Imagine you're a start-up

Why is it that start-ups are so much more agile than established businesses? Well imagine you’re a start-up. You have an idea that you want to turn into a business. You’ve convinced an investor to fund your idea and have 6 months to launch a product and demonstrate results. You have no existing revenue or customers to worry about. You have nothing to lose. The biggest focus is to get your product sold and shipped to your customers. You need to demonstrate success to your investors, so can stay in business.

Established businesses can benefit from thinking like a start-up and vice versa. Keep things simple and use common sense.

Established businesses can benefit from thinking like a start-up and vice versa. Keep things simple and use common sense.

In the digital age, as a start up, you can take maximum advantage of digital technologies. You decide to use cloud systems and cloud storage, and run automation and orchestration software on top. This provides you the flexibility and scalability your start-up requires. After all you only have limited funds and it’s hard to predict how fast business will pick up, but if it does you need to scale fast. On top of your cloud you build apps that make life easy for your future customers. You know what you don’t want. You just have to look at the old school competitors in your market. You want to design things around the user. And you evolve it. You also try to reap the benefits of publicly available data. You also use analytics to help you understand what your clients want, what they are about to do next, and what they are saying about you. You use the app stores to get feedback on your product and adjust where needed.

In contrast, your competitors are established enterprises with a running business, and a machine of existing systems, processes and people supporting it. This makes it harder for them to radically shift from the old to the new. Now you may have agility, what they have is a years, even decades, of experience, funds and stability. You may struggle to put together a business plan, convince investments boards who speak corporate language.

So, to solve that problem, you use common sense. You do what you do best. You connect with people. You observe what’s going on the floor. You find out what is blocking your success and what enables it. Then you join forces with people you think may be able to help. Every meeting you have, you learn something new. You have reviews with your investors, business angels, who advise you and coach you in particular areas foreign to you. You link up with other start-ups, you talk to your customers, your employees (if you have any), hell you may even talk to one of your old professors, to get his or her view on what you should do next. You’ve actually created an ecosystem around your business. And very possibly, your walls are full of paper with sketches and diagrams, multi-coloured post-its, and large circles around great ideas and priorities. You might not have found all the answers to your problems, but you’ve addressed the challenges faced by your start-up. You’ve made lists of things to remember and activities you’ve prioritised. You’ve developed a system that works for you. You are designing for success.

But what if you’re not that start up. What if you’re the established business or an employee working for one of them. What if that little start-up is keeping you up at night, because they’re at the verge of breaking your business model. What can you do to compete in the digital age? Where do you start?

I run strategy workshops for a living and what struck me is that, after 60 odd summits across the US, UK and Europe, part of the solution often is to make things very simple. Take a step back. Look at the bigger picture. That is no different for the digital economy. So, here’s a thought. Regardless whether you are a start-up or not, get the core team, that is affected by a particular problem, physically together in a room. Not in a virtual room, not via Skype or video conference. A real room with lots of wall space. Cover the wall in paper and get someone to facilitate. Prepare for it as if you were running your own business. Invite the participants to talk to people, to your customers, to your employees, to your business partners. Don’t just copy and paste from analyst reports. Look, with your own eyes, at what is happening in your industry. Ask yourself why you are in this business? Together you develop a vision and design what they want your ideal world looks like. Think of what makes it work the way it does. This first step is really strategic. It involves thinking about the bigger picture and also is partly an empathic exercise. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your key stakeholders. But be careful. Keep it simple. Don’t get lost in the detail. There are plenty of frameworks and facilitators that can help you with this. Be sure to get a good one and don’t use technology. Do it on the wall.

Once you’ve got a good picture of why you are doing what you are doing and what an ideal scenario looks like, you need to think about what you have. When you’re a start-up, you probably don’t need to worry about this, unless you’re already operating for a while. Either way, think about what works well and what doesn’t. It’s not hard. Just be honest. Don’t get too personal. Just list the good, the bad and the ugly.

Now, take a step back and have a look at what you’ve done. Try to spot the bigger categories and prioritise them, so you can start analysing the gap between what you have and what you need. This can be user experience, complaint handling, image, branding, but also HR or company culture, employee motivation, delivery processes, financial management, etc. When you’ve done this it will become easier to decide on the big priorities, what you should launch, what you should keep and what you should throw away.

The prize you’ll get at the end is a vision and a clear plan on how to get there. You’ll be sure you’re solving the right problem. You’ll enjoy the ride. It’s like being a start-up.

Bie Van Laer