How Big Is the Wheel?

Going to MediaMarkt was always a thrill when I was younger. It’s a German electronics retailer, and in their huge stores, you used to be able to find everything. They had computers, cameras, CDs, TVs on display, and, of course, video games. Often, if you wanted a new game or music album, MediaMarkt had to be your first stop. I still remember the excitement of checking out a game at the counter, or jumping up and down with joy when my dad brought me the latest The Rasmus album after work.

Of course, by now, MediaMarkt has gone the way of almost all retail. The last time I went there was years ago, because nowadays, the internet has more selection, cheaper prices, and if you can find your way around it, you’ll often know more than their employees.

During the great lockdown of 2020, I stumbled upon MediaMarkt’s latest annual numbers. The result? After making over 20 billion in sales, the company conglomerate made a profit of 236 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s just over 1%. One percent! “That’s a big wheel you’re pushing,” I thought, “for very little water coming out of the pipe at the end.”

Imagine: 50,000 employees. 250 euros of revenue for every single one of Germany’s 80+ million inhabitants. And at the end of the day, what’s left? 2.50 euros per citizen. Is that really worth it?

Think about the effort it takes. The time. The energy. The waste that’s created along the way. It’s not a question people running a profit-making business usually entertain, but perhaps, if your margin is down to 1%, it’s time to do something else. Would anyone really care if they just…stopped? If those 50,000 workers were presented with other, perhaps even more exciting, opportunities, wouldn’t they gladly take them?

Livelihoods matter, of course, but in business as in life, ask yourself: How big is the wheel I need to be turning? Not all companies can do a lot with little, but the ones that can, shouldn’t they? Especially as a solo entrepreneur or small business owner, moving more with less means better resource management, more sustainable operations, and, for an added bonus, a lot more peace of mind.

In engineering, gear ratios help optimize efficiency. A small gear can turn a big gear if the setup is chosen well. At the same time, just because a big gear is moving does not mean that your machine is operating efficiently. Think about your output in relation to your input, and don’t be afraid to start over when your operation no longer makes sense.