Business incubators have become a common feature of public sector enterprise support in recent years; many of these establishments have proved to be highly effective in nurturing early stage entrepreneurs. They don’t just provide a desk and somewhere to turn up every morning, their added value comprises: a place to network, share ideas and collaborate. The really good ones offer mentoring and coaching, this is often what makes the real difference between success and me too performance. In many UK regions, incubators have become a hot bed of exciting new businesses, the potential employers of graduate talent – Autonomy in Cambridge is a fantastic example.
This concept of incubation needs to feature prominently in the culture and mindset of winning businesses – any ambitious entrepreneurial company should have a “department” or function responsible for building a pipeline of new thinking that delivers potential new revenue streams or adds value to existing customer experiences. I don’t mean a department literally – it’s about having an organisational process that brings together thinkers, doers, sellers and controllers, one that not only develops new ideas but also implements the commercially viable nuggets that emerge from the process of discovery. The concept of incubation delivers a major thrust for gaining an edge in the market place.
It is my opinion that creative intelligence is the ultimate source of competitive advantage – high growth companies tend to be disproportionately more innovative than the rest of the SME population. They explore, embrace diversity, live in their customer’s world, experiment with new possibilities and avoid complacency by making creative thought a habit, not something they do once a fortnight on a Friday afternoon. It must form part of an organisations “soul”.
It never ceases to amaze me how passionate and animated entrepreneurs become when they talk about their business and what they do. To those listening it can come across as “in your face”, however, the reality is, most founders are just so proud of what they have achieved. Business and personal time are inextricably linked, feeding each off every minute of the day.
The successful high growth entrepreneurs I have worked with often started their business because of a “calling” – this means putting something right, fixing a problem, chasing a dream of freedom, pursue a passion, wanting to make a difference or proving to others they can achieve something quite amazing.
So many entrepreneurs often forget that their business is also an asset with value. The danger is when the founders view their company solely as an asset. This creates inward focused strategies, lack of customer focus, greed, ultimately this will lead to only one place – a disconnection with the real world and decline. My advice is when the voice of the “calling” gets overshadowed by the asset, its time for a rethink. A danger zone is just around the corner. Its about balance, of course a business must generate wealth, however it works far better and in my view becomes more profitable when its game plan is linked to a purpose.
The feeling of doing what you do because it makes a difference to others is probably one of the best you can have in your career, long may it last!
High growth companies are disproportionately innovative to those that are not, and whilst I believe creativity is the ultimate source of competitive advantage, I must caveat my views. The importance of embedding a culture to allow free thinking that stimulates new ideas is well documented. However, without control you end up with pet projects, loads of possibilities and hundreds of potential initiatives that absorb time, energy and resource. Large companies have processes to deal with their ideas pipeline, but in smaller high growth businesses the danger is that there is too much innovation and entrepreneurship and not enough control and discipline.
Commercial problems potentially loom when there is too much lateral thinking and lack of order. Jim Collins in Good to Great uses a very powerful phrase – “Disciplined Entrepreneurship”. This embraces the notion of balance – innovative thinking and behaviours being guided within a framework of performance measures and KPI’s.
Too much Discipline – then a disconnection with customers, markets and new possibilities takes place
Too much Entrepreneurial Flair – nothing gets done because everyone is bouncing off the walls with great ideas
Successful high growth companies tend to have a disciplined approach to new idea generation and implementation – a form of commercial filter. I often wonder how much smaller high growth companies can teach large corporates about innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. The reverse is also important – how can big companies help ambitious founders gain a better handle on their organisation? Feels like a powerful learning forum!
It’s really sad to see how many businesses fail to realise their full potential. Is it down to poorly defined value propositions, bad design, poor sales and marketing or financial control…sometimes it is. My view is that a company’s growth prospects are inextricably linked to the rate at which the founder, team and leaders can develop themselves. Businesses make transitions at key points of their journey and if the management fail to personally address these changes and the extra demands placed on them, then the “growth ceiling” very quickly presents itself.
It starts with the leader’s ability to undergo personal change and continuously adapt their style and approach to overcome the challenges faced along the journey – self awareness is a must have for all entrepreneurs. In a high growth business the founder has to be clear on what they are good and bad at and build a team around them that compensates for their own personal shortcomings. The inability to delegate is the classic dilemma faced by so many individuals running their own business. This is the very reason why so few companies go on to employ more than 25 employees. Organisational development is a pivotal part of achieving growth, and what do the VCs keep telling us? – it’s all about the team.
My advice to any high growth business/entrepreneur is get the right people in the right seats doing the right things. Having the wrong people doing the right job is so common, and if we are honest with ourselves virtually all of us have been there and got it wrong, big time! A company without an effective team delivers sluggish performance at best – gazelle performance? Not a chance.
Embracing a learning culture and environment where personal improvement is encouraged and supported is non negotiable, but of course this takes time. Staff and the team are the most important component of any business. When we get the right team in place almost anything is possible. Without it growth is stunted and blockages appear – these blockages manifest in long working hours, customers being let down, poorly managed contracts, finances going off the rails, quality dipping, disgruntled staff, poor communications – a feeling of rabbit in the headlights, can’t see the wood for the tress, all familiar clichés entrepreneurs have come to live with. The antidote is investing in people and staff.
Getting the organisational structure and team right is a difficult job and perfection is challenging to say the least. Your organisation is only as good as the people who are part of it, and remember the organisational and team effectiveness will dictate your rate of growth.