How Small Companies Can Scale Quickly
Agility is often cited as one of the key advantages small companies have over larger competitors. But small businesses can be equally slow—even if for different reasons.
While massive corporations may be weighed down by bureaucratic burdens, small companies are often stalled by a lack of quality systems. Small-by-design companies, however, strike a balance. They streamline repeatable processes, continually refining for greater efficiency without crushing creativity under over-engineered infrastructure.
True agility requires building a platform from which your team can leap and fly. And these days, whether due to an unexpected huge new project or a difficult demand to scale back, every company needs to remain agile. Below are a few playbook tips based on what I’ve learned about flexibility in business.
Establish the right roles and responsibilities.
One joy of running a small business is the collaborative nature of the work. But clear roles and responsibilities are still required for efficiency. It’s how you ensure all aspects of a client project are handled well while staying clear of competing (and confusing) decisions.
Copying the corporate org charts of others simply may not be right for you. Instead, consider what roles and responsibilities make the most sense for your company’s goals and build from there.
In the early days of my own tech-forward branding agency, I directed both design and development. But in response to Covid-19, I shifted my focus to my greatest strengths. Now I serve as Director of Strategy (we have no CEO): defining our clients’ issues, identifying solutions and bringing resources together to do the job well. Then I step back and let the rest of my small team run the show.
Since creative direction and web development are central pillars of what we deliver, those roles are prioritized in our leadership structure. However, we’re far too lean for a VP of Operations, and our finances certainly aren’t complex enough for a CFO.
Your company’s framework should reflect its unique value. Create well-defined roles to lead what matters most for success, and spare yourself the other overhead.
Standardize your systems.
Not every small business needs a plethora of standard operating procedures (SOPs). But your small-by-design company can benefit from identifying repeatable processes, then standardizing them in SOPs that manage for efficiency and reliable results.
These are particularly important should you need to suddenly scale large or small. By taking time in advance to clearly spell out what you do and how you do it, new members are easily onboarded without a ton of individual training time. Should you lose a key member, their company knowledge won’t vanish with them.
Creating SOPs also builds confidence. Though you’ll revisit them as you evolve, systems ensure everyone knows where the ship is headed and how best to steer it.
Streamline staffing and training.
As a small-by-design business, you won’t hire and train hundreds of people. But you will acquire both employees and contractors, either temporary or permanent. So consider how to identify the qualities and experience needed for these additions. Decide early on where you’ll find them and how they will be selected and trained.
At my agency, for example, I don’t frequently hire people. But in preparation for those occasions, my creative director and I spent days of dedicated time to fully articulate our agency’s culture, values and methods.
Now when someone is onboarded, we hand them what emerged from those in-depth discussions, plus our SOPs. It may seem like a lot of work for an agency hiring only one to two new people per year, but as a result, new teammates don’t have to infer our culture and values from day-to-day encounters. Their full integration is greatly accelerated because it’s already been spelled out. In a world of increasing remote and hybrid work, this has become an even more effective and efficient method.
Develop your digital infrastructure.
My agency brings digital acumen to building brands that work, but I firmly believe that businesses largely succeed or fail based on the quality of their ideas and the capabilities of their people. However, even if technology is not the primary competitive edge for your small-by-design business, digital infrastructure can either empower or impede your best ideas.
What you need will vary widely, depending on your work. Perhaps a basic website with a contact form, reliable email and some simple cloud storage are all you require. Maybe your business could benefit from much more.
The key is to assess your present needs and anticipate how those may change as you scale to bigger opportunities. Then invest in quality digital infrastructure before those most challenging opportunities come along.
Nurture relationships before you need them.
Even in ordinary times, the work of any business depends on strong relationships. You rely on your banker and maybe the print shop down the street. You depend on city services and perhaps the coffee shop downstairs. A caterer, an ad rep, an office supply store. The co-work space you use for an office.
Some of these relationships will become even more important when a sudden challenge or opportunity comes your way. You’ll need responsive partners you can call in with urgency and trust they’ll get the job done.
These relationships cannot be cultivated in a crisis. No one wants a new friend who immediately asks for a difficult handout. So consistently nurture connections well before they’re needed. Send a spontaneous thank you gift, get to know the staff, celebrate their triumphs—smaller personal details will pay off greatly in the end.
Incorporate the full toolbox for success.
The future is uncertain. But even if you don’t yet see huge growth or radical shrinkage on the horizon, our times prove it’s important to be prepared to adapt rapidly (even if temporarily) to meet demands. I talk more about the “how” behind all of this in my new book Small by Design, releasing in May. For now, whatever may come, a solid foundation for flexibility will help you evolve for success.
The ADA and Universal Design: Building a Better Blueprint
In the early days of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it became common to see wheelchair ramps retrofitted to the entrances of stores, restaurants, libraries, government centers, and other businesses and public buildings. They were often added as an afterthought to architecture that had not been designed with accessibility in mind.
Building engineers later learned to hack better retrofits, but the more radical transformation came when architects started designing for universal access in their blueprints for new construction. Universal access went from appended accommodation to the core of good design.
Today, we’re at a similar inflection point with accessible websites, and it all begins with drafting better blueprints for digital experiences.
Below, I’ll be discussing familiar topics such as UX, information architecture, content organization, and wireframing, but to be clear, this isn’t intended as a comprehensive discussion of these topics. Rather, I’ll look at how principles of universal design can be integrated with these competencies to build better blueprints for websites that will serve everyone better.
Diversify Your Personas
Universal design is inherently user-first design. We’re designing digital experiences for real people to use. If we’re committed to universal design, we’re designing them to work well for as many people as possible.
Personas are a key tool of user-first UX design. Are any of your personas vision- or hearing-impaired? Color blind? Is one of them unable to use a mouse or trackpad? Is there any neurodiversity represented in your personas? If people with disabilities aren’t represented in your personas, you’re unlikely to understand and empathize with their needs.
A universal design approach to user-first experiences starts with understanding that your users will have many different experiences, then doing everything you can to understand their perspectives.
Follow Their User Journeys
Once you include the personas of people with disabilities, what do their user journeys look like? What paths will they want to follow through your site? Do they have the same goals as your other personas? Do they have the same pain points?
An architect designing an office building might consider that a person who uses a wheelchair could choose to enter the building from the parking garage, but they also might take the bus then enter through the street-side entrance. Are all entrances wheelchair accessible?
Following our diversified user personas through our planned web experience, we have to design more accessible journeys. What are all the likely entry points? How easily can they navigate from that point to the next key step toward their goal? Are all the steps really necessary?
This exploration might lead you to realize that a six-step journey on your website could actually be accomplished in three steps. It might clarify what content is actually supporting that user journey and what is just getting in the way. In the end, you’re likely to map out a user journey that is more direct and easier for everyone to navigate.
This streamlined journey will help the user who relies on a screen reader and keyboard to move through a site. Removing distracting content may help the user with ADHD or dyslexia to better process key information.
All of it helps any user more easily accomplish their goals. It’s a more elegant and effortless experience for all.
Obsess Over Your Sitemaps and Content Structure
Let me start by stating something obvious to anyone in this community: HTML links can be arbitrary. They don’t demand that the content on your site be organized in any logical, hierarchical, or process-driven manner. You can group your content however you want or not at all, then link from resource to resource as you please. There’s power in that, but also peril for content organization.
This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t use contextual links. My point here is that you shouldn’t use them as an excuse to treat sitemaps — content organization — as an afterthought. You should obsess over the optimal organization of your site content, and accessible design is one of many reasons why.
If a user can smoothly move focus over a navigation menu and easily scan the dropdown submenus, they’ll probably eventually find what they’re looking for on your site, even if where they find it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The same goes for scanning a page for buttons and other contextual links.
But what about a user who uses a screen reader and keyboard navigation to work through those menus or links? They’d rather not have to tab through every menu choice, but if they don’t find the content they’re looking for where they expect it, that’s just what they’ll have to do. The costs in time and frustration are high. It may prevent them from finding the services or information they need. It may cost you conversions.
Organize your content to bring important resources to prominence. Make the pathways toward user goals simple to find and easy to follow.
Good content organization helps people with physical disabilities, people with neurological differences, and, once again, anyone who has ever wasted time and effort trying to find what they needed on a poorly organized website. (Has anyone out there not had this experience?)
Bring Your Wireframes Into Clear Focus
Wireframing is the more detailed work of building a better blueprint for your website, though the idea here is largely the same. Once a user gets to a particular page in their journey, how can you make it easy for them to find the information they’re seeking or the action they need to complete? How can you clearly guide them to the next step or their end goal in the journey?
On larger sites, wireframes also encourage consistency among pages of similar types and purposes. A user knows where the information will be on one page because it’s the same place it is on all the other pages of that type.
For a person with impaired vision, autism, ADHD, or many other disabilities, good wireframes give proximity and predictability to the web experience. They give prominence to key information and actions, establish conventions for similar types of resources, and strip away unnecessary content that doesn’t actually serve the user or advance their journey. They do the same thing for people without disabilities.
Better Blueprints are Better for All
I made this point in the article that launched this series, but I want to reemphasize it here: Better blueprints lead to web experiences that are better for everyone, not only for people with disabilities. The rigor of universal design pushes us to refine how we organize information, both on the page and throughout the site. It compels us to create clearer, frictionless paths to the most important information and actions. It forces us to consider what content actually serves the user, and what just gets in the way of the user’s goals.
When we build web experiences based on such blueprints, we create websites that are better for everyone. E-commerce sites with better conversions. Government services sites that better serve their citizens. Information resources that help people find or discover the information they seek.
It’s how we begin to design accessible websites that are better for all, and it all starts with the hard work of drafting a better blueprint.
Small Company, Big Ideas: How To Become An Effective Thought Leader
Intimidated by the idea of jumping into thought leadership? Perhaps redesigning your own thinking about it will help.
Thought leadership isn’t about delivering some grand ivory tower thesis or accumulating intimidating bylines from elite publications. Rather, it’s thinking more deeply about foundational ideas, leaning into leading conversations, connecting to others in a broader context and asking previously unasked questions.
Though it can help you grow, attract and nurture clients, thought leadership isn’t about convincing them of your worth. Instead of being a “look how good I am” billboard, it’s a way to get others thinking “look at how we can all do better.”
Effective thought leadership can also help you eventually raise your prices. It builds clout that justifies your higher fees because you’ve demonstrated you can spearhead significant dialogue and galvanize big ideas — the playing field equalizers for small-by-design companies.
Explore what you know (and want to understand better).
Start with the topics you’re truly passionate about — issues you’ve dedicated a great deal of time and energy to, just because you dig them.
Write from where you are. Don’t try to present a dissertation that anticipates every potential question — especially if you don’t have the answers yet. Sharing your excitement about what you’ve discovered (and admitting knowledge gaps) can humanize you. It also underscores how you’re paying attention, that you have a considered opinion and are open to new thoughts.
Then, beyond delving into what you know, explore what you desire to understand better.
Gradually, you’ll become a mini-expert in these areas. But from the very outset of your learning, write about it, share it and gain a reputation for discussing it. Circulate your expanding knowledge and demonstrate how you’re tweaking your perspective as you grow.
Leading the field will be built on the foundation of these micro-topics you’re mastering along the way. Meanwhile, it can lead to openings for even bigger work and further learning.
Consider your story.
While you’re assembling your thought leadership portfolio, choose your topics and express your views with intention regarding your company’s arc. This content will be a lens into your organization, so use it as a magnet.
Everything you produce — from a mini-lecture to a manifesto — provides an opportunity for someone else to absorb it and say, “I like this person’s approach and the culture they are building.” So, how will each piece contribute to the story of who you are?
Don’t worry about being agreeable.
Do you hold a unique but challenging opinion on a topic? Discuss it!
Instead of presenting yourself as a rebel daring to step dangerously outside the walls of conventional wisdom, however, seize the chance to intelligently articulate your genuine beliefs, without compromise or apology.
Doing so can encourage discourse within your community of peers. And it’s a terrific vetting tool for potential clients. Whether they are aligned with your views or contentiously disagree, you’ll both understand if you’re the right fit for each other.
Play to your crowd.
Speaking of dialogue, keep your audience in mind. Consider who you’re trying to reach, what questions they’re asking and what challenges they’re facing.
Include your current clients in this. What questions do they repeatedly ask? What do you recite regularly from an internal pre-recorded talk track as you’re pitching to or onboarding each one?
Write those points down and publish them or deliver soundbytes in a panel. It saves you time and it demonstrates that you’re thoughtful, seasoned — a thought leader. It also shows you’re thinking about their pain points and how to solve them.
Consider where to share.
You don’t need a column in a high-profile publication to be seen as a thought leader. The endorsement of respected gatekeepers certainly helps if you can get it, but great ideas can serve your success however they’re presented.
Some options for sharing include:
• Posting it to your social network.
• Emailing it to your business contacts.
• Blogging about it on your website.
• Including it in your sales proposals.
• Including it at key points in your delivery process. For example, share a piece about stakeholder engagement at the kickoff of the discovery process to explain why you want to include the voices of other key stakeholders.
• Sharing it through platforms like Medium, Quora or Substack. Building up a smaller audience may lead to scoring bigger pitches later.
• Using it for pitching yourself to panels or conferences.
Move from thought to action.
Once you’ve established your most effective pieces, consider using them to:
• Open a conversation. After someone reads or listens to your thoughts, warm, inbound leads will come from people who are already impressed.
• Vet potential clients. If prospective clients aren’t well aligned with your values, your thought leadership will reveal that early, saving you both time and stress.
• Nurture prospects to become sales. If a lead is on the fence, your article may further the conversation.
• Guide a client in the direction of what will actually help them versus what they think they want.
• Close a deal when included with a proposal or contract to demonstrate your expertise.
• Support a successful client relationship or project with education. Your thought leadership can further their confidence in choosing you.
• Keep the conversation going with a past client who may need you again or refer you to someone else.
• Raise the standard of your quality and value. Show you’re more than selling deliverables; you’re a strategic leader steering them toward the best choices in the field. You’re not simply a vendor but a consultant helping clients figure out what they need — and delivering on it.
Overall, challenge yourself to get the most mileage possible from each piece by asking yourself how both its content and usage will align with and reflect your company culture — now and into the future.
By following this thought leadership playbook (like I did), your small-by-design company can soon make a big impact driven by the power of your ideas.
ARIA: 5 Best Practices for Screen Readers and Other Assistive Devices
Imagine this experience: You go to a website to search for critical information you need to do your job. Or to order a refill of an important prescription. Or to download the new album that your favorite band just dropped.
You navigate to the site, but you have to hunt for five minutes before you find the search bar. (It was buried down at the very bottom of the footer, underneath the copyright notice.) You find your way to a form that is labeled “form.” The form has a text field that’s labeled “generic” and prompts you to enter “text field.” Down at the bottom, there’s a button labeled “button.” While you’re trying to figure it all out, the page times out, and you have to start all over. (A countdown alert popped up to warn you, but you didn’t notice it.)
How’s your experience going so far? Finding what you need? Feeling like your time is well spent? Or are you getting ready to abandon the site and try somewhere else?
This is analogous to the experience of someone accessing a website with a screen reader or other assistive technology when the site hasn’t been developed according to the best practices of accessible website design.
ARIA to the Rescue
To address this growing problem, W3C created the Web Accessibility Initiative—Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA, or simply ARIA). ARIA is a framework of attributes you can add to HTML elements, providing added context and alternative, text-based information. ARIA attributes make web applications more accessible to people who use screen readers, braille displays, keyboard-only navigation, and other assistive technologies.
Note that ARIA attributes only make web experiences better for those who use assistive technologies. It has been my premise in this series that accessible web design makes websites better for everyone, not only for people with disabilities. I think that’s true even here, because ARIA forces us to take a hard look at the organization and interactions of our web experiences.
As I’ll cover in my first best practice, the best solution is not to create a separate experience for users with disabilities. If you’re using ARIA to substantially alter your web experience, I urge you instead to rethink the experience you’re creating for all. Many ARIA fixes will then become unnecessary… and your websites will be better for everyone.
Best Practices for ARIA
#1: Start With Semantic HTML
Don’t throw good ARIA at bad HTML. When you develop sites using well-formed semantic HTML, you won’t need to rely heavily on ARIA attributes to make them accessible.
If your web app uses a <div> element as a button, an ARIA role can inform screen readers that it’s a button:
<div id=”OrderMilkshake” tabIndex=”0” role=”button” aria-pressed=”false”>Order Milkshake</div>
But why not use semantic HTML instead?
<button id=”OrderMilkshake”>Order Milkshake</button>
It’s more adaptable, more machine readable, and may even enhance your SEO.
There are some scenarios in which you can’t use semantic HTML:
- It’s someone else’s code, and you don’t have the authority to change it.
- It’s legacy code, and you don’t have the budget to fix it.
- Required displays and devices don’t support the semantic element.
- HTML5 doesn’t specify the semantic element you need.
In these cases, you have no choice but to fix generic elements with ARIA attributes. But whenever you have a choice, use semantic HTML instead.
#2: Design a Better DOM
When you string together a bunch of <div> and <span> elements, search engines and assistive technologies have no structure to guide them. They see only a collection of generic content.
Instead, organize your content logically in <section>, <article>, <aside>, <h1>-<h6>, and other semantic elements. Make the structure of the document much more explicit and easier for assistive technologies to navigate. (Search engine spiders will thank you too.)
#3: Trim the Accessibility Tree
A web document’s accessibility tree is a transformation of the DOM, rendered by the browser and made available to assistive technology. It is both less and more than the DOM. Browsers remove extraneous information and add additional (sometimes computed) information to help people using assistive technologies.
Inspect your web app’s accessibility tree to see what information will be sent to assistive technologies. What important information is missing? What extraneous information is included? What generic information could be made more precise?
Make a list, then go back to best practices #1 and #2. Can you add the missing information to the DOM? Should that extraneous information be in your web app? Can you use more informative semantic HTML?
If you can fix the accessibility tree with the above techniques, do so. It will make for a clearer document structure and cleaner code. Search engines and assistive technologies will both understand it better.
But there will be times when you can’t fix the accessibility tree in these ways. In this case, it’s time to use a little ARIA.
#4: Lightly Apply ARIA Landmarks and Other Roles
We looked briefly at ARIA roles in the example in #1. I urged you to use semantic HTML instead.
However, HTML5 does not specify all the semantic elements you might need to build your web app. Even where it does, some elements aren’t supported across all displays and devices. These elements include common features of modern web experiences such as dropdown and hamburger menus, pop-ups, and alerts.
ARIA roles close the accessibility gap by explicitly defining the semantic role of an element. ARIA landmarks are a subset of roles that define the main content areas of a document, such as a navigation menu or search tool.
Alerts, for example, convey time-sensitive information that a user should read immediately. However, there is no <alert> element in HTML to convey this urgency to assistive technologies. Here’s where an ARIA role steps in.
<p role=”alert”>The CSV number is required to complete your order.</p>
With the “alert” role set, screen readers will immediately announce the alert and read the text within it.
#5: Fill in the Final Gaps with ARIA States and Properties
Finally, we have ARIA states and properties. These ARIA attributes do have a place in accessible web experiences, but you should use them only after getting the most out of practices 1-4.
At my agency, more than 90% of our ARIA attribute usage comes down to the roles and landmarks in #4 and three ARIA properties:
- aria-label to describe elements with no visible text label, such as hamburger menus
- aria-labeledby to identify another element whose text labels the element
- aria-describedby to identify another element that has additional information about the element
When creating accessible web experiences, knowing when not to use ARIA labels is just as important as knowing when you should. Use the lens of ARIA to examine your web apps more deeply. Make them as accessible as you can without adding ARIA, then use ARIA roles, properties, and states to get you the rest of the way there. You’ll end up with a rich Internet application that works better for everyone.
A Contractor Playbook For Companies That Are Small By Design
Now more than ever, the value your company creates is not dependent on your size, and the clutter of conventional growth often crowds out actual impact. In my experience, it’s far better to assemble only the truly essential resources and learn how to apply them well, all while staying deliberately, proudly small by design.
My agency has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue growth for clients, transformed communities and helped address the largest public health crisis in a century. We did it all while staying intentionally small, and even choosing to get smaller.
As you might expect, we do this in part through working with contractors, but we do so with care and a clear sense of purpose. We follow a playbook — which I’ve written about in more detail in my forthcoming book — that transforms contractors into high-performing members of my team.
Here’s how we do it.
1. Evaluate What Must Be Handled In-House
Not everything can be outsourced, or at least not everything should be. There’s you, of course, as the holder of the company vision. (Don’t outsource yourself.) Beyond that, conventional wisdom says to keep core competencies in-house, but I don’t think that’s always right.
My company has built a reputation as a creative agency with the technical chops to integrate complex systems into seamless digital experience platforms. My core team of employees and I do all the work of understanding our clients’ needs, articulating their goals and clarifying their visions. We see and suggest opportunities for integration, and then map out how they will function and interact. We determine how we’ll measure success with data.
But as projects scale, we augment our team with high-performing contract developers to build what we’ve designed.
2. Choose Contractors Who Are Invested in Their Businesses
Contractors become contractors for many different reasons that may change over the course of their careers. For any contractor you consider, evaluate where they are in their business journey.
• Experience and exposure contractors are taking on contract work as a step along the way to something else.
• Fallback contractors are working as contractors because they lost or couldn’t find a job.
• Side hustle contractors have other jobs, so they may give most of their time and attention to something else.
• Career contractors choose the contractor lifestyle and invest in it as a business.
I think career contractors are the only kind you should invest in. They typically want to grow and will put in the effort to grow with you as long as you make it worth their while.
3. Plug Them Into Your Systems (Never Plug Yourself Into Theirs)
Your company is the nexus where client goals and contractor value come together. You are the organizing principal — not anyone else.
Adapting your systems to the eccentricities of every contractor is wildly inefficient. Standardize your systems for working with contractors. Design them to be efficient and scalable. Where you can, build in a degree of flexibility. But then insist that all your contractors plug into your system. It’s usually more efficient for everyone, and, crucially, it’s more effective. You’ll deliver better value to your clients. That will likely lead to better opportunities for your contractors too.
4. Be Generous and Celebrate Their (Other) Successes
Transactional relationships are typically bad for business and worse for the soul. I think most people who choose to keep their business small understand this. We’re not doing this just for overflowing bank accounts. We want our work to be meaningful, and we want the same in our relationships.
So don’t treat your contractors like vending machines where you just put in your money and take out what you need. Build a real relationship, and give them more than just their fees. Support their growth with referrals, advice and glowing reviews. And celebrate their successes.
If they call you to share their excitement when they land a big new client, you’re doing something right. (If they hide it, it’s time for some self-reflection.)
5. Work With Them Exclusively
Once you find the right contractor for a particular capability, work with them exclusively. My contractors all know they have the right of first refusal on any job I have that matches their capabilities. (To this day, I haven’t had one turn any work away.)
Different capabilities may require different contractors, but wherever possible, seek to broaden their exclusive domain as you deepen the relationship. It’s more efficient for you and better supports your mutual success. So give them exclusivity for all that they can ably provide.
6. Be Transparent About Your Business (Within Reason)
Your business shouldn’t be a black box to your contractors. Within reason, let them see what’s going on inside. (If you don’t trust them enough to do this, you may need to reevaluate the contractors you’re choosing.) By showing them what’s behind the curtain at your company, you’ll also reinforce the norm that they can give you the same transparency into their business.
Contractors, if you choose the right ones, are business owners like you. You actually have a lot in common, and these conversations may be beneficial for you both.
7. Get Them Invested in Your Shared Success
Never ask a contractor to do free work that only benefits you. You can, however, ask them to invest in shared opportunities for success.
This must not be merely a semantic shift. Ensure that their investment has the real potential for a payoff that makes the invested time worth their while and make that payoff explicit along with any ask.
Pitching to a big potential client? Within a trusting relationship between you and your contractors, it’s reasonable to ask them whether they’re willing to contribute a little time and thinking to the proposal you’re writing. You may be surprised by how often some contractors don’t charge for that work.
If they know you’re invested in their success, they’ll also be invested in yours.
Contractors Can Make You Mighty
Integrate contractors thoughtfully into your high-performing teams. They can amplify your impact well beyond your company’s weight, while you adapt with the agility that comes from staying small by design.