly 5 years creating and running a high street food business. In that delicatessen life, we went out of our way not to scale. We’re not being obtuse, although we do rather relish the fact that we are not particularly ‘retail’. No, our take is that small can also mean growth. Small can also be a business benefit; a multiplier.

‘Smaller’ could be the new ‘bigger’.

So, what does our ‘small’ look like?

Well, for certain, it’s mostly about small producers. By small we mean our local chocolate maker, preserves made just down the road in a copper pot from handwritten notes in a grandfather’s cookbook; it’s the farmer’s son who’s diversified to make award-winning biltong … the honey producer with only 140 hives who struggles to keep up with demand for their alchemy and the kitchen table foraging business in the Black Mountains which is built upon the treasures of the hedgerows. We seek out the gin that is made in the smallest of batches, which we run out of because the still has to await the next foraging trip. We wait patiently for the local brewer who takes time to barrel-age his experimental beers. Our heart soars because our local baker takes Mondays off for family time … “Sorry, no bread on Monday” has never felt so positive.

Small is good. Small is personal. Small is niche.

Small affords us the opportunity to keep things tight … we work with the people we discover whose work we love. Our job is to be as passionate about sharing their product with our customers as they would be themselves.

Small builds relationships and deepens connections. It stops us spreading ourselves too thin.

Weirdly, we still got those routine calls from regional sales managers and local reps offering us the monthly specials that “your customers are going to LOVE” in spite of never falling for the hot cross bun fudge or the heart-shaped cheeses much-loved by the seasonal retail carousel.

If it gets too big, we get edgy.

We will happily applaud the small crisp maker for their multi-million dollar takeover by a huge multinational … but we’ll use it as a trigger to seek out the farmers who’ve packed their great tastes and lovely crunch into 100% domestically compostable bags. Small also means agile.

We paid our small producers the price they ask for … we did not squeeze them to make more margin … we paid quickly … for the micro businesses, our small bank transfer is what allowed them to do their thing. Building long-term trusting relationships is so much easier when you keep things small.

When we started our little enterprise, we hankered after a few folk hanging out in the garden sampling a Welsh-roasted specialty coffee and Mrs Deli’s cakes. We counted the numbers of people who came in and wished for more. Slowly, organically, word got out; the ‘Secret’ Garden wasn’t a secret anymore.

There was ‘that’ night when 27 people squashed into a space set up for fewer. We ran around a lot, rushed our service, chased our tails and slumped exhausted and frustrated when we finally got home after washing up what seemed like a thousand glasses. That was NOT what we wanted to be.

So we resolved to get even smaller.

Smaller gatherings. More intimate evenings. Less being the very epitome of More. We took tables and chairs out. We reduced the number of tickets sold.

We made life smaller. As a consequence, we stood a chance of being part of what was happening; we got to be the connection between the people who chose to hang out with us and the amazing food stories we shared with them.

Smaller …

Better … more connected.



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