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A business can’t stay the same. It’s either growing or declining. A small business that is declining is already dead many months, even a year, before its employees know it. - James Altucher
There’s something that’s been playing on my mind for the past few months, so I thought I’d put this post together to pseudo-rationally hash it out. It’s slightly related to my previous post about competitor anxiety. The question of the month is - should we continue to grow 6med, or should we allow it to gracefully decline (read: die)?
We’re always taught to open with the conclusion, and then argue the point all the way through an essay, so I’m going to do the same here - I think we should allow 6med to decline, and be totally and wonderfully happy with that.
Word of Warning: This is an enormously self-centred post (but hey, personal blogs often are), written primarily to make myself feel better about a route of action that I'm inclined to take. If it gets too much, please feel free to stop reading :)
What is 6med?
To recap briefly, 6med is the company that some friends and I set up in our 2nd year of medical school, through which we run courses for medical school entrance exams. Over the past 3 years, the company has grown rather nicely, from 110 students in year 1, to 1,100 in year 2, to 1,800 in year 3, with 6-figure revenues and 5-figure tax bills. We’ve given bursaries to hundreds of students, we’ve launched 3 online products (BMAT Ninja, UKCAT Ninja, and The Doctor Project), and we’ve taught BMAT, UKCAT and Interview courses throughout the UK, and also in Amsterdam, Singapore and Hong Kong, all while doing our Medicine degrees at university.
All of that sounds pretty cool (at least to me), but this year, our student numbers have declined and (perhaps because of that, but perhaps not) I’ve found myself thinking philosophically about the point of the business, and discussing in my head (and with a few close friends) whether it’s worth putting in the time and effort to grow the company further.
The Status Quo
If we do nothing else, but continue to run the courses for however many students want to attend them, and continue to maintain our online products, we’ll still get reasonable numbers of students for the next few years at least, but inevitably, we’ll have fewer and fewer students each year as competitors spring up and out-advertise us.
This is the path that I’m inclined to take with the company, and what I’ll be arguing for in this post - that a graceful decline is the way forward.
To make the case that a graceful decline is the way to go, I’ll be considering a few things. I’ll be suggesting some ways as to which we could grow the company, and then move on to talk about the benefits and costs of growing the company. I’ll argue that the costs outweigh the benefits, and so a graceful decline is the way forward.
How we might grow
I’ve been thinking about this for the past year now, and here are some things I’ve come up with:
- Getting our courses and products into schools (private schools especially)
- Starting one-to-one private tuition, possibly into very high-paying clientele
- Online ad campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites (as some of our competitors are doing)
- Online brand presence on TSR
- Partnering with more organisations
- Writing more blog posts and articles to improve our SEO (search engine optimisation)
So there are definitely things that we could be doing. Further, we’ve had a few emails from older students at medical school asking about doing OSCE courses, or medical school finals courses. Interestingly, a few years ago, I actually bought the domain oscecrashcourse.com thinking that it might be on the cards.
I say all this to show that there are definitely directions in which the company could grow/expand, but I’m now going to talk about the benefits and costs of this expansion and ultimately hopefully argue that the benefits don’t justify the costs.
Benefits of Growth
At the risk of sounding like a douche, there’s no getting around the fact that the main benefit of growth is money. As the company grows and we get more students for our courses and online products, our revenues increase, our profits rise, and ultimately, our teachers and directors get more money in our pockets.
I suppose we also get to 'help more people' get into medical school, but to tout that as a benefit of growth is disingenuous, given that it's very much a side-effect of our business rather than its primary raison de continuer.
Costs of Growth
Trying to grow the company has been, and will be, quite time-consuming. Our competitors and partners in the field have, for the most part, turned their companies into full-time jobs with receptionists and admin staff, and if we want to compete on the same level, we’d have to put in an enormous amount of time to do so.
My argument is that there’s no point in us putting such time into growing the company, because, quite simply, it’s no longer enjoyable. 3 years ago, when 6med was first starting out, it was immensely enjoyable (from my perspective at least) to spend the summers building websites, handling customer support, building up our course materials, etc. I had a real sense of purpose in building the company up, and for the first couple of years, it was a lot of fun.
But now, 3 years on, doing the same thing again and again is no longer fun. Sure, teaching courses is a good laugh, but my heart sinks at the thought of having to do admin and website maintenance now. Sadly, further growth in the company won’t come from simply teaching more courses - it’ll come from the dull, admin-type jobs like advertising and contacting schools etc etc. None of that is particularly enjoyable, and so I’d rather not do it if there’s a choice.
Time vs Money
The choice ultimately comes down to whether it’s worth putting in time and effort that isn’t particularly fun, with the main purpose of making more money.
Firstly, as has been quoted ad infinitum on most entrepreneur blogs, "time is our most valuable non-renewable resource". More money can always be made later, but the time spent (wasted?) doing things that are not worthwhile, and that we don’t enjoy, is time that will never again be brought back.
Secondly, it's also important to take into account the 'opportunity cost of time'. Spending (let's say) 8 hours a week trying to expand an existing business has no long-term benefit, given that the mechanisms for expansion are tedious and won't help us learn anything that we haven't already learned from the last 3 years of running the company. Those 8 hours a week would surely be far better spent learning some new skills, working on a new business idea, or even 'just' spending time with friends. Time and energy spent on the existing business is time and energy that could be put to 'better' uses that could provide longer-term benefit/opportunity.
Thirdly, any money we'd make at this age, with this particular business, would most likely be insignificant compared to the money that we'd (hopefully) make in later life as doctors/surgeons/whatever. Seems an awful shame to waste time and energy on dull activities purely for the sake of money, especially when that money will be small change compared to future earnings in 'proper' jobs.
Finally, given the hugely privileged position that we're all in, from middle-class households with student loans and financial support from our families, it doesn't make sense to sacrifice time and enjoyment for the sake of additional money at this stage in life. Our family support, supplemented with 6med stuff, means that money isn't a limiting factor in our university experience (within reason). Excess money from growing 6med would go towards only something like getting on the property ladder slightly quicker than our peers, and that's personally not something I'm willing to trade my time for.
Conclusion and Parting Advice
Having spent the last few months thinking about this, I think I've come up with a general-purpose 'rule' that I'm going to apply to the rest of my university life whenever I'm faced with a choice (like this).
If it's fun, then do it. If it's not fun, but it'll provide some long-term benefit, still do it. But if it's neither fun nor worthwhile, and the only thing to be gained from it is money at the expense of time, then it's probably the wrong thing to do.
Derek Sivers (love that guy) has a wonderful quote in his book 'Anything you Want':
Never forget why you're really doing what you're doing. Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn't that enough?
It is enough. We've had a good run with 6med over the past 3 years. We've built a company from scratch, we've helped people get into university, and we've had fun while doing it. We're massively grateful to have been able to do that, but won't continue to waste time and energy on competing with other companies for the sake of more money.
Therefore, we're going to keep the company going as long as it's profitable, and we'll be totally okay with its inevitable and eventual demise.