The Scale Series — Part V: Bigger isn’t always better

This is Part V of The Scale Series, which explores how brands scale—successfully and unsuccessfully—in the fashion industry. Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV if you haven't yet.

Part I of this series explored the capital conditions that got us to a place where many brands swung for the fences, while Part II and Part III investigated some of the successes and failures in this growth environment. Part IV proposed a new framework for scaling brands globally while keeping them potent.

Finally, it’s worth talking about the idea of scale itself. That itch that many founders and designers feel to keep getting bigger and bigger. Growth, in some form, is intrinsically tied to running a business, and the human tendency to improve. Running a business that is flat year over year its not ideal, at least give how many people are conditioned to understand capitalism.

But throughout this quest to find constant growth, the idea of the small business and small-scale entrepreneurship has been lost. The word “small business” itself is often forbidden.

This is unfortunate for two reasons:

  1. Building something small that gives you a good amount of freedom is enviable. The ability to build a business on your own terms, the way you want to, is a great position to be in. This is in no way easy, but the reality of being your own boss and shaping the legacy of a business is profound.
  2. On the internet, small-scale entrepreneurship can thrive. It has never been easier to find niche communities that are specific enough to want a product and big enough to sustain a business.

Businesses often go wrong when they successfully serve a niche and then decide to scale beyond it. This doesn’t mean a business should become stagnant. Rather, the business itself should define the appropriate speed and methods for scaling. Letting external factors define a business, such as the actions of peers or the financial outcomes you read in the press, is an uncertain way to succeed. Success usually comes from creating on your own terms, not anyone else’s.

Given this, a business’s definition of success is directly tied to how the business is funded, as discussed in Part I. I would advise anyone starting a business or currently exploring growth strategies to meticulously consider different funding options and how they impact a business’s expected outcome. The default towards raising venture capital often does founders a disservice, as they jump on the bandwagon and follow their peers without critically thinking about why it is the right decision for their business. You should do whatever is best for your business and the desired outcome. This is not an anti-investor or anti-capital stance. Rather, it’s a position that understands that accepting external capital fundamentally changes things.

My hope is that if you take away one thing from this series, it’s that scale and success are entirely relative, and that building something small is often a great decision. Small businesses are really cool, and often allow the founder and his or her team to live, work and succeed on their own terms. Creating a thriving small business is entirely possible today, and if I could pick any time in earth’s existence to create one, it would be today. The possibilities are endless if you manage expectations and methodically approach growth, all while keeping the brand potent.

Building something big is also cool, but it’s an entirely different game. If you want to build something big, do it for yourself and not for the litany of other reasons, perceived benefits, or financial outcomes. Most importantly, if you’re going to build anything, make something great.

Scale is not inherently good or bad. But the path to scale, and scale itself, can fundamentally and negatively change a business if it's not carefully managed. The goal of this series was to dive into the complexity of scale in the fashion industry today. There's an immense amount that a brand can do to scale in the short term. The real question, however, is what should a brand do to scale in the long term?

This is the end of Part V of The Scale Series. Thanks for reading over 11,000 words. Thoughts or comments? Tweet or email me. More to come on this topic in the future. And be sure to read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV if you haven't yet.