Keep Calm and Continue Disrupting: Lessons From Building a Fast-Growing Firm
There’s a reason industry-defining startups do so well -- disrupting existing industries is incredibly hard. Incumbent market leaders are entrenched, stifling legislation and exclusive partnership deals are put in place, and government lobbying groups are established to cushion the blow of new entrants and preserve the status quo.
Many industries are so well insulated it takes something truly seismic to dislodge them. Elon Musk, by any yardstick one of the most impressive entrepreneurs on the planet, is only just entrepreneur starting to chip away at the monolithic automotive industry after 11 years. The automobile lobby is in full swing trying to stop him.
In some respects, he’s having more success launching rockets into space with his other company, SpaceX, than he is selling cars.
Although it’d be hubristic to draw comparisons between my company, Crunch, and Tesla, there are some similarities. We’re both fighting an uphill battle into an entrenched, highly-traditional industry, filled with ancient legislation and equally antique market leaders.
We launched Crunch in April 2009 with a mission to drag small business accountancy into the modern era, and getting it off the ground has been the biggest challenge of my life -- as well as the most expensive. As we celebrate our fifth birthday, it finally feels like we’re making a dent.
So, what have we learned?
Don’t let the bastards get you down. If you’re a Tesla rather than a Google and you’re trying to bring down the establishment, don’t expect your competition to go down without a fight.
We’ve experienced our fair share of scuffles. We had direct marketing campaigns run against us in our first year of trading, which could have decimated our tiny customer base. We had restrictions placed on us by regulatory bodies because we have a startup’s company structure (several shareholders and investors) rather than that of a traditional accountancy firm (majority owned by an accountant). We were even subject to a ridiculous smear campaign by an “independent” industry blogger who later turned out to be a shareholder in one of our competitors.
When faced with setbacks like this, it’s tempting to lash out -- pick up the phone, get the lawyers involved or even just write a grumpy blog post. We’ve found a more pragmatic approach always wins out. Throwing your toys doesn’t solve anything. Fix it, or move on. Focus on the business.
Recruitment -- the most important thing you’ll ever overlook. When you build a startup from nothing, it’s difficult to detach yourself from certain aspects you hold dear. But let go you must, and it’s crucial you hand over mission-critical functions to someone who can improve on your groundwork.
It’s also important to remember you don’t always need to fill a position from the available pool of candidates. A recent study found that the average cost of replacing an employee was around $50,000 -- hiring the wrong person has a very real monetary cost, as well a being a huge time sink.
Iterate constantly. Trying to innovate in accountancy often feels like trying swimming with a ball and chain around your ankle. For every 10 good ideas we have, nine are impossible due to regulations and the one feasible idea needs a hefty rethink.
This kind of regulatory environment makes you think about innovation differently. How far can we push boundaries without getting in trouble? Or, the question we’ve found ourselves asking most often: What happens if we just do it anyway?
We eventually found the regulation around accountancy firms so stifling we cleaved the business in two -- Crunch Accounting, which provides the accountancy know-how, and E-Crunch Ltd., where the rest of the business sits. This shell company frees us from many regulatory constraints and lets us build more things our clients want.
Share your successes. We made a conscious decision not to get excessive outside investment when building Crunch (to date we’ve taken about $840,000 in outside capital), but without a VC’s checkbook to lean on, rewarding staff in more meaningful ways was difficult in years past. Now we’re in a solid financial position we’re able to give back to those who helped build our business. That, for me, is what being an entrepreneur is all about.
Stay in control. I read with some degree of horror recently that Box founder Aaron Levie owns less than 5 percent of the company he built. Of course, he’ll still make a killing when the company goes public, but his diminutive shareholding in the business he created speaks volumes of the “grow fast, exit quick” culture that VCs perpetuate.
With venture funding reaching and exceeding pre-recession levels, and crowdfunding booming, it’s never been easier (or more tempting) to give away control of your company in exchange for a stack of cash.
I’m not trying to encourage corporate dictatorship, but there is nothing more soul destroying than having a faceless group of investors hellbent on a huge return at the helm of the company you have poured your heart and soul into. Slow and steady growth under your own steam is infinitely preferable to huge investment, bloated valuations and pressure to exit.