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How leaders can reap the rewards of “growth on purpose”

Defy conventional startup wisdom by charting a steady and impactful path to success.
A businessman's hand is pointing at a stock chart, showing intentional growth.
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Key Takeaways
  • Filling the company coffers and increasing shareholder dividends is the raison d’être of business.
  • However, some companies and entrepreneurs are rethinking how to measure business growth in ways that are more impactful and sustainable.
  • Jonny White, CEO of Ticket Tailor, shares how his company went from a bootstrapped business to one growing with purpose.
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“If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.” It’s a sentiment treated as holy writ in the business world, especially among technology companies. In this sector, news is only good news if the seed funding flows, the hiring spree is wild, and the valuation orbits high above on-the-ground common sense.

The problem with the growth gospel is that it runs afoul of both history and reality. As the economist Herbert Stein succinctly put it: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” And when reckless growth comes to a screeching halt, the whiplash is painful.

The current round of tech layoffs is just the latest example of Stein’s law in action. While branded as a newfound love for “efficiency,” the truth is that many of these companies extended irresponsibly on the cheap money and favorable conditions of the preceding years. Similarly, the recent unicorn culling shows what happens when large amounts of investor capital — shackled to equally large investor demands — outpace reasonable, sustained maturation.

In both cases, growth took priority over the human costs that would be endured when the economic conditions turned as they inevitably do.

However, some companies and entrepreneurs have learned from such examples and are trying something new. While they aren’t shirking growth entirely, they are reinventing how businesses can measure progress beyond the bottom line.

Among them is Ticket Tailor, a platform that helps venues, organizers, and charities manage ticket sales for events. Rather than chase growth for growth’s sake, the company has chosen to evaluate its growth around purpose and meaning. In doing so, its CEO and founder, Jonny White, believes the company unlocked a potential that, had they gone a more traditional route, may have been left dormant.

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Bootstrapped for cash

White didn’t start Ticket Tailor with the goal of blue-penciling the conventional wisdom. He was looking for a repeatable business model that he could use to scale his effort and sell his time more efficiently.

As a freelancer, he used his programming skills to build websites and systems, and he found himself developing a lot of ticketing systems for clients in the music industry. These clients wanted software to manage their events instead of going through a ticketing agency; however, few could shoulder the cost of building a custom-made system.

Cue the light-bulb moment: What if he built ticketing software that could provide such a service, no middleman, and at scale? And in 2010, Ticket Tailor was launched.

“I didn’t come to [Ticket Tailor] with any kind of sense of how business works,” White tells Big Think. “I [thought] everyone gets funding, so I need to as well. I spent a lot of time creating pitch decks, going with the flow, and thinking this is the thing to do. Really, I was wasting my time.”

At one point, someone advised White that he should raise at least £400,000 if he wanted his business to take off. White was gobsmacked. “I didn’t have a clue what I would spend that kind of money on.”

When asked by investors how he would spend their money, his answer was along similar lines — leading to only pleasantries exchanged by the meeting’s end.

“I had this angst about growth,” White says. “Growth is fun, and it comes with a lot of opportunities, and it brings more security as well. But there are bad sides to it as well, and no one talks about the bad sides. This is especially true in tech, where a lot of the growth is insane. That jarred with me quite a lot.”

Eventually, White was introduced to the bootstrapping community, a loose collective term for entrepreneurs who use self-funds or other frugal means to operate free from investor oversight and demands. He moved into an office space with some of these bootstrappers and began to learn how to grow his business slowly, but meaningfully.

When it appears that the goal of business is to make money for the shareholders and not to serve the customers, then bad decisions get made.

Jonny White

A ticket for growth

A quick detour in the story: Two years into his journey, White was approached by a company that offered to buy Ticket Tailor and give him a job. And he went for it.

“It was a great experience because I could work with a lot of smart people,” White recounts. “But I saw the downsides of big organizations as well. I felt like a small cog, putting my effort into things that didn’t make any difference to the outside world.”

Ultimately, things fell through. The company shelved Ticket Tailor, and when White later left his position, he offered to buy his brainchild back.

Combining his small-cog experience with his angst over reckless growth, White set about creating a company culture where everyone — regardless of their role — felt like they were important and could make a difference. Over time, his team’s various ideas merged into a set of initiatives they called Growth on Purpose.

“Growth on Purpose is about bringing it all together into one package that says our growth will be positive,” White says. “We sum it up as: For every ticket that we sell, the more impact we have.”

Ticket Tailor’s Growth on Purpose initiatives run the gamut, but all aim to improve the lives of the company’s stakeholders. For instance, the company initiated a profit share program for team members. It became a certified B corporation, meaning it meets high standards of transparency, social accountability, and environmental performance. Its customer service program is single-tier; every client gets the same service regardless of what they pay or, in the case of free events, even if they don’t pay.

But their view of stakeholders is far broader than business. The company donates a penny of every ticket sold to climate charity partners and, to date, has given more than a quarter million pounds. This focus has extended to the company culture as well. Ticket Tailor has become completely carbon neutral and even takes company retreats to wildlife restoration projects rather than flying to Tuscany or Madrid.

“This brought it all together and allowed me to say, ‘Yes, let’s get behind this. Let’s get behind growth!’” White says, adding, “When it appears that the goal of business is to make money for the shareholders and not to serve the customers, then bad decisions get made. But the important thing about impact, which is easy to overlook, is that it’s about the impact on all stakeholders.”

We’ve taken our time, but we’re growing nicely and doing well.

Jonny White

Business isn’t paint-by-numbers

Today, Ticket Tailor remains small but agile. Its employee headcount is about 20 people, but the company remains profitable. Last year, it earned around $7 million in revenue, with profit margins around 30-40%. It processes millions of tickets every year (13.7 million in 2022). While those numbers may only be around, say, 20% of their largest competitors, they are managing that with 2.5% of the staff and significantly less overhead.

“We became an incredibly efficient, lean machine because we grew slowly,” White says. “I believe we’re a case study that shows bootstrapping makes for a much healthier business. You don’t see that rocket ship growth. We’ve taken our time, but we’re growing nicely and doing well.”

For instance, that approach toward slow, deliberate growth has created a culture that tends to avoid nonessential risks. The company doesn’t process payments despite its potential as a business function because of the complexity and risk involved with holding clients’ money. Instead, they outsource that responsibility to a third party.

The company also doesn’t hire to solve every new problem. Instead, White and his team consider how their current tools and expertise might provide an overlooked answer or means to avoid the problem altogether. And when they do hire, they make sure they have a full year’s salary for the new team member in the bank.

Both tactics became lifesavers when the COVID pandemic hit, and events were canceled worldwide. Like so many other companies, Ticket Tailor’s revenue torpedoed, but because the company had salaries banked and its clients’ had their money, it avoided massive staff layoffs and could focus on building their post-COVID product stronger.

None of which is to say that White, his team, or other purpose-focused companies are anti-growth. As the numbers above show, Ticket Tailor is growing. It makes a profit. It has gained the loyalty of a satisfied customer base. It is doing all the things a business should do. It’s just doing those things with a different understanding of what growth is and can be.

“The message we give off about entrepreneurialism is all about making money. That’s the main goal,” White says. “ I think we can have a more inspiring message about what impact you can create through your business. We have a massive opportunity to fine-tune the dynamics of businesses to have a tremendous impact.”

He adds: “Creating a business is a blank canvas. You don’t need to do what another company has done before. There’s loads of great stuff out there to help you grow your business, but the point is you can make it whatever you want to make it. And it’s great that companies are starting to think creatively about this stuff.”

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