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A successful strategy for aspiring entrepreneurs

by Kevin May, Founding Partner, Sticks There are two striking generalizations that can be made about business start-ups, says Kevin May, Founding Partner of Sticks. The first of them is that most fail, usually quite quickly. The second is that most are started by reluctant entrepreneurs. Happily, these two observations are not related in any causal fashion.

The rare breed

There is a very small number of natural-born entrepreneurs out there, the people who knew from their teenage years that they would always be running their own show long before they even had any idea what that show might be. This rare breed never even considers being anyone else's employee.

Most people aren't like that. They enter the workplace hoping for something they'll enjoy, be good at and find rewarding. Some become sufficiently successful that they begin wondering why they spend so much time answering to the Man when they could perhaps go it alone. Once they are clear on what they're really good at and care about, it just boils down to figuring out how they might plausibly make money from it.

But, however startling the proficiency, passion and monetizeable model underlying the business, in itself this is an insufficient recipe for success. Many businesses that are fantastic at delivering their core competency still fail. The failure arises not from what they do but from how they're run, beginning at the very earliest days.

The 'Man'

A big surprise for most reluctant entrepreneurs is that the Man has not disappeared from their lives. They've simply become their own Man. And that Man is extremely concerned about the sharks swimming closest to the body. He's worried about cashflow and early wins. He wants to focus on making the operations at the heart of the company work as best they can as quickly as possible. He wants to bring the right people into the business, but in an affordable way. And he wants to postpone any of those 'nice-to-haves' until at least the second year of business.

Think about your broader story, not just transactions

people buy people
This involves a lot of high quality effort being exercised against answering wrong questions. A compelling truth at the heart of all business is that people buy people. In a small business, personal relationships and reputation can be at least as important as the thing being sold. As the business grows, these relationships and reputation start operating at the company level rather than at the individual level. That's when you don't just have a business, you have a brand.

This doesn't happen by accident, but by design. A fundamental error of the early-stage start-up is to equate 'brand' with 'marketing stuff' and dismiss it to the bin of 'nice-to-haves'. Just because you’ve got a name for the company and persuaded someone to knock up a logo doesn't mean you have a brand. It means you have a name and a (probably quite bad) logo.

Some of that wasted high-quality energy needs to be put against answering some right questions and this begins with the positioning for the business. When you start a business, you have an understanding of the world which makes you believe there is an opportunity. Your positioning is all about where you want your company to fit into that world and the beliefs and values that will get you there.

The winning combination

The positioning defines the company culture, which is the combination of the environment where the business takes place and the behavior that happens there. And it is this behavior that allows for specific goals to be set. The combination of positioning, culture, behaviour and goals is what actually makes up your brand.

Executed properly, this type of brand design then feeds into all operations of the company, including marketing, but also product design, distribution, recruitment, sales, customer relations, research and development, IT, even mergers and acquisitions.

Get your priorities right

For many start-ups, the Man doesn't like this picture. It's all a bit too nebulous and long-term. For sure, he wants a brand one day, but he wants to start with operations and set some clear goals. This helps define its own behavior, which in turn will let a company culture emerge. Once there are some good miles under the tyres of the business and the concept has been proven in market, then it'll be time to start thinking in brand terms. Sadly, for many, that day never comes because they've made the mistake of doing things in reverse.

Life can be tough for the reluctant entrepreneur and it can often feel like drinking from a fire-hose. But figuring out the brand thinking for the business should always be a priority, however modest the ambition. It certainly won't guarantee success, but it will significantly increase the chances of the business standing or falling on its own terms. If you have to fail, you owe it to yourself to make sure it's because of a bad business idea, not because you had a good one and went about it the wrong way.

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