Your mature small manufacturing business needs to change? Advice from an expert

By Michelle van Schouwen

Business guru Paul G. Silva has worn many hats during his career, all of which have involved helping small and growing businesses leap as gracefully as possible to the next level. Recently, he’s been mentoring small, mature manufacturing companies that need to grow and change – cheaply, effectively and without breaking what already works well. I interviewed Silva for Succeeding in Small Business, and was impressed with the step-by-step process that allows small but mature manufacturers to move forward to new opportunities and strategic change without messing up what works already. Silva recommends the following practical process, aspects of which will work well for any small company that finds itself “stuck”:

-Start with re-connecting your best customers to discover why they love you and what pains they have (other than the ones you help mitigate now). This learning process will generate new business ideas. “Gee, we get 80% of our profit from this rapid turnaround time business, what would happen if we specialized in that instead of just stretching to do it?”

-Review your assets to see how else they could be deployed. What other problems can you solve for customers that you haven’t before? “If we just reconfigure the machine this way, we could make parts half the size we do now.”

-Put these ideas on a whiteboard and prioritize which few seem like they have the highest potential.

-Using a Lean Startup process (inspired by the Lean Manufacturing process), you can quickly and cheaply conduct interviews with potential customers for your new potential offerings. Silva adds, “These interviews are much cheaper than creating prototypes, hiring marketing firms, retooling, hiring, etc. All of that comes later.”

-Finally, you seek and use feedback from customers regarding these possible new services. You’ve started with interviews, and eventually solicit reviews of product mock-ups, and sometimes pre-orders. All of this input will provide signals to tell you which of your new ideas you should explore more, and which you should shelve. Says Silva, “In other words, data tells you what to do, not rhetoric.”

Silva’s process resembles the extensive and sometimes very expensive research that large manufacturers often undertake prior to making strategic changes or adding significant products or services, but with a do-it-yourself twist that allows your smaller company to accomplish its goals in a very nimble, manageable, affordable manner. You will validate your assumptions with data and feedback every step of the way.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For the past 32 years, Michelle has been president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle supports the Six-Point team in an advisory capacity.

Paul G. Silva is a startup advisor, angel group leader and innovation accelerator. His current roles include: President, Lean Innovation Institute: Increases mature organizations’ revenue and competitive advantage by teaching them to innovate like a startup; General Partner, Launch413: Invests in seed & pre-seed entrepreneurs so they achieve scale, speed, and success; and Manager, River Valley Investors: Connects post-seed stage startups to Western Massachusetts’s angel investors.

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