KBS on creating sustainable businesses

fruitworks canterbury

Kent Business School academics Dr Mark Gilman and Dr Simon Raby ran a session on creating successful and sustainable businesses. The event in December was organised by Create – a network for business owners hosted at Fruitworks, Kent’s No. 1 co-working space in Canterbury.

Dr Simon Raby and Dr Mark Gilham were invited by Paul Andrews (the brains behind Fruitworks and the Business Bunker Radio Show) to run this session and agreed to focus on a topic troubling many business owners:  how to achieve aspirations for success.

Dr Simon Raby shares his overview of the event:

When we were invited by Paul to run this session we agreed that a topic troubling many business owners is how to achieve their aspirations for success. In planning for the session, the following questions emerged for us:

  • How do we each define success?
  • What are the key challenges getting in the way of achieving our aspirations?
  • How can we think differently about the way our businesses work?

Glasses charged, hors d’oeuvres in hand (or cocktail sausage!)… and off we went in search of some answers!

Success is personal

Success for the participating businesses was not just about profit, although we know profits are important. Business owners began by speaking of success as a very individual thing, something “personal to me” with expectations that “we set for ourselves”.  Referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [1] participants spoke about fulfilling ‘basic needs’; the ability to put food on the table and pay the bills. From there, success focused on building and sustaining relationships [2], a desire for belongingness and satisfying others, such as fellow business owners and customers.

The distinction between profit and wider prosperity was made with the belief that business was more than just a vehicle through which to achieve our own goals – business holds the potential to drive social good and change. The ability to think and look differently at the way we deliver our work, be creative and continuously seek better ways of doing things rounded off this piece of the discussions.

Long-term strategy        

Whilst each business is unique, there are common challenges to achieving aspirations. Initially there was a focus on the current challenge of navigating government systems, policies and “red tape” – businesses commented that it “often feels like we’re trying to run with our shoelaces tied together.”

Business owners also remarked of a need to sell well and to identify channels to develop and sell through and shared that there was a need to engage with social media, but businesses are not always sure of its value.

Observations were then made about finite resources and how strategic thinking was required to make the most of our resources. Finding, selecting and retaining the right people was central to sustainable success as this releases time for owners to work ‘on’ the business, not just ‘in it’.

As the session warmed up, observations were made about finite resources and how strategic thinking was required to make the most of our resources as businesses. Finding, selecting and retaining the right people was central to sustainable success as it releases time for owners to work ‘on’ the business and not just ‘in it’.

Think differently about the way we work

Finally, in supporting businesses to succeed we provided insights to how central government policy has typically been oriented towards focusing on identifying ‘winners’ or ‘high growth firms’ – this is where the lion’s share of support has tended to end up. However, research shows that growth is episodic and beliefs are beginning to change in line with this.

There is a recognition that all businesses are ‘creators’ in their own rights and that in order to support business we must understand the process through which growth and performance is achieved, before focusing on a few  outputs of this process (e.g. increase in employees, sales turnover and so on). Growth potential lies with many more businesses than the 6% of businesses [4].

Mark and Simon discussed some common problems faced by business owners and their businesses within their research, and introduced The BIG Ten [5] – ten characteristics that have been found amongst better performing firms, and those achieving their aspirations. Through exploring these characteristics participants observed:

“I need to build a team around me that has an eye on each of these areas”

“It’s opened further questions that I need to take away and work on with my team”

In response to the success of the evening we will now be looking at how we can continue these explorations and learning in the future. If this blog and/or the evening has wet your whistle, and you want to build relationships with like-minded business owners, be challenged to think differently, and benefit from a range of support, take a first step by telling us a little but about you and your business, through our SME growth and performance research

For further information on any of the content within this blog or the evening please contact Simon on 01227 824740 or S.O.Raby@kent.ac.uk




[1] We refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here to illustrate the claim that we need to fulfil our most basic needs before anything else.

[2] For a take on relationships, why not read another of our blogs “relationships make the world go round” from our business owner network.

[3] Dr Mark Gilman and Dr Simon Raby are academics working through the Kent Business School. They have worked with over 500 growing SMEs over the past decade, and have translated this research into a range of strategic leadership development programmes, tools and techniques to support ambitious owner-managers.

[4] High growth firms are often labelled as the ‘6 percenters’ to demonstrate their prevalence amongst the wider business population.

[5] For a free copy of a mini report please get in touch, or alternatively you can purchase the full report for a small sum of money. All proceeds go towards the research process, which aims to understand what drives the growth and performance of SMEs.

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