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!
There has been extensive research into the business life cycle, however few studies have pointed to the practicalities of the intervention that are pivotal at each stage of growth. There is undoubtedly some common ground and overlap across the different phases, however some conclusions can be drawn in relation to – what support is needed at these critical stages. My experience shows that companies hit major challenges at a number of key points on their growth journey, particularly as it relates to employee numbers:
When a business reaches 5-7 employees – this is when a company starts to take shape and the founders find themselves faced with a set of challenges they never envisaged. Leadership skills become tested at this point as does managing people and cash. Funding for growth becomes a critical issue.
When a business reaches 25-30 people – the leaders are now faced with the issue of relatively high monthly costs to run the business. Structure and team working becomes vital. I believe this stage presents a real danger zone as organisational development and financing, along with more strategic selling become vital to sustained development. It is at this point that business owners set out to recruit a sales manager/director – a challenge for many! Financial control becomes a full time job
When an SME approaches 50 people – corporate thinking and mindsets are presented with KPIs becoming even more important as business issues become more complex and demanding. Management teams become preoccupied by sustainable revenue streams – key functions start to emerge and divisional perspectives give rise to profit centre management. Tight operational monitoring, management and control need to be embedded to ensure lean processes prevail. Staying ahead of the game is vital otherwise a disconnection from the market place will lead to stagnation and potential decline – not a good place to be!
An entrepreneurial mindset conducive to embracing constant change is vital to making the above transitions. The most common challenges for entrepreneurs along the journey present themselves in the form of how to:
- Achieve clarity in relation to business and personal aspiration – vision, strategy and plan
- Effective sales and marketing in increasingly competitive environments
- Organisational development – the right team in place all working towards a common goal
- Financial engineering – getting the right funding in place and managing the finances
- Managing costs and ensuring lean and efficient processes across all functions
Non-executive directors (NEDS), coaching and mentoring prove to be vital external inputs to addressing these key challenges and stages of growth. One thing that inhibits the growth wish of many entrepreneurs is the management of people. Embedding effective organizational processes and systems are vital. A business can only grow as quick as its team so getting the people elements is vital.
The term “thinking outside the box” is a constant irritation for me. Easy to say, hard to do – how do you do it? Get to the route cause!
Don’t fall into the trap of routine. Repetitive behaviours will deliver a mindset that lacks vision, imagination and creative spirit. When we do the same things day-in day-out we establish a routine, this state of mind both inhibits and prohibits new possibilities. We find that the same old problems surface and bizarrely we think that by doing the same thing over and over again the results will be different. We must be aware of our habits as they become hard wired into our daily schedule. The manifestation of routine is that we experience a sense of monotony, feeling of being stuck in a rut, poor self-confidence, low energy levels and loss of purpose and direction.
Everyone experiences these feelings at some point, however we can take some simple steps to rewire our thinking. Emphasis must be placed on constantly searching for stimulus – things that will disrupt habitual behaviour, strengthen our creative muscles and deliver a freshness of thought;
Alternative perspectives – constantly look at your challenges from different angles – ask yourself “how would your role model address the issue?”
Remove yourself – from the daily routine and spend one day a month do something completely different.
Connect with nature – spend time in the open air and appreciate the wonder of the countryside. Combine this with regular exercise, it provides a boost to our energy levels. It also helps us to value our existence.
Don’t Think – don’t pre judge the outcome of any situation. Just observe and detach yourself from comment. By not thinking you clear your mind.
Take a look – observe what your peers do and share experiences with them. Wherever possible engage with people from other cultures, religions and regions of the world.
Five simple practices will act the fuel for fresh thinking. Doing away with routine is a liberating experience. It energises us, and keeps us motivated to perform at high levels.
For the last few years I have been trying to create a simple model that allows individuals to assess the commercial viability of business opportunities and innovative ideas – irrespective of where this idea is created (university lab, industrial R&D department, current employer or our bedroom) I think there are three primary drivers that need to be assessed and considered when evaluating new ideas. Here are my thoughts:
Commercial drivers (CD) –
who is going to buy the idea/service/product and how do you get it to market?
Human factors (HF) –
who is going to make it their job to get it out there – and is there a team that can make it happen?
Resource Issues (RI) –
have we got the finance, IT, plant and equipment along within physical resources needed to make it happen?
I score each idea on a 1-10 scale in each area. (I have some more detailed sub questions to each area and I have over simplified the above).
I work on the basis of successful mind to market – creating a sustainable revenue stream is down to CD x HF x RI – top score is 1,000 (10 x 10 x 10). In a very crude way it gives me a feel for whether I want to pursue an idea or not. If any score is zero then its back to the drawing board.
So much emphasis is on CD……however, HF needs to be given the attention it deserves!!
Success involves people and organisations having to sell what they have to offer – this could be our skill, a product or service. This term frightens the life out of many as it conjures images of unethical smooth talking individuals manipulating others so as to get their own way. This is not the case, a great pitch is grounded in ethical behaviour fused to a mindset of offering real value through a passionate belief in what you have to offer. Personal and professional progression means that you will frequently be in a situation where you have to pitch for what you want. Applying for a career promotion, a place on the school board or attracting new customers fundamentally means we are in competition and there is a need to sell.
If you don’t adopt this mindset then you will struggle to get what you want out of life. When you find yourself in a situation where selling is vital, start by asking:
- Do I understand their world?
- What problem am I going to solve for the person I am pitching to?
- What do I know about my audience?
- What value do I bring?
- What examples can I use to evidence credibility?
- How can I bring to life the impact I make?
- What is special about what I have to offer?
Personal progression means you must embrace the philosophy of life is a pitch. In doing this you condition yourself to delivering an effective and engaging performance to those that matter. Convincing others of the benefit of your talent, idea, product or service is an integral component to achieving your goals. Other people have an influence on whether we succeed or not. Your pitching mindset should help you to position your key messages in the following way:
- Real and tangible
- Deliver it with passion and meaning
- Ruthlessly simplistic message
- Clearly shows the difference you will make
- Win – win outcome
Practicing your pitching skills to enhance your chances of success. It will put you in a stronger position to beat off competition.
Fear of the unknown can have a massive impact on our ability to realise our business dreams. Virtually anyone that has succeeded in their profession, career or sport has been able to overcome their inner fears. Fear comes in many shapes and forms, it could be:
- Fear of losing a big contract
- Fear of being unable to provide for our family
- Fear of speaking in public
- Fear of providing personal guarantees to support growth
- Fear of taking on that new overseas market
In many instances fear is an emotion we create in our own mind and it often results from negative self talk. Fear can hold us back from doing what we want to do and what we want to achieve – it acts as a barrier to personal and business progression. The emotional turmoil created by fear stunts our personal growth, creates self limiting beliefs and leads to a lackluster performance that will not get you your desired outcome
By getting into the habit of confronting our fears, we release the internal brakes of the mind – this allows us to move forward with our personal intentions and create the life and career we desire. Mind conditioning is required if we are going to overcome the fears that hold us back. We must get into the habit of listening to those fears but asking ourselves – how real are they? Do away with those fears by:
- Taking small steps to overcoming those fears by forcing yourself to take action
- Visualise the outcome you want – not the fear factor
- Ask yourself how real is the fear?
- Dispel the invisible audience that fear creates in the mind
- How much do you want success? If you cant do away with the fear, disappointment will result
Surrendering to fear will hold you back, don’t fall victim to it, take positive steps to embrace fear and push through it. Once in the habit you will never look back – almost anything becomes a possibility.