Why it is Important to be a Sponge

“Are you a Sponge?”

…asked Lisa Settle on the Business bunker Radio show recently.

“Yes I am.”

…was my immediate reply.

Introducing the “Sponge”

In the ninth show in this current series of B I G Insights on the Business Bunker we’d been discussing the “Sponge”, the characteristic of the BIG Ten that relates to openness to, and active seeking of, learning by SME business owner/leaders. The BIG Ten are characteristics that are present in SMEs that achieve notably higher growth than their peers.

I think I’ve always been a sponge and as I sit here on my way to Rochester to work with an SME business owner-manager, supporting them to grow and develop themselves and their business; I feel deeply thankful for my sponginess! It has kept me going, taken me onwards, upwards, sideways and sometimes downwards, and if I think back to my first serious business venture in my mid-twenties I find it staggering how much I have learnt, and how valuable that learning has been.

Most of what I am now doing professionally, I had no knowledge of when at twenty five with a few GCSEs, a fair bit of attitude and a great partner engaged in a conversation that went:

“We could do this better.”

“Let’s do it then…”

That conversation was the precursor to opening Regency College, which for a while was the largest, fastest growing and most successful independent language school in the South of England. Five years later with turnover into the millions and four or five directorships things looked very good indeed. Roll forwards another five and administration, bankruptcy and failure had become almost all consuming. Five more and independent successes as a coach, lecturer and organisational development consultant is something that I really enjoy, take pride in and am able to continue to feed my inner sponge through!

What is it like to be a “Sponge”?

For me, being a sponge is hard, challenging and a great pleasure. It’s also a strategy for personal and entrepreneurial growth that links more closely to an effectual (Sarasvathy, 2008) approach than a causal one. Sarasvathy (ibid.) describes how, as well as the causal approach to entrepreneurship (decide where we are going, plan how to get there, take steps etc.) much of what occurs in venture development is the result of asking ourselves;

“Who am I, what do I know, and who do I know…”

…and using the answers to create, or effectuate new entrepreneurial realities. If you talk to thousands of entrepreneurs as the Business Improvement and Growth Ltd. (BIG) has done over the years then you will hear many stories of things not turning out as expected and opportunity emerging from networks, knowledge and the curious exploration we term “sponginess”.

For example, almost all of what I do now was completely outside my awareness ten years ago. If you had told me I’d be doing something different, that I’d be working at an increased daily rate, that I’d have built upon the learning I was presently engaged in, then I’d have believed you. If you’d asked me to be specific about what I’d be doing, I’d have had no idea. And that kind of approach is at the essence of “sponginess”. I can only be hugely thankful as right now, I love my work and am hugely excited by where it may take me in the future.

Having “sponge-like” characteristics leads to improved performance

As well as being a great pleasure, approaching entrepreneurship as a method for learning is clearly linked to faster growth and success than not. The Promoting Sustainable Performance (PSP) research programme, from which the BIG Ten are drawn, finds that entrepreneurs who approach networking as an opportunity to learn, rather than an opportunity to find sales, do better. The sales come when we seek to expand our awareness, knowledge and understanding of our world and learn from others. Maybe this is also a more relational approach to gaining value from our networks, people responding much more to “what can you teach me” rather than “what can I sell you”. Once the relationships and trust develop, finding mutually beneficial ways of working together, selling to each other, and so on, may easily follow.

Essentially, I believe it is impossible to approach entrepreneurship without learning in mind. As entrepreneurs we actively seek out lives where there is uncertainty and doubt, in abundance! We just don’t know what is around the corner and often this can feel uncomfortable and disturbing. However, learning loves it when we don’t quite know what is going on and what we are doing, this is what forces us to, individually and collaboratively, develop, as we find new ways of doing and being as a result of those experiences and challenges.

To misquote John Dewey (1882 – 1953):

“Learning is not a means to entrepreneurship, learning is entrepreneurship itself”

So, do, embrace the opportunity to learn that your ventures afford you; it does offer greater chances of growth and more besides, and who knows where it may take you!

Make a Difference (MAD) challenge

We like to challenge the readers of our blogs to reflect on the impact that the content has had on them, and to question their own approach. In reading this blog, we invite you to reflect on the following questions:

  • Looking back, is what you do now what you expected you would be doing say, ten years ago?
  • What have been some of the key things decision points, things you have learnt along the way?
  • What would you define as your key failures and successes to date, and why?
  • How do you learn?

To listen to the live show again click here

Click here for further information on the collaboration between the Kent Business School and the Business Bunker Radio Show. Should you have any questions in regard to this piece of the wider work please do not hesitate to get in touch with Dr Simon Raby S.O.Raby@kent.ac.uk or Paul Andrews businessbunker@yahoo.co.uk



Gilman, M., Raby, S., Turpin J. (2012). The Big Ten, The Ten Characteristics of Successful SME’s, Kent, Centre for Employment Competitiveness and Growth, Kent Business School, University of Kent

Dewey, J. (1882-1953). The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston

(Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991)

Sarasvathy, S. D. (2008). Effectuation, Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing

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