“A cobbler’s children never have shoes,” a co-worker told me after we visited a healthy, thriving small business to provide consulting services. We met with the CEO, a talented entrepreneur who had built her business from one person into twenty in just under ten years. After two days of downtime, desperate to see her systems up and running and her client happy, she readily agreed to pay external bill rates for our repairing a critical part of their infrastructure. Yet, despite the obvious success of the business, the network equipment was nearly a decade old, all of the servers were used or refurbished and the employee’s desktop computers were more than two generations obsolete. “This was more than a case of the cobbler’s children being the last helped by the cobbler,” I thought. But, if not this, then why?
I recalled a day in economics class over decade before, when I learned about the Cobb-Douglas function (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobb%E2%80%93Douglas), which states that productivity is a function of capital equipment, labor and technology. In short, Cobb-Douglas says that an increased investment in technology or capital equipment (machinery, tools) increases the productivity of your employees (laborers). This seemed obvious, so I tucked it away in my mind as a good example of conventional wisdom transformed in to a simple equation.
During my years consulting, I’ve seen Cobb-Douglas at work numerous times – at a large computer manufacturer where my team deployed over $1 million in computer hardware for collaboration for their 250,000 employees; at a global heavy manufacturer who built out identical server farms for their plants; at a top-10 financial institution where a dot-0 software upgrade (version 2.0, version 3.0, etc.) triggered the purchase of entirely new corresponding hardware. In most cases, we prepared business cases that showed (1) there were sizable productivity gains through the purchase and (2) the cost of replacing hardware during a corresponding software upgrade was far lower than waiting a year or two when the hardware was seeing high failure rates and affecting customers or workers.
I’ve also seen Cobb-Douglas ignored by otherwise-successful entrepreneurs. While this may seem surprising to some, if you understand the mindset of the entrepreneur, then you’ll understand why. You’ll also understand why this is not good policy for a thriving small business.
For many entrepreneurs, the key to initial success lies in boot-strapping – finding creative ways to deliver for customers despite the lack of resources necessary to get the job done. In most cases, small business owners build their business from the ground up by repeatedly stretching human resources to make up for the lack of capital investment or technology, rewarding these employees with equity or large delivery bonuses in exchange for working lots of overtime. As time passes, the entrepreneur equates scarcity and heavy workloads with success, and a pattern that ignores Cobb-Douglas is engrained.
All is well until the business grows, resource scarcity is no longer necessary and the rewards for burning the midnight oil are no longer available. The business has entered its teen years and is in need of some major infrastructure investments, but the entrepreneurial leader has trouble making the investment. Too many years of boot-strapping have made it difficult to imagine making a sizable, long term investment in technology or productive equipment. It’s safer, the thinking goes, to keep doing what made you successful – boot-strapping.
Yet the business has changed and the keys to past success are not the keys to future success. Businesses may start by successfully bootstrapping, but they grow by improving product quality, normalizing operations and building brand, all of which require substantial investment in technology, people and resources. Few entrepreneur’s recognize this shift occurring, so their business suffers “growing pains” until leadership transitions to someone else. Dr. Rudy Lamone, a now-retired professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and former dean of the University of Maryland RH Smith School of Business, echoed the observation that entrepreneurs are often replaced once they’ve grown a business past a dozen employees, primarily because the behaviors that led to past successes are now detrimental to the business.
As a result, it’s not uncommon to encounter a small thriving business that uses ten-year-old computer hardware and six-year-old desktops for seemingly inexplicable reasons. The cobbler’s children have no shoes, but not for lack of leather and nails.
What has been the impact?
- One entrepreneur lost their largest client by failing to buy and implement a defect tracking system capable of handling a dozen developers and QA resources. The software was delivered, but it was so defect-ridden that the client’s employees could hardly use it.
- Another entrepreneur lost two key developers who grew tired of developing on old desktops and outdated software. When the phone call came from a recruiter to work for a business that provided new equipment and regular training, they jumped ship, creating a one month backlog of development work in their wake.
- A third entrepreneur suffered a one week outage of their production system because they failed to stock a redundant firewall for their network. The pricey firewall, a $5000 unit, had a one week lead time for replacement. The cost was $80,000 in revenue and breach-of-contract complaints from nearly every client.
- A fourth entrepreneur, mentioned at the beginning of this blog, suffered a three-day outage, but was able to avoid a breach of service level agreements by holding the network together for two more months, then upgrading the infrastructure after the contract was renewed.
The effects of tacking care of the cobbler’s children are evident to me, but they’re still anecdotal. So, I’m asking small business owners and entrepreneurs – when your business is thriving, do you hesitate to make long-term investments in infrastructure? If so, why? If not, what criteria do you use to make the buying decision?