Should You Stay Small or Go Big?

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My husband (co-owner of Tweedle Press) and I spend a lot of time talking about happiness. Where to get more of it? What does it look like? Who's got it and what's their secret? We're actually pretty happy most of the time, but as small business owners with a young family we have to make daily choices for how to balance work and home. We also spend a lot of time figuring out what we want our business (and our lives) to look like.

My husband quit his (well paying, stable) job late last year so we could raise our son together and give Tweedle Press the best shot at success. Since then we have enlisted a venerable team of experts to help us in our journey, amassing advice and ideas along the way. One of the most common (and constant) choices we face is when to stay small vs. when to expand. When to pile more on our plates and when to hire help? When to do it ourselves and when to outsource? These questions are not unique to our business. I think most small business owners ask them as often as we do.

What I've learned so far, at least from an equipment and space standpoint, is you expand just before you're at capacity. Your fryers are full of chicken all day, you've got a line out the door for your two dog-washing stations, our presses are constantly printing. We haven't reached the point yet where we need more equipment or room, but "capacity" can also refer to available hours. When I reached my max doing all the design and print work myself, I hired a part-time press operator. Once the press was set up, it was more worth my time to focus on billable design work than repetitive printing.

We've been going back and forth about outsourcing some of our jobs to slightly larger letterpress printers who could provide a more cost and time efficient option for some clients. The trouble with continuing to step back, at least for me, is that you get farther away from the soul of your business. What made you open your neighborhood grocery in the first place? Before you started your own clothing line, did you lie awake at night thinking about profit margins -- or the feeling of pride you'd get from someone loving and buying the shirt you hand stitched?

Unless it was your plan from the start to expand, franchise or crank out widgets, more doesn't always equal better. Sometimes growing into a larger business makes sense. But you're the only one who knows what feels right. For us, at least right now, happiness is outsourcing the tasks we dislike or do inefficiently and keeping our specialties hands on. We have found it important to consider the suggestions from our team of wise business advisers, but ultimately we also have to be sure to listen to our hearts.

Nina Interlandi Bell, co-owner of Tweedle Press, a small letterpress printing company in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Nina is Tweedle Press' fearless leader of design, letterpress printing, and sustainability research. Her laserlike focus and penchant for mission-hood make her prone to both fits of creative excitement and, occasionally, an overwhelming urge to do everything.

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