Strength Training for Small Business
A strength training system worked for my business partner. Is there an equivalent for building strength for a small business?
Around three months back, Darren decided to join a gym. He trains there now for one and a half hours, three days a week. He joined because he wanted to get stronger, and because he knew he’d quit if he tried to figure things out and make progress on his own. So he’s paying much more than the cost of a monthly gym membership to be part of small group sessions with a coach.
The coach’s job is to tell him how much weight to add each session and to correct his form. Darren’s job is to show up and do the work. After 11 weeks (and missing just one session), he says he can now squat and deadlift weights that looked impossible to him when he started. Just by showing up, doing the work, and maintaining his form. And adding a little more weight to the bar each session.
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The coaching program is called Starting Strength. It seems simple, but, like most simple things, it’s so because someone has taken care to make it so. The someone in this case is Mark Rippetoe, the program’s co-creator and evangelist. Rippetoe has decades of experience as a competitive lifter and trainer, time spent toiling under the bar and figuring out how to reach strength goals, first for himself, then for his clients — athletes and civilians alike.
A clearly thoughtful person and independent thinker, Rippetoe has drawn from his years of experience and research to form a stripped down theory of what works for novice lifters: “[He] is a huge proponent of the basics: full squats, deadlifts, cleans, overhead presses, bench presses, etc., and [Starting Strength] reflects that, teaching proper form on the lifts, how to coach them, and to program them for success.”
The Starting Strength free weight system is practical, easy to describe, and easy to understand: a few basics, performed at increasing levels of difficulty under the watchful eye of an expert coach, each level repeated with the correct form until mastered. Improvement comes quickly, linearly at first, if the novice sticks to it. But the gains gradually slow as the novice gets stronger, a reality any of us who’ve tried to get better at anything can grasp.
I imagine the system or some variant has been tested with many thousands of individuals to prove out its effectiveness. If it hasn’t, Rippetoe makes a compelling case for it as he tackles objections in a six-part series of posts titled “Why You Won’t Do the Program.” Reason number 6 is “Rip is fat,” to which he responds: “… I don't get paid for how I look. Neither do you, so we have that in common. I get paid for what I know, and what I can teach you. I learned all these things by making a lot of mistakes, figuring out what I did wrong, correcting my errors, and successfully teaching the better ways to my athletes and clients for 46 years.” Extrapolating from that, I feel better about throwing the tested with thousands of individuals idea out there, when, really, all I have to go on is Darren’s very positive experience so far.
Rippetoe, a no-nonsense type and a natural with words, lists the many benefits of gaining physical strength in the intro video on the company’s YouTube channel: “The process of getting stronger makes you healthier, better looking, and harder to kill. Physical strength is the final interface between you and your environment. It’s the way you interact with your surroundings, the guarantor of your independence, and the best insurance policy you can own for a satisfying existence.”
Darren and I have talked several times about applying the ideas behind Starting Strength in the context of small business. Do the ideas translate? What is the equivalent of gaining strength for a small business? Is it increasing profit? What are the business equivalents of squats, deadlifts, and cleans — the basic exercises that work and build every muscle group? What are business muscle groups? How does consistent work put into building these groups make the business stronger? What kind of person can be a small business coach? What is the coach’s expertise? What does the coach do, point out, or correct?
Strength in small business
Strength making you “harder to kill” is a nice bit of copy but, in modern times, strength, while it helps, isn’t coupled to survival. There are all sorts of guardrails and supports we’ve put in place to protect and prolong the life of human beings, no matter their physical condition. Individual strength and fitness does matter, though, in the business world where these kinds of supports don’t exist.
Businesses, particularly small businesses, are largely on their own, that is, largely dependent on their own resources and capabilities to insure their survival and “satisfying existence.” They have to fight for footholds and customers in markets where competitors win if they lose. The combat for scarce resources leads to much shorter life spans, as documented by the Government of Canada: “On average, 31.7% of [small and medium-sized businesses] created in the goods-producing sector survived at least 18 years, compared with 26.4% of [small and medium-sized businesses] created in the services-producing sector.”
The stats go on to show over ninety thousand businesses, about 8% of the population, disappear every year. At the same time, over a hundred thousand new businesses are launched.It’s a cycle of failure and hope with the balance tilted toward hope. As a society, we’re OK with all this creation and destruction because we have confidence the market rewards the stronger, harder to kill businesses that provide valuable goods and services and punishes and selects out the weaker ones that can’t compete.
What’s strength in the small business context then? What increases survival and “satisfying existence” odds? It invariably comes down to financial strength, and to show financial strength — to a lender, investor, or buyer: the people who risk money to earn a return — a small business needs to show growing sales, a reasonably high net profit margin, reliable operating cash flows, and a solid cash buffer in its bank account. These are the qualities that make it better able to compete (or, in Rippetoe’s words, healthier, better looking, and harder to kill). Gaining strength is equivalent to posting better results along these four financial dimensions.
A talented team, innovative products, enthusiastic customers may make the business appear better looking, but they won’t make it any healthier. These things may buy more time and more options. But they’re unlikely to save the business (a true small business, not a startup backed by other people’s money) if the underlying financials (sales, margins, cash flows, bank balances) are weak or declining. At the very least, the clock would be ticking, and people would be anxious for an upswing.
Muscle groups and basic movements
The basic Starting Strength exercises target all the body’s major muscle groups. You do the work, you see the results; all of your body’s major muscle groups get stronger; your whole body get stronger; you get stronger. Everything connects.
If strength in business terms means financial strength, then a business that wants to get stronger has to push its financial results higher. But, where a body is made up of muscle groups (each of which can be targeted with a specific exercise or movement), it seems off to describe a business as something made up of financial results. Those are performance measures not parts, the things that show the results of training not the specific things that need to be trained. The parts of a business that can be directly worked on or trained would be its functional areas: marketing, operations, customer service, research and development, supply chain, accounting, finance, etc.
This is where the body analogy breaks down. We can’t target the parts we want to strengthen (the financial numbers) directly. We can only get at them by going to work on the functional areas. And in each area, rather than a single move that we keep repeating at increasing levels of difficulty, we can choose from an array of moves that require different levels of effort at different times.
For example, if we wanted to grow sales, we could increase production, increase advertising, or introduce new products. If we wanted to increase net margin, we could increase prices across the board, drop support levels for a segment of clients, invest in new software to increase productivity, or negotiate better rates from subcontractors. If we wanted to increase cash flow, we could mark down inventory or delay paying suppliers. And if we wanted to increase our cash balance, we could cut dividend payments to our shareholders, take a loan from our owner, delay purchasing new equipment, or sell off old equipment. There’s no one right move to cover all situations and circumstances.
The coach and system
Here again is Rippetoe’s copy establishing his bona fides as a strength training coach: “I get paid for what I know, and what I can teach you. I learned all these things by making a lot of mistakes, figuring out what I did wrong, correcting my errors, and successfully teaching the better ways to my athletes and clients for 46 years.”
What’s on offer here? Confidence, experience, a tested system, a track record of personal success and success in training others. All from a relatable someone who’s walked a mile in our shoes and who’ll keep us from making mistakes we really don’t need to make.
That’s a lot to ask for from a business coach, isn’t it? Personal success and a track record of success in training others? That would mean this person has built a successful business, grasped the fundamentals required, built a system around those fundamentals, taught this system to entrepreneurs; and, using this template, those students have gone on to build successful businesses of their own. Consistently.
I have a tough time getting my head around that. Who is this person? How does his system consistently overcome the very long odds for success that small business offers its players? How has it removed the person (of the entrepreneur) and the context (of the chosen industry) from the calculation? How did he just hack that all away? I suppose if I knew, I’d be busy doing that rather than this.
For me, a business coach can still be useful even if they fall short of Rippetoe’s high standards. They don’t need to be an expert in all things business. They don’t need to have built a successful small business. To help an owner looking to improve results, they just need to understand finance and financial statements well enough to know what success and strength look like for a small business: growing sales, higher than industry average net margin, reliable conversion of profit to cash, and healthy bank balances. And they need to understand the repertoire of moves an owner has available to nudge these numbers in the right direction: raise prices, get more customers, sell more to existing customers, grow payroll, cut payroll, increase AR, collect AR, etc.
They can then set up a simple system to move the business they’re coaching from its present state to a desired future state. The system amounts to meeting regularly to review the financial results, not three times a week, but at least once a month, even once a week if possible. If there are real issues, the coach would draw the owner’s attention to them and insist that no other moves be made until they’re addressed and resolved. That’s the coach’s experience and expertise: knowing when a miss on the results is minor and when it’s a real threat to the business. If the results consistently meet expectations, then the coach can add more weight to the bar by raising targets.
The owner needs someone to draw a bright circle, point, and say “focus here,” someone to direct their energy so the business consistently moves toward its goals — one step, one additional weight at a time. The reality is there’s always too many things to pay attention to, too many ways to stay busy. When there’s plenty of work, the coach points out the work that needs to be done. And the financials show whether the necessary work has in fact been done. The owner, then, just has to stick to the habit of showing up and doing the necessary work first and everything else later or never. That would be a system.
I was struck by a few things while researching this article. First, Rippetoe introduced the Starting Strength program in 2005 with Lon Kilgore. That was twenty six years after he took up powerlifting. I’ve seen this happen enough times with small business owners that I’ve started to wonder. If an owner manages to stay in business for a number of years — not necessarily prosper; just hang around and keep thinking, keep working, keep chipping away — then, sometimes, something clicks; something that was there all along gets noticed and emphasized; random facts and experiences start to connect and take shape; something that seemed obscure and hard to follow develops a beat and a rhythm. And the owner starts playing the game at a whole ‘nother level. It doesn’t always happen, this second wind, but when it does, it’s always noticeable, like Popeye when he eats his spinach.
Second, Rippetoe has put out an enormous amount of content since that time: books, YouTube videos, articles, podcasts, TikToks. More than anything, small businesses need large amounts of energy to move forward and succeed. Eventually, their owners hope to get them on rails so that they mostly run themselves, but getting there takes a lot of work. Business is on the side of organization and order; the universe tends toward disorder. It takes energy to convert chaos and disorder to order. The energy has to come from somewhere. I described Rippetoe as an evangelist earlier. By this, I meant he was a zealous advocate of his program, his system, his business. He supplies the energy. He gets it going, he keeps it going. Just this week, I spoke to a young entrepreneur who just launched her first solo business earlier in the year. After months of effort, she’s seeing her first sales. She described the experience as “I’m doing everything right now, and I don’t even know what I’m doing.” If things continue to go well, the doing everything and not knowing parts should get better. But, as the owner and the battery for her business, she’s just going to have keep going and going and going.
Third, Darren joined just this year, year 18 of the program, and, from what I can tell, year 39 of Rippetoe’s career as a business owner. That’s when Darren became his customer. The gap is extreme but it illustrates a point. If you’re a small business owner, it’ll take a while for new customers to find you, whether you’re starting out or whether you’ve been in business for years. The airwaves are saturated; your ability to transmit your signal is limited. So rather than worrying about increasing reach, work on making your message clear, so that the people who do hear it will know what you’re about. And work on making sure your product or service back up your message, so that the people who experience what you have to offer will stay.