Get Your Motor Running: From Startup to Challenger

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By Andy Dunbar, Chief Operations Officer, Mirum

Some say that being part of a startup is one of the most challenging yet rewarding things you can do. The opportunity to create something from nothing definitely has its draws.

Typically, the startup is formed from a small group of likeminded individuals, who complement each other well and are supported by people who fill specific, yet sometimes transient needs. Startups often have to be ruthless to survive – they exist and thrive by taking risks and playing the odds, often at the expense of work/life balance of the founders, but when time is pressing sometimes risks have to be taken, not just with strategy and product but with the people brought on board. The startup is a true crucible of not just team but also character of the individuals.

Where I’ve found the greatest rewards, however, is taking that fledgling, delicate construct that is the startup and honing it into an exciting, growing and enduring organisation that takes on the leaders in its field.

Here are my 6 tips for getting it right.

Clear focused proposition – don’t chase every dollar on the table.

Do what you do well and build a strong proposition around it.  Pick and choose how you deliver, keeping expertise in house where appropriate, and working with best of breed partners if better suited to the final product.

Find people who inspire you and move heaven on earth to get them.

Having crossed that first difficult bridge of creating a viable business, you now have the chance to build something exceptional.  The people working in my industry are creative and love to build things. What better opportunity than to build something that changes the game internally as well as externally?

Do the right thing – by your clients, your people AND your vision.

I’ve long held the belief that at the heart of every decision I make, those four little words hold the key to success. “Do the right thing” is about following your heart, regardless how easy/attractive/convincing the other options may seem. Don’t get talked into underpaying your people just because you can – people want to be fairly treated and the less fairly you treat them, the less they invest in what you are all trying to build.  Equally don’t try and compensate for a lack of culture and vision by overpaying your staff. It works in the short term but you end up with a soulless vehicle that people stay at purely for mercurial reasons. If there’s no love in your products, eventually your clients stop buying

Clear Vision

Lastly one of the best pieces of advice I was given was that you “have to have a vision”.  It’s easier than you think to just keep plodding along with no clear goal in sight. Whilst generating revenue is fundamentally important, it’s not a long term goal. You need to understand why you’re in business and what your vision is for the growth of the company. That vision is what brings people along the journey with you, so clearly communicating it is just as important as staying true to it.

Establishing yourself as a credible challenger

If you have all of that then you have the seeds to taking on the big boys. What it comes down to then is not just whether that Vision is the right one, but the sheer hard slog and commitment of the team behind it.

So my lesson that’s been hard learned and yet seemingly obvious is that you can’t do this on your own. Even if you have a brilliant idea and a clear path to success, unless you have committed people aligned with you, you will never achieve more than one or two steps down that path. The difference between a startup and a challenger is simply that of scale. As a startup, your A-team is likely your leadership and they can be pretty much everywhere at once. They can pitch most of the projects, they can step into most of the work.

A mature agency needs a scalable structure that uses the leadership intelligently. Typically for steering only. Too many clients complain of being pitched by the A-team and then the B-team turns up to deliver. In reality, success depends on hiring A-team players at all levels throughout the company. If someone isn’t committed, motivated or talented, not only do they not deliver on the vision of the company, but they have the potential to damage the input and motivation of the other team members. A vocal poor performer can turn an A-team into a B-team or worse. Even to the point of people leaving to realise their full potential elsewhere. So keep your team sharp and motivated to help each other be the best they can be. If you need to invest in someone then don’t hold back but equally know when you have a poor fit and help them find success elsewhere, outside the company.

It’s much less about playing politics and much more about supporting each other to achieve.

Creating a true challenger

It’s actually quite simple – at the heart of an exciting, challenging company that clients love to work with is:

• An exciting challenging team that loves to work with each other, and that isn’t afraid of challenging anyone. That believes in a great product, as much for themselves as for their client.

• An exciting challenging environment that makes this incredible team fired up to create, day by day, and enables them to break through the tough delivery moments by encouraging collaboration and communication, as well as creativity.

• An exciting challenging Vision that paints a picture of where you are heading as a company and makes people want to join you on the journey.

Adhere to the above and reap the benefits.  What’s good for the soul is good for business.