How to be as nimble as a start-up

As an established business behemoth or a fast growing SME, you can learn lessons from your younger, scrappier peers

Start-ups are always the underdogs.

They tend to exist in shabby offices on the scruffy side of town, using beach umbrellas instead of chandeliers, sometimes there are beers in the fridge but there certainly isn’t an interior Starbucks.

They don’t have the funds to make grand acquisitions and their corporate bonuses barely cover the tube fare home.

But they have something. Like many underdogs, an advantage. They are nimble and often run rings around large corporates when it comes to reacting to market shifts and customer mood swings. They are the speed boats to the blue chips’ QE2.

But as an established business behemoth or a fast growing SME, you can learn lessons from your younger, scrappier peers so that you too can remain agile and no market swing leave you trailing behind the newbies.

Apple is often lauded as a company that has remained nimble, with the heart of a start-up despite becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies. It is famed for encouraging staff to map out their own career paths. People are able to start in one role but can move around, using their entrepreneurial spirit.

“One of the ways employers are showing their desire to remain nimble is shying away from recruiting people who cite having to work outside their remit as one of the many reasons for leaving,” explains Chetan Patel, director, Hays leading recruitment expert.

“They are looking open minded people who are keen to embrace change, challenge the status quo and operate outside their comfort zones.”

If you want to remain nimble, you should be looking at your staff as individuals. Why not be a bit more flexible about whether to take someone that qualifies or not – looking at the person rather than the qualification can bring some real, unexpected talent through the doors.

“Every individual should be invested in to empower their individual flare, in turn this sets a standard of creativity and allows a company to feel more like a start up in the process, without losing your values,” says Dom Monkhouse, EMEA MD, PEER 1 Hosting. 

“Your customers and suppliers will see that change too.”

Customers are another major element in your quest to remain as sharp and prompt as possible. One benefit of running a start-up or small company is that you can maintain a very personal relationship with your customers. If they have a complaint you can react to rectify it before you lose them.

“We’ve built in an approach which keeps our customers right at the heart of everything we do: it’s called Net Promoter Score,” explains Sean Risebrow, director of customer experience, Virgin Media.

“This approach collects key insights from customer feedback and enables a feedback process where everyone – from our front line customer facing staff to senior management – are empowered to make decisions that deliver a fantastic customer experience.

“By continuously understanding our customers’ feedback, both as individuals and right across Virgin Media, we remain focused on always improving.”

Another tactic that is often used by start-ups and can be good for larger companies to remain nimble, is that of having flexibility in your workforce.  By using contractors oroutsourcing certain projects, you can streamline your workforce and better deal with outside influences.

“In the past  they would never have had a contractor or project manager – these roles would have been filed by full time staff,” says Patel. “Start-ups often only bring people in when they need them and this is a great tool for being able to react to market conditions if they are to change.”

Businesses can also look past their workforce when it comes to flexibility in terms of contracts.

“The flexibility of subscriptions make launching a business much easier and infinitely cheaper,” says TienTzuo, CEO of Silicon Valley company Zuora.

“Most of the things that a company needs to survive - phones, storage space, even offices - can now be handled via subscriptions at a fraction of the cost. With so many new pay-as-you-go services, there’s a huge potential to scale in a cost-effective, efficient manner.

“During a company’s life cycle, software necessary for one stage can become burdensome as the company shifts strategy or grows. GDocs may suffice one week, Office365 may be needed the next or vice versa. Buying a product on-premise is foolhardy, expensive, and short-sighted - especially when a new business may outgrow said product within weeks.

“Companies need to rapidly scale a business with new growth strategies and pivot in response to market changes - and to do that, they need subscriptions.”

Working in partnership with other companies in the same space as you might seem like an insane plan, helping the competition so to speak. But there are certain industries where this kind of collaboration (that is often utilised by start-ups) can be effective in achieving your goals.

“In the search for the next generation of innovative medicines, it will be lean, flexible and networked companies who will have the edge,” says Matthew Speers, Managing Director of the British & Irish Isles at UCB Pharma.

“UCB is a mid-sized biopharmaceutical company is who leading the way in collaboration with academia and small biotech companies to take innovative research ideas and develop them into actual treatments.

“Big pharma can learn from our networked approach and see how UCB is developing effective new medicines more economically. The likely successful and sustainable company of the future will be the one at the middle of a network of partners.”

If the idea of working with your competitors is abhorrent, you should be watching their progress at the very least. How to be as nimble as a start-up? Watch what they are doing.

“Looking at what start-ups are doing on a macro-level will help you to keep up. In bigger companies it should be everybody’s responsibility to know the industry,” says Patel. “Everybody should keep their eyes and ears to the ground to strengthen the position of the company.”

Being open-minded and making sure that you listen to the market, you competitors and your customers is the key to remaining nimble.

Thank goodness. No need for beach umbrellas.

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