Entrepreneurial mindset in changing environments

19/02/2015

The journey to reaching your vision will involve a number of stages or interim goals – the key milestones that will be your targets along the way, providing a route to your dream. Each stage will represent a progression either personally or professionally – or both, depending on your vision. As your goals move on, so will the circumstances you find yourself in and the challenges you’ll face. It’s likely that decisions you have to make will become more demanding and the risks more acute. To handle this changing environment, you’ll need to progress personally, shifting your mindset to a new level at each stage.

The critical steps in growing a business or embarking on a challenging new project will place pressure on the way you think – it will push you into new areas and possibly further than you have gone before. It’s likely to stretch your abilities to the limit. So it’s important to adapt your way of thinking to be able to cope with the new risks and challenges each new situation brings. Otherwise you will find yourself frozen like a rabbit in the headlights, unable to make the necessary decisions to take you forward.

Successful entrepreneurs, for example, will tell you that growing their companies tested their capabilities to the breaking point. How comfortable will you feel if you need to give a personal guarantee to secure bank funding, or learn new skills to support the growth of your business or personal project?

To prepare yourself for the climb ahead, it pays to work out the different challenges you’ll face as you move from achieving one goal to embarking onto the next, so that you can be mentally ready to deal with them. Viewing each goal as a step towards your vision will help you to define the mindset that you need to develop to negotiate each stage successfully, allowing you to move forward with focus and clarity of thought.

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Spinouts – Scaling Up

26/01/2015

This blog was written for Spinouts UK Quarterly Journal 2015. You can join their distribution list by emailing research@ycf.co.uk

Most spinout companies from universities have the ambition to be companies of scale. If they are to win significant investment at an early stage, they will need to demonstrate that they have a ‘road map’ to enable them to establish a strong position in their chosen market.

However, this ‘road map’ passes through different stages, each of which places different demands on the company founders. Initially, the spinout founders will be immensely relieved to have completed the spinout process itself, with the knotty issues of IP ownership, and the relationship of the academic founders with the university. The next stage is generally one of spending (on prototypes, clinical trials, and other proofs of technology) rather than selling. As a very broad generalisation, academics in spinout companies are more comfortable with the ongoing research and development (which is in many ways similar to their academic work) than in market analysis, recruitment and team building, or the management of premises, financial records, and all the other administrative tasks which are essential to get a startup company on its feet.

The next stage is growth. For all young companies, whether spinouts or not, there are natural barriers to growth. Winning Pitch identifies the most important of these as the emotional cost and the financial cost.

The emotional cost to the individuals involved is usually manifested in self imposed pressure, and in the uncertainty that demands resilience and mental toughness to keep going when the inevitable road blocks are presented.

A scale up company is defined as one that grows its employee or turnover at a rate of 20 per cent per annum over a three-year period, and the financial costs of doing this can rack up very quickly – the cost of recruiting new talent, and of raising finance, professional fees, new premises, IT infrastructure and administrative costs can shoot through the roof. Costs must be controlled and the execution of a growth plan needs to be effectively choreographed – clear roles need to be defined, people need to be accountable for delivering on their tasks. Very rarely can growth be achieved without impacting on profitability.

This is why the majority of the 500,000 of last year’s new startups will never go on to employ one person never mind 10, and also why over 99% of UK firms employ fewer than 50 people. Very often it’s the financial cost of growth that holds individuals back.

What does this mean for academics spinning out a new company from a university?

The main point to recognise is that no one entrepreneur can build a business alone – it takes a team, combining the different skills needed to grow the business. The second point to recognise is that as the team grows, different leadership challenges emerge as the culture of the business evolves. At Winning Pitch we refer to the ‘growth staircase’, with different challenges as the number of staff increases. When the company reaches 7-12 people, the entrepreneur has become an ‘entrepreneurial social worker’. At 25 or more people, the business culture becomes ‘the team vs. the mob’. With 50 or more staff, the business needs to evolve towards a corporate culture, where processes need to be standardised and continually improved, with less scope for individual innovation. Individuals who can take a company through all these stages are rare indeed, and academic entrepreneurs do well to realise that at some stage in the company’s development, the business will be best served if the reins are handed over to others with practical experience of running a large and growing company.


10 Ways to prepare your mind for high performance

18/12/2014

“So how do leaders shift from lower states of mind to higher states of mind and improve their effectiveness and performance?” This was a question posed on Harvard Business Review forum I contribute to; here were my thoughts and contributions to the debate

Its simple. It all starts with what you think about. We must listen very carefully to the internal conversations we have with ourselves. The key to moving from ‘downbeat’ to ‘upbeat’ is:

1. Be aware of the internal negative conversation – address it

2. Create space to think ‘fresh positive thoughts’

3. Speak to positive people who lift your spirits

4. Tune in to the things that lift your soul – sport, music, hobbies, personal passions

5. Write down your thoughts and combat negativity with a ‘+ve to do list’

6. Keep away from negative people at all costs

7. Connect with nature – walk the dog, go for a run

8. Remember most of the things we worry about don’t actually happen

9. Think in the present and get on with it, keep experimenting!

10. Die a happy death. Morbid thought, but a powerful motivator to take action now!

The way you think governs the way you behave and act. Beware of what you are thinking about.

The ability to master the mind is what differentiates ‘winners’ from ‘runners up’. The real entrepreneurial stars are the ones who manage to consistently switch into their higher state when needed – I would describe this state as being one were individuals view both opportunity and challenge within a positive and courageous mental framework.


Global Entrepreneurship Week – more companies of scale

21/11/2014

Its fantastic that this week see’s a whole raft of activity being rolled out to celebrate and promote starting and growing a business as a series career option. As one graduate said to me the other week –

“I couldn’t find a job so I created my own”

a fantastic mindset that hopefully will continue to build the UK as the start up capital of Europe. With record numbers of start up’s this year, we should be turning our attention to creating long term sustainable businesses which have the capability, capacity and ambition to scale. These are the job creators of tomorrow. Scaling up a company is a massive challenge for any entrepreneur – its takes business acumen, courage, and lots of emotional intelligence – not forgetting energy. Scaling up a business to employ in my experience requires:

  • A mindset that is far greater than merely self-employment. There has to be an underpinning ambition to create a business model that involves a team of people fulfilling different roles. All too often people who set up in business merely want to ‘eat what they kill’. The pain of employing others is commonplace – not everyone wants the hassle that goes with creating jobs.

  • A clear picture of what the next 3-5 years is going to look like, supported by a clear plan of what resources are going to be needed – finance, office space, people skills, IT and supporting functions.

  • Understand the available funding options and use of trusted advice which ensures both the business case and model can withstand scrutiny from a third party debt or equity funder.

  • Strong leadership and an ability of the founder to develop both his/herself as well as the team on the top table. Recruiting and retaining high calibre staff is probably one of the most frustrating challenges for any ambitious founder.

  • Strongly connected networks of trusted advisers who can help the entrepreneur make the transitions points of growth. This usually involves funders, legal, IT, recruitment, strategic and tactical finance people, marketing etc. NED’s play an important role in opening up ‘connected network’.

  • Great housekeeping comes with growth, this means strong governance, great management information, KPI’s – all coming together and reported on a regular board meetings. So many businesses fail to see the benefit of board meetings – as you grow ignore them and you are destined to lose the grip on business performance.

Setting up a business is not for everyone, those not willing to embrace a life of uncertainty should go and get a salaried job. Growing a business is equally not everyone’s cup of tea – hopefully, Global Entrepreneurship Week will get many to give it a second thought.


Hard wired ambition is the key to growth

13/11/2014

People often ask what are the essential ingredients to growing a successful business. Cliché’s such as ‘Think Big’, ‘Anything is Possible’ and ‘Dare to Dream’ often roll off the tongue of young entrepreneurs and aspiring new business start up’s. Regularly found in self-help and motivational books, these terms offer a great source of encouragement to the next generation of business men and women – they have a critical place in the growth journey. As a great believer that mindset is critical to success, what underpins real growth of both a business and individuals is deep-rooted ambition.

Successful businesses, communities and ultimately – economies are built on individuals who have this hard-wired ambition. One of my frustrations is that I visit many truly outstanding businesses with growth potential, but what’s holding them back is very often the lack of ambition. In equal amounts I hear the rhetoric of entrepreneurs who talk a good game about what they are going to achieve but consistently fail to deliver on any of the things they commit to do. They talk about what they are going to do rather than what they have done. Ambition needs an engine, it needs action, it requires mental toughness and when failure presents itself – successful ambitious individuals get back on their bike and pedal that bit harder.

When I coach entrepreneurs, I am constantly looking for ambition evidence. Have they done what they said they would do? Did they achieve that target they set themselves? Was that investment made? Did they hit the financial targets they said they would? A consistent stream of excuses of why things have not been done or failure to execute the actions agreed are tell tale signs that the ambition is not for real. What comes along with hard wired ambition is courage and an ability to extend comfort zones and manage risk.

One of the best definitions of ambition came from Elvis Presley – “ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”. Having a business dream is fantastic, however, without hard graft, long shifts and small nudges forward, the dream becomes a hallucination.


We need more mid sized businesses (MSB’s) – 10 ways to build one

16/10/2014

The need to help and support medium sized businesses (MSB) is very much at the heart of economic policy making at the moment. The missing component of the great work research institutes, accountants and think tanks have come up with is, just how difficult it is to set up and build one? Having done it with Winning Pitch (and working with a handful of others to do the same) there are so many lessons I would like to share. Here are 10 platforms critical to anyone on a MSB journey:

  1. Think big – genuine ambition is vital – be clear on your higher purpose.
  2. Be clear on the business model – a detailed plan to execute and operationalize the strategy to scale is crucial.
  3. Understand the different funding routes and instruments to fuel growth.
  4. A high quality senior team is vital, combine this with a great culture and you have the magic dust – values become more important the more staff you recruit.
  5. Consider the role of NEDs – having someone who has already done it sat round the boardroom table offers many advantages.
  6. Don’t be too precious about hanging on to your equity – smart people want a share of the value they bring.
  7. Embed tight operational control and strong performance management – remember it comes down to always having enough cash.
  8. Establish a clear brand and communicate this with passion – celebrate with fervor what makes you different and why you are the “go to organisation” for what you do.
  9. Strong internal (in the office) and external (in the market place) leadership is vital.
  10. Stay one step ahead of your competitors by living in the customer’s world – deliver innovative propositions with an edge.

From a UK business base of 4.8M companies, 99% employ less than 49 staff. So the current stock of mid sized businesses is less than 50,000. We must not only look at helping existing mid sized companies we also need to address how we fill the pipeline – the next generation.

Sustaining growth beyond 50 staff is a massive task – this is why so many entrepreneurs sell out before they burn out. Beyond 50 staff, business help and guidance becomes more sophisticated – PE/VC, NEDs, headhunters, governance, IPO’s, expensive lawyers and financial engineers, corporate finance… trusted support is pivotal to sustained growth. A community of trusted help is vital to the entrepreneurs who are aiming to do something special with their business.


7 thoughts on dealing with the pressure and loneliness of running a business

30/09/2014

One of the LinkedIn groups I am a member of, asked if anyone had any tips on how to attain a good work/life balance and deal with the pressure and loneliness (at times) of being a company leader. As I got a few likes on my response, I thought I would share it on my blog.

I have always had a keen interest in the entrepreneurial mindset, in fact I have written a book on it as well. Having observed lots of successful business people over the years, it would appear that those who win, have good housekeeping embedded in their company, strong customer focus and one that often gets overlooked – mental toughness and resilience.

Growing a business is a roller coaster and you should expect the unexpected, period. The loneliness of running a business is a reoccurring comment made by individuals I meet – here are some thoughts:

  1. Many of the things we worry about are of are own making – be careful of the conversations you have with yourself, they can be extremely destructive
  2. Create space to think – success is 20% thinking and 80% doing. So many business people forget the importance of ‘time to think’ (I walk my dog for 2 hours a day over the Lancashire Moors).
  3. Have 2-3 people whose views you respect and trust – give them a call.
  4. Get involved with entrepreneurial networks – we are all worrying about the same things. Be open and share.
  5. Aim to build a great team who can share the burden.
  6. Life is short – remind yourself that a late payment is not the end of the world. Far worse things could happen.
  7. Maintain good health – without it… Say no more.