06/19/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2014

5 Lessons Brazil Learned the Hard Way (So You Don't Have to)

Traditional wisdom holds that hosting a major sporting event like the World Cup or the Olympics is inherently good for a country or city: It brings tourism dollars -- immediate and in the future. It spurs infrastructure renovations. It creates jobs. It offers countless publicity opportunities.

But this year's World Cup in Brazil, plagued by violent protests, unfinished infrastructure projects, and stadiums that went wildly over budget, calls that traditional wisdom into question.

Reading about the World Cup made me think about the parallels for small businesses: Many of us accept that growth is always good and that working with bigger clients is perhaps the best way to achieve fast and sustainable growth.

But there are times when it's not smart to take on a big project, even if it would mean a fat paycheck and the opportunity to grow. Here's why.

The World Cup's Big Lessons for Small Businesses

The following are five valuable lessons about growth and expansion that small businesses can learn from Brazil's soccer problems.

  1. The stakes are always higher than the current project. For Brazil, the international scrutiny that accompanies the World Cup has shone a harsh light on its existing infrastructure and readiness to host the Olympics in 2016. Analysts predict that the country won't be ready, and unfinished stadiums and transit projects may leave a negative impression on this year's tourists. For a small business, similar rules apply: a first contract with a big client is often a tryout for future projects. Over-delivering can lead to high-caliber referrals and repeat business; under-delivering can leave a business scrambling to win its next client.
  2. To succeed, you need the whole team on your side. Brazil's residents have protested in the streets for months, railing against the country's outsized spending on stadiums when so many citizens live in poverty. Some protests have turned violent when police were sent to subdue the crowds, dashing any hope the country had of glossing over its construction delays. Small-business owners are just as dependent on their teams as Brazil is on its citizens. You know you can't complete a huge project on your own, and you're doomed to fail if you ignore your employees' needs. Remember to reward extra work with time off, bonuses, promotions, and anything else that will motivate and demonstrate how much you value your team.
  3. Getting your priorities in line is crucial. Sometimes, you will have to seize opportunities that you may not be ready to handle. That's what the saying "leap, and the net will appear" is about. When Brazil won the chance to host this year's World Cup back in 2007, it was very much a country on the rise. The FIFA tournament was seen as a way to showcase its growing economy and influence on an international stage. But if you're seriously underprepared, you may have to pass on an opportunity, no matter how tantalizing the paycheck may seem. Sure, that big contract might triple your revenue and let you hire the employees you so desperately need. But will it mean so much work that an existing (and highly valued) employee quits? Will it force you to devote so much of your time to completing it that you end not having seen your family in months? Just as important as knowing when to seize an opportunity is knowing when to pass. Sometimes, the next leap forward isn't worth the risk of losing the assets you currently have.
  4. No project exists in a vacuum. Even if Brazil's stadiums had all been finished on time, the rest of the country wouldn't have been -- and isn't -- ready to handle the influx of traffic. Public transit systems in the country are notorious for being crowded and in need of upgrades, and many promised expansions of these systems have not materialized. In addition, Brazil's traffic is nightmarish and its airports are often too small to accommodate crowds. In a small business context, remember that all the little things you do in "normal" times must be maintained when you commit to a major project. Yes, you may be able to finish the project by the client's proposed deadline, but will that mean dropping all your other clients? Will it mean working yourself and your team to the bone? Avoid problems by staying grounded and being realistic about all the work you and your team have to do in addition to the demands of the exciting new project.
  5. Accurate scheduling and budget estimates are not optional. Many of the stadiums in Brazil were supposed to be done by December, but as the holidays approached, it was clear that construction crews would not meet the deadlines. When some stadiums still weren't finished at the start of games, the world saw just how badly Brazil had botched its planning. While it now seems like all venues will be functional for the games, some of them were untested before their first match. And many cost far more than their estimated price tags. For a small business, failure to test before delivering work and going over budget can be disastrous. Be realistic (even over-estimate) about how long the whole process will take. It's always better to under-promise and over-deliver than do it the other way around.
Going Big When You're Small

The main takeaway here isn't exactly a secret: up-leveling a business is difficult. Whether it's time, frustration, money, or sleep, you'll have to sacrifice something to achieve the next level of growth. The good news? If you go into a major growth initiative with open eyes, you have a good chance of coming out a champion.