Top down or bottom up? Which approach is best for your business?


Top down or bottom up? If you’re the former you have probably been described as one who likes to come up with ideas but bails during details. To you, coming up with the ideas is duty in itself. If the latter, you’re the kind of person who breaks apart other people’s dreams when they come for advice.

Which of these two is the right mode of thinking for entrepreneurs? You always need to make decisions. The good thing is that you always have an end goal or plan in mind. But the process of getting to the end goal determines whether you succeed or fail.

The decisions you make are simplified as being on top down or bottom up basis. This affects something as innocuous as who you listen to. What kind of information do you value?

Consider the finding that to be a good entrepreneur you need prior experience, or background, to be better able to appreciate the uncertainty of business. There is also another finding that there is no difference in performance of a new business between a serial/experienced entrepreneur and a first-timer.

Whichever you opt for, you reveal the kind of approach that you take as an entrepreneur. Social sciences findings are not law. You can see what you want to see.

In deciding top down or bottom up, those who prefer the latter may ask if a small business owner really has room and time for the ‘conceptual thinking’ of their counterparts. They may see them as not grounded in the day-to-day realities of running a business.

After all, you want working capital, you need a customer knocking at your door today and you need to make profit every month. Nobody has time for open ended ideas.

Conversely, a top down thinker may say that the beginning of the business itself is as conceptual as it gets. You had to make a business plan, and that’s not grounded. This kind of person will argue that they are planning and ‘prove’ to you that planners always perform better in business.

Pros and Cons

You may be predominantly a top down or a bottom up entrepreneur but that doesn’t make you the better individual. Each has its advantages in decision making; also disadvantages. These you can cover up by borrowing the good practices of your counterparts.

As a bottom up person, you live in the details. You ask questions to get your answers. You’re the only person with the right to go to an interview and say that “being a perfectionist” is your weakness.

In a small business, this approach is good for focusing resources on the most productive aspects of business. You are already strained for cash and need to keep things lean.


You’re also organized and clear in outlining your business goals. An example of doing things in this manner is when you choose to describe your typical customer. Who is he/she, where does he/she live, what does he/she buy and then work your way up to the quantity of sales you think you can make from those kinds of people.

The problem is that sometimes you may miss the forest for trees. Details may end up holding you back from seeing the big picture. They may also slow you down since you feel the need to adjust to every question that arises.


If you’re top down, you work your way down things. You start your processes by giving the answers. You say stuff like ‘we only need to get 0.5% of the monthly traffic of Kenyans on Facebook – which is between 4 and 5 million‘.

The good thing about you is that you make decisions quickly (you already have answers, duh!). You’re also good at controlling and leading things, which is important in a small business that still relies on your expertise and drive.

But you have a problem explaining to others how your idea goes from A to B. It’s not you it’s us. Anecdote, there was a time I had such a supervisor and she asked how I accessed a particular software. So, I tell her, “I logged in and clicked this and that icon.”

But she kept on prodding and until I understood that she was asking about how I got the passwords. Like all top down thinkers, it never occurred to her to specify the detail (password).

Besides coming off as if they work on gut feeling, these individuals can end up being less adaptive despite being planners. Since they work by reverse-engineering the answers they have, you can imagine the result if they were wrong in the first place.


Your business approach doesn’t have to be top down or bottom up. It can be both. Usually, routine stuff in your business should use a bottom up system. You don’t need to get it twisted on making financial statements but you can for your financial analysis, for example.

Some aspects of business don’t have definite answers though. Should you risk making a product first because you’ll adjust it to market if needed? Should you spend time compiling data on what the market likes before making the product, knowing tastes change?

What matters is arriving at the middle ground. You can get a person or assemble a team of opposite kind to complement you – if you’re more of the ‘build on my strengths’ type of person.


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