At Baltic Creative’s first Bloom event on Wednesday 8th May, we hosted a panel on business scale-up. The panel, titled “To Scale or Not to Scale,” aimed to provide SMEs and micro-businesses with crucial insights on when and how to grow.

The speakers included experts, advisors, and business owners, chosen to share their knowledge and experiences. What followed was an interesting and informative discussion covering everything from what businesses need to grow, to when scaling might not be the best option!

Director of Baltic Creative CIC and Bloom host, Ngunan Adamu, led the panel featuring Dr. Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs (LJMU), Hannah Fawcett (Brabners), and Nick Howe (Uniform). Fiona spent 15 years on Baltic Creative’s board of directors, including four years as Chair, and has seen the business withstand tough times. She is also the Programme Leader at LJMU, focusing on the MBA in Business Scale-up. Hannah is a legal director and trade mark attorney at Brabners, helping businesses scale with proper legal structures. Finally, Nick co-founded Uniform, a design group in Liverpool that grew from three designers to about fifty employees.

Read on to discover ten game-changing tips from our panellists at Bloom on how to scale your business. If you’d like to watch the full panel, scroll down to find it on YouTube!

‘To Scale or Not to Scale?’ at Bloom. (L-R: Nick Howe, Dr Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs, Hannah Fawcett, and Ngunan Adamu)

1. Understand the meaning of ‘scale-up’

    Dr. Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs defined ‘scaling up’ as increasing innovation, competing in a broader product space, entering new or international markets, or expanding networks. Scale-ups represent 15% of SMEs but actually contributed to 69% of all new SME jobs between 2015 and 2017. “The effects of that small percentage of companies scaling up actually creates a better ecosystem for all of us doing business,” Fiona said.

    Dr Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs.

    2. Get support

    Fiona identified six areas which are needed to create a thriving scale-up ecosystem. Crucially, she spoke about access to support mechanisms and human capital, which means education and professional development. Fiona emphasised the importance of continuous learning. “We never stop learning,” she said. “Take a half day or a full day out of the business to spend some time with the people that are offering support services and see what you can learn. That brings fresh eyes back to the business and should help you on your journey.”

    3. Ensure your legal structures are in place

    Our legal expert, Hannah Fawcett, stressed the importance of having the right legal structures as you grow. Evolving from start-up to scale-up requires updated policies and risk management strategies. She pointed out the necessity of having relevant documents in place as you expand services, add products or grow your team. “You might not have had a maternity policy when there’s three of you. Do you have it in place now?” Hannah advised. “Lawyers tend to be the voice of doom,” she continued, “but we want to make sure those situations never happen and that’s what your legals are there for to stress test potential problems.”

    4. Be confident and take risks

    Scaling often involves taking risks but what is the best way to do this without jeopardising your business? Fiona emphasised the need for a variety of supportive mechanisms to create a “safe space” for risks. Nick Howe shared his experience of Uniform’s international expansion and the importance of taking calculated risks while being ambitious: “We’re not going out on a whim. There’s logic and sense to those international trips.” Asked where the confidence comes from to step into new areas, Nick said “you build confidence through the wins … and also through the people. Bring other people with you along on that journey who share the same vision.”

    Hannah Fawcett.

    5. Diversify your operations

    Through the challenges faced by Uniform, one of the ways they survived was by diversifying their operations. “I think a big opportunity, and a big part of our success, was being able to move into new markets,” Nick told the audience. Following the recession of 2009 to 2010, this strategy helped Uniform rebuild the business and restore its strong position. “If we hadn’t been through that, we wouldn’t have made the decision to diversify our services and sectors,” Nick said. “I think you’ve got to take those challenges as learning opportunities and grow from them.”

    6. Trust your team

    As your operations expand, you inevitably need a bigger team to achieve your mission. As well as Hannah’s advice on recruitment and HR policies, Nick advised founders to know when it’s time to “let go and to bring people into the business who are better than you.” For Uniform, recruiting people to get on with the job helped them to grow. Nick’s advice was to get out of their way! Share your vision but don’t micromanage. “You’ve employed them for a reason,” he concluded.

    7. Be mindful about how you grow

    Hannah warned against growth for growth’s sake, advocating for sustainable growth that balances economic, environmental, social, and financial factors. “You can go and hire thirty people on a whim,” she said, “you can buy another five properties to operate from but that doesn’t mean it’s long term. Your profits might not see an increase just because you’ve done that.” Fiona added that her interest is with inclusive growth and the use of local resources. “How can we build our economies through what’s in our DNA?” she asked, “Through the people that we have here and the infrastructure that currently exists. For me it’s about how do we communicate with each other better.”

    Nick Howe.

    8. Collaboration is key

    Our panel agreed with Fiona that communication and collaboration are key to business growth. Hannah encourages businesses to support each other rather than compete. “Your markets might be completely different, they might be the same, but it doesn’t mean you’re in competition,” she said, emphasising the need for businesses to help each other through their respective journeys. Nick highlighted the benefits of sharing stories, experiences, and challenges faced. “I think you learn from that,” he shared, “and you also create community from that.” Nick described Uniform’s relationship with Ustwo, a fellow digital business based in London, with whom they shared a close working relationship. “Being able to share stories with someone who’s in a similar position is really beneficial.”

    9. Share your stories

    As Nick mentioned, sharing stories of challenges and successes is crucial for fostering a culture of success. Fiona noted the need for more storytelling to amplify success stories within the community and encourage others to scale their businesses. “Who is amplifying the voice of those stories?” Fiona asked. She shared examples of good scale-ups in the city including CNC Robotics, Pin IoT, and Evoke Creative.

    10. Business growth isn’t always linear

    Nick reminded us that “growth isn’t always linear.” He said Uniform has experienced both growth and plateaus, and encouraged businesses to celebrate different ways to grow: “It’s much more than headcount or revenue, it can be any number of things. It could be doing something completely different, moving into a new sector, working with a different type of client or learning new skills. When you think about growth within your own business, think carefully about what growth means to you. It doesn’t always have to be numbers.”

    What this panel at Bloom provided was invaluable insights into the scale-up journey from seasoned experts and successful business owners. From understanding the true meaning of scaling up to the importance of legal structures, risk-taking, and collaboration, there’s much to consider. Remember, growth is not always linear, and learning from others’ experiences can be key to your success. To listen to the full discussion, watch the panel on our YouTube channel here.