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Adrià Fruitós/The Globe and Mail

The first act of Maria Bouchard’s entrepreneurial life is a story you’ve heard before. Bouchard immigrated to Canada in her 20s, “starry-eyed” with ambition, and started the years-long grind of launching and building her own business. By 2017, the venture—a research firm headquartered in Toronto—was thriving, with dozens of employees, top-tier clients, and an office in the U.S. (We’re not using her real name because she wanted to speak freely about the sensitive business decisions she made.)

That’s when the second act begins. Instead of relishing success, Bouchard resented its effects: Her days filled with the requirements of running a fast-growing business, and the joy was gone. “The goals of year-over-year revenue growth and pushing for a higher percentage of margins no longer motivated me,” she says. “I felt trapped and shackled.”

So Bouchard made a bold decision: to consciously scale down. She spent the better part of two years shedding staff, clients and contracts. The process was painful, but it yielded a boutique business that frees her to do only work she loves.

The company remains profitable, but that’s no longer her sole motivation. “I create and extract more value—and not simply economic,” she says.

If the specifics of Bouchard’s situation are unique, her embrace of moderation is not. According to federal estimates, at least 90% of Canada’s 1.2 million small businesses are led by entrepreneurs who consider growth a secondary goal, if it’s even a goal at all. Whether by choice or by circumstance, the majority of independent outfits function to support their founders’ lifestyles, not to take over the world. But these aren’t the stories that get a lot of air.

In Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, growth companies are richly rewarded with both abstract markers of clout (being considered a “real” entrepreneur, winning awards) and concrete benefits (access to capital, exposure to marquee clients, positive press). This is not inherently wrong. Our economy needs a healthy cohort of growing businesses to spur jobs and innovation.

The unintended effect of growth mania is that, in comparison, a more workaday business plan appears flawed. Most entrepreneurial firms—especially new ones—have become conditioned to pursue growth before all other metrics of success.

But not every business can be a unicorn—and most probably shouldn’t be. As a whole sub-genre of documentaries has shown (see: the recent phenom LuLaRich), companies in aggressive expansion mode often struggle to keep up with necessary changes to processes, staff and client demands. When smart and capable folks are in charge, the results are dazzling; without disciplined and empathetic leadership, things can fall apart in a hurry. And while less adept entrepreneurs might once have been able to muddle through growing pains on luck and grit, the stressors of the pandemic age have made that significantly more challenging. (As BDC has documented, the pandemic has created serious, and lingering, mental health challenges for business owners.) The pressures of fast growth do not create ideal circumstances for tending to individual well-being, for nurturing fulfilled teams or for doing what is right. Companies that manage to do it deserve great credit. They are the exception.

In her bestselling book Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth argues that a century of growth-at-all-costs conditioning must cede to a more sustainable business ethos with the needs of the planet and its people at centre: “Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive; what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”

For individual businesses, this imperative means embracing a different metric of success: Is a company adding value through work that is sustainable, in all senses of the word? If so, it should be celebrated, regardless of its growth curve.

This perspective might seem radical. But it might also make a lot of people a lot happier. In the words of Bouchard: “It’s a beautiful world when you come up for air.”

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