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Why you don't need an army to be victorious

Lisa Messenger
Entrepreneur

Lisa Messenger is the CEO of The Messenger Group and founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective. She has authored and co-authored over a dozen books and become an authority in the start-up scene

Lisa Messenger
Entrepreneur

Lisa Messenger is the CEO of The Messenger Group and founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective. She has authored and co-authored over a dozen books and become an authority in the start-up scene

How many staff members do you need to be successful? Serial entrepreneur Lisa Messenger, CEO of The Collective, says pick a number – and then halve it.

In the modern world, more than ever, numbers seem to do the talking. In some instances bigger equals better (Facebook friends, Instagram followers, annual salaries and, in my industry, magazine circulation) but when it comes to other numbers, we strive to keep them as small as possible (waist measurements, mortgage repayments, points on our driving license, amount we owe to the tax man).

man writing on whiteboard in meeting room full of people

The question is, as a small business owner, where does the “number of employees” fall on this spectrum? There is often a misconception that a lean team is a sign of struggle and the mark of power is a huge, sprawling office space with rows full of team members. But, not any longer. It might surprise you to hear that, when it comes to team headcount, I place this particular figure in the “less is more” category, and I actively try to keep my full time employees as intimate as possible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t afford more bums on seats, but in my experience – and the savvy entrepreneurs I speak to agree – more is no longer merrier and there is great safety in small numbers. So, before you strive to upscale and supersize your dream team, count your blessings and consider why less is best.

Underplay your overheads

Laptops, electricity bill, rent for larger office space… When you look at it purely financially, every extra permanent team member is a drain on resources. Of course, certain roles are crucial to have by your side 24/7 (for me, an amazing creative designer, deputy editor and advertising manager) but how many hours per week do you really need for other positions? I run an “iceberg company”. Above the surface it might seem small – 15 or 20 full time staffers – but beneath the surface it’s a giant structure with 70 freelancers around the world, who work on a job and projects in all manner of working arrangements. We can harness their expertise as and when we need them.

I tend to agree with the “two pizza rule” of the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos – basically if a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big for communication, speed and innovation.

A crowd is too loud

A Google search brings up multiple studies arguing that smaller teams are more productive.

In a recent paper “Why individuals in larger teams perform worse” Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller argued: “Above and beyond five, you begin to see diminishing motivation” as social cliques start to form and team members struggle to be heard.

We’ve all suffered through excruciating meetings where, for some reasons, the world and their entourages seem to have been invited and there are so many people with opinions that nothing is actually achieved. Because of my intimate team, everyone is able to contribute, from interns to senior staffers, and everyone feels heard, valued and nurtured.

I’m a big believer in creating a small pond in your company, so your team can feel like big fish and fill it with thought bubbles.

Hire “T-shaped” talent

An employee with a so-called “T-shaped” skillset is a saviour of a small team, and has become a bit of a recruitment buzzphrase in the last decade or so. What does it mean? Well, it’s a person with depth of skills in one discipline (symbolised by the vertical line) but also some knowledge of many different skills and an ability to collaborate (hence the horizontal line at the top of the T). The individuals on my team are all amazingly talented, whether it’s in design, editing, sales or digital, but all share a common love of creativity, commerce and innovation.

I don’t expect them to know everything, but they’re willing to learn and ask each other for the answers – and that’s how a few cogs form a major machine. Back at the start of my entrepreneurial career I used to be a little embarrassed that, at the time, I only had a team of four people, but now I see it as a sign that I choose my staff wisely and inspire them to be passionate enough to do the work of many more. 

Be lean, be perky!

As a start-up, it’s sometimes impossible to contend with the big boys when it comes to the salary you can offer top talent, but a small company can offer perks and privileges that larger companies can’t. Take a recent example – I promised my creative director that if she hit a certain, colossal KPI, as a reward I would take her on a research trip with me to New York City where I was going for a round of meetings.

If I had a team of 50-plus employees I would never have been able to offer such an opportunity (what if everyone else expected it? It wouldn’t be fair to only offer it to one of them!) But, my small team means I’m able to offer such treats, perks and incentives.

Did she hit her KPI? Well, as I write this from the departures gate at Sydney airport, with my suitcase packed, she is also packing and will be joining me tomorrow (which actually worked out wonderfully for me, as I get her expert input in an upcoming American project).

I may have a small team but we feel unstoppable… 

Running a lean team may be what's best for your business.

But just because you're small doesn't mean you shouldn't get outside help.

Find out more

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