When start-ups dance with elephants

There are many stories about start-ups. Sometimes they end happily – sometimes not. Obviously, the road to success is all but preset and easily navigated. Rather it takes a great portion of purposeful action, perseverance and passion to succeed. When a start-up introduces technologically advanced solutions that change the rules of the game in an entire industry, the complexity of the mission escalates.

For a few years, I had the opportunity to follow a start-up during such an excursion. The art of navigating the company to a position where the visioned business opportunities could be commercialized proved to be based on three capabilities: keeping track of the terrain, getting appropriate team-mates on board, and securing the position in the emerging business field.

Keeping track of the terrain. The ability to interpret a plethora of signals and translate them into insights about future business opportunities is critical. These insights are key when creating a convincing vision of the shape and guise of the emerging business field. The vision serves as a tool for
a) outlining a roadmap for how to proceed,
b) convincing others of where to head, and
c) not running astray.

The start-up company obviously wants to influence both the direction and the speed of the emerging business landscape. If the speed is too fast – capacity becomes an issue, if it is too slow – the pockets run empty, and if the direction is wrong there may not be any business at all. Sprint orientation in a volatile terrain where the map comes out while running is an illustrative metaphor. Siestas are not recommended – if you lose speed and foresight, your chances may be blown.

Sprint orientation in a volatile terrain where the map comes out while running is an illustrative metaphor.

Onboarding appropriate team-mates. Start-ups are generally characterized by scarce resources. Building ground for the emergence of a new business field is neither a solo project. Thus, networking on a broad scale in order to scout for and mobilize strategically critical resources, is necessary. The incumbents, i.e. the big players in an industry, are often those in possession of relevant resources. Breaking the mental frames of these, moreover in conservative industries, is not an easy exercise. It could even be compared to training dragons. Think of Hiccup and Toothless.

Indeed, you need a lot of patience, perseverance, and psychology to pull it off. Being able to understand how individuals think and what motivates them is a true super-power. The clue is to focus on those who are most reluctant to change, the so-called brakers. If you get them to join you, you might win an entire department. Then, along the journey, it is wise to regularly and critically evaluate the portfolio of team-mates. Should someone be replaced? What new team-mates should we onboard?

Securing your position. Start-ups that are keen to preserve and leverage their position when business begins to roll, need to prepare for survival from the very beginning. Otherwise, you face the risk of being swept away when the dragons start to fly. Mice dancing with elephants indeed need nimble feet. Data is nowadays often described as “the new oil”. The ability to continuously and purposefully harvest relevant and unique data from test runs and pilot projects can be the start-up’s best rescue. When the time is ripe, it is also crucial to elevate the position in the value system by migrating to new segments that add lateral growth to the business portfolio.

This post gives only a glimpse of all the nuances of the capabilities a start-up needs in order to manage the many facets and turns a start-up journey may take. These days the SLUSH event takes place in Helsinki. Thousands of participants convene to begin or accelerate their start-up journey. At this event, start-up wannabes can glean signals, windfunnel-test visions and roadmaps, and jam with possible team-mates. The most important take away, however, are those whiffs and puffs that enable new traces in the mental map of where and how to leverage business opportunities of the future.

Annika Ravald
Associate Professor

Text published in Swedish in Vaasainsider 27.11.2018
Photo: Pixabay

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