Low Margins? Grow or Die

Today I was chatting with an entrepreneur whose company is in ecommerce; it sells other company’s brands to consumers. He does seven figures in revenue. He’s been affected—not too badly—by the pandemic. He’s concerned and trying to plan for different scenarios.

As I asked more questions about the business, I realized it’s a low-margin business that depends on volume. Product pricing is determined by the brand owner (i.e., it’s the MSRP or MAP), competitors offer the exact same products, there are low barriers to entry, discounting to maintain volume is common, and front-line workers are paid little.

For this kind of business, it’s grow or die. The customer wants to pay less (competitors offer the same product) while costs—shipping, wages, rent, etc.—creep up every year. So, of course, margin percentages gradually go down. Most entrepreneurs compensate by growing revenue.

Let’s look at an example.

  • Year 1 – Margins are 10% and the company does $1M in revenue. That’s $100,000 in margin dollars.
  • Year 2 – Margins decrease to 9.5% and the company does the same $1M in revenue. That’s only $95,000 in margin dollars.

If the owner wants $100,000 in margin dollars in year 2, he needs to grow revenue 11% to $1.11M in year 2. In other words, he essentially needs to do 11% more work to make the same margin dollars. As the years pass, it begins to get really tough. If margins drop to, say, 5% (that’s an extreme drop), he must do $2M in revenue to make the same $100,000 in gross margin dollars. He’s forced to grow the business or die a slow death because he won’t have enough margin dollars to afford the things he needs to run the company. (Of course, the example is purposely simplistic to make a point. It doesn’t differentiate between gross margin and net margin and it features a massive 50% drop in gross margin percentage.)

This kind of business is in a tough spot when the economy shifts from growth to contraction. I pointed all these things out to this entrepreneur and he agreed. We discussed ways to transition his business to healthier margins (for instance, value-added services, his own branded products) and making the best of this difficult period by renegotiating some of his fixed costs.

Are you an entrepreneur just starting out? Are you building a low-margin business? If so, do you understand the long-term implications of that decision?