Instead of falling under fast growth’s spell, various small businesses in the Rochester area are showing that slow and steady can win the race. Their strategies range from cultivating collaborations to cherry-picking opportunities that complement their core business.
Brand reputation and loyalty hang in the balance for all firms pursuing growth, but expansion missteps often end up shuttering small businesses because they lack the deep pockets or expertise to reset the clock.
“This whole question of scale—how quickly to grow and how to manage the growth process—is one of the most critical strategic decisions that small businesses are faced with,” says Daniel Petree, dean of the School of Business Administration and Economics at SUNY College at Brockport.
By nature, entrepreneurs are hardwired to see possibilities and take risks, but some struggle with the nitty-gritty of intelligent expansion.
“What they’re not often prepared to do is to decide at what pace and whether they can continue to deliver the quantity and quality of whatever it is they’ve established their business on in a way that continues to yield successful results,” Petree says.
Broadening a service or product line too quickly or with little forethought often gets small firms in trouble.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘Of course, we can do that,’” Petree says, “when in fact they may underestimate what it takes to be successful with this new either variant or the existing product to service or, even more problematic, with beginning to offer a completely different product or service, even if it’s to the same customer, because there are often different competencies that have to be established to go along with these different products and services.”
At Toptica Photonics Inc., growth op-portunities must dovetail with the core business and have the potential to crack a new market, spark a new product line or hone a new capability.
“Despite our double-digit growth year-after-year for the past eight years, there is no one segment of our business which is large or dynamic,” says Mark Tolbert, president of the Victor-based firm, which is the domestic arm of Germany-based Toptica Photonics AG. “We have many smaller components, which have steadily grown the company.”
He adds: “So, the majority of our business is slow growth, and patience is required. But when you pull them all together, they offer large growth with diversity.”
Specializing in diode lasers and ultrafast fiber lasers, Toptica has carved out niches in the quantum optics, biophotonics, and test and measurement markets. The company debuted its latest frequency comb—a tool for measuring different frequencies of light precisely—and other new products last month at an international trade fair in Munich.
Expansion efforts earned Toptica the No. 77 spot on the 2014 Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing public companies, presented by KPMG LLP and Rochester Business Alliance Inc. The privately held firm employs 17 locally, up from 13 in 2013.
“We are strongly present in most major research institutes throughout the world, and we have collaborations with more than a dozen Nobel laureates who choose Toptica as one of their laser partners,” Tolbert says. “Additionally, our presence in industrial settings tends to be one of our fastest-growing business segments.”
Tender Loving Family Care Inc., a Brockport-based licensed home care agency that is authorized to do business in seven counties, does not simply look at growth opportunities through the prism of how they may boost the bottom line.
“Obviously, we don’t want to go into losing money, but I think a significant part of our decision to move forward with any project or contract or so on is based on how much of a benefit is this going to be for the population that we’re serving,” says Annika D’Andrea, president and CEO of Tender Loving Family Care.
Offering free community programs ranging from blood-pressure screening to seminars about Alzheimer’s detection and care has helped the agency grow, D’Andrea says.
Founded by D’Andrea in 2007, the agency is moving its 1,600-square-foot West Avenue headquarters to a 12,000-square-foot building across the street, where it will launch child day care and expand its existing adult day care program. The agency is ironing out the details for offering story time and other intergenerational activities at the new location.
With a staff of roughly 100, Tender Loving Family Care ranks 50th on the 2014 Rochester Top 100.
Continuing-education classes have become plentiful locally in recent years, but that has only energized Rochester Brainery, a 2-year-old startup specializing in single-session classes priced between $15 and $30.
“We’re not a business that’s about competition,” says Rochester Brainery cofounder Danielle Raymo. “We’re about collaboration, and we’ve found that really focusing on that and staying true to that has been a benefit to our growth over the past…year, year and a half.”
One example of collaboration involves Roc the Shot, a photography school on St. Paul Street, which recently started offering an abridged version of a workshop at Rochester Brainery.
During last month’s Roc Transit Day, a grassroots campaign aimed at encouraging locals to use public transit and go car-free for one day, Rochester Brainery also collaborated with Rochester-based Writers & Books on a transportation-themed story slam at the Rundel Library.
“Writers & Books has a ton of classes … but we’re working on classes with them throughout the whole summer,” Raymo says. “What they offer is very different than what we offer.”
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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