More needs to be done to help start-up companies reach the next level. But what’s vital is that they don’t lose the entrepreneurial culture that made them successful in the first place.
During my travels around the country as co-chair of the Government Scale-Up Taskforce, I come across many of the dilemmas business owners feel when faced with scaling up: what skills are needed, what sort of people to hire and, most importantly, how to grow without losing the ‘secret sauce’ that got your business to the point at which you can contemplate growth. In other words, how to keep that feeling of being a small,
agile and personal business.
I started the coffee chain Coffee Republic with my brother, and we grew it from zero to 110mph in five years. Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, growing so fast, we lost the culture fast, too: that start-up culture that has you and your team up at night before a store opening, doing whatever it takes. From sticking posters on walls and buying milk to sweeping the floor and setting up the tills, there were no titles or job delineations – just a zeal to get a job done.
We lost that special culture because we thought you had to. We were led to believe that a big, professional company was different to a start-up or small business and needed different skills – structures, controls and discipline. We thought the start-up phase was something you grew out of, and that the passion, customer focus and resourcefulness which had glued us and our founding team together were no longer needed. So we left, handing the reins to what Silicon Valley calls ‘grown-ups’. The company we founded is now a shadow of its former self, and for us it is painful to watch powerlessly from the sidelines.
The important lesson this episode taught me was that you can grow without losing your special culture. That start-up phase is actually something you must fight tooth-and-nail to maintain forever, no matter how big the business gets. It is vital – especially now, amid Brexit uncertainty – to keep that agile, customer-focused, resourceful, innovative culture.
Growth must not come at the cost of the culture that you have built, which makes all the difference. This is why I feel passionately about the Government putting its support behind small and start-up businesses so that they can grow to their full potential.
The UK ranks third in the list of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for start-ups, but is only 13th for scale-ups (the OECD defines a scaling business as one with annual growth of 20 per cent per annum over a three-year period and with more than 10 employees). Helping businesses grow is low-hanging fruit for our economy. The UK’s 35,000 scale-up businesses have combined revenues of £1 trillion and generate 3.5 million jobs. They should be celebrated for their job and wealth creation, locally and nationally.
And yet they are not. According to a survey carried out by the ScaleUp Institute last year, over half felt there was little support for them, especially in accessing finance, talent, leadership skills and new markets. We have become so wrapped up in start-ups that we have forgotten to support the businesses that will play a key role in driving growth and productivity – just when we need them most.