Setting up a small business – the essence of success

Top 10 tips of the thinking behind the inception of Expression for Growth

Sixth December 2000 was a big day in the Selwood household; we had taken the plunge, we had incorporated the business, bought the computers, leased a printer, bought two desks, cleared out the spare room….and there we were, starting from scratch.
The purpose of this article is to share with you what was in our minds when we decided to set up Expression for Growth, and what, I know, has made us the successful business we are, nearly two decades later.


So, what did we do….or rather, NOT do?

I would love to be able to share with you that we modelled our business on a five-year business plan, with projections for turnover, profit, cashflow forecasts, with real clarity of product strategy, a stakeholder management plan, a website fully operational describing exactly what we did, plus work already booked in. But I can’t…that’s not-what-happened.

I used to speak to others in a similar position, and actually feel pretty uncomfortable that I was not doing those things because they were….but I knew…I just knew that if I stuck to what I truly believed in, trusted the ‘universe’ to deliver (whatever that meant), little by little, it would all come good. Whilst the journey has definitely not been straightforward, and we have learnt so much about how to get it right….and how to get it wrong (see other articles in this same series; Leading the Adult Horse to Water and The WHY behind setting up my own company ) here we are, having created and run an award-winning multinational management development organisation operating in six languages, with a base in the UK as well as the Americas and a presence in APAC.


So, what are my ‘top ten tips’ that have enabled this success?

    1. Believe in what you believe: Really get to the root of what makes you, you…or what makes your business your business, and know how to articulate that, succinctly and with passion.


    1. Keep it simple: Complex models will not be adopted – stick with real-world stuff that actually works.


    1. Tap into what helps adults learn: Knowing that our harshest critics can become our biggest fans. Often they become our biggest fans when they experience the impact of applying what they have learnt.


    1. Know that setting up and running a business is a slog: It is NOT all unicorns and rainbows….you will need to work harder than you have ever worked in your life. You will have to make sacrifices. It will impact on your relationships at home and elsewhere. You will feel exhausted. It will feel relentless. Get over it! The rewards, satisfaction and the freedom make it worthwhile. I promise.


    1. Be a naïve, curious, open book: The joy of working across multiple businesses is that you can ask all the questions that few others in that business think to or are afraid to ask. It is extraordinary what people tell you….and amazing what you are able to do when you find out what you find out and are able to help join the dots to make a difference.


    1. Balance your life: When we started, our three children were young (the youngest was two) – despite the relentlessness of what you will experience, you need to re-energise regularly. My wife’s condition (and pretty much the only condition for us to set up the business together) was “we take a break every time the kids have a break”. That scared me; how could I possibly?……but we did. Right from the first Christmas break that year. I am convinced to this day that that was one of the critical factors for survival as a family.


    1. Know that your network is your future: Every interaction counts. Every conversation makes an impact. Never disregard those around you. Always take every opportunity to connect positively and thoughtfully. I learnt this the hard way when I didn’t pay attention to this.


    1. Create a business that is not YOU: Owner operated ‘people’ businesses such as ours become stuck around the business owner (i.e. me in this case). It took probably 10 of the first 18 years to separate the business from my personality….but here’s the challenge: The business IS my personality. So, the biggest challenge is how to do that. But do it, you must.


    1. At some stage you need to get serious about the numbers: We created Expression for Growth with no real targets; we knew that if we were able to deliver a handful of days’ revenue every month, that’s all we needed to make a reasonable living. We focused on our outcome…to inspire, enable and support our clients to achieve what they wanted to achieve. The ‘why’ of our business. I knew that if we did that, we would be successful. BUT…when it grows, it costs more to run; you need people, premises and you need to invest….you then need to get serious about the numbers….whilst remembering ‘why’ you are doing this. Always!


    1. You need to be tough on those who owe you money:  No matter how small you are at the start, you have no business if you have no money. It may feel tough to do so because you don’t want to upset your shiny new clients…but you need to be tough on getting paid, from the very beginning. Increasingly, those who pay the bills (not usually your main stakeholder) (genuinely) use tactics to pay you as late as possible (“sorry, can you re-send the invoice, we have lost it” or “oh…you sent it to the wrong person”)…each time the clock re-starts at zero…and you wait again.



These tips could be applied to pretty much any small business. Many may seem naïve (but will do with the benefit of hindsight). Many could have been predicted (but when you are ‘in’ it, it seems less obvious). But all of them have been invaluable learnings….just think how they might apply to you, and what the implications could be.

Ultimately, remember this if you are about to or have embarked on your own ‘small business adventure’:

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

There are at least another top ten top tens from our experience ….look out for more articles as they are published (that are not your usual business textbook stuff), and if you found this article interesting please share…..and if you would like to find out more, please contact Alex Selwood at, or have a look around our website for inspiration and more information about what we do.

Alex Selwood