The journey to success is different for many companies. There are opportunities, pitfalls and shifts which need to be made to turn your ideas into a successful business. However, one thing that many business books don’t tell you is that the early stages of a business are a careful mix of vision and flexibility.
And that how you implement this mix will have a lasting impact on your business.
That’s because much of your long-term success is instilled in the beginning stages of your company. Culture, differentiation and customer commitment are all formulated from the very early days of your business. And while needs change as you transform from a startup to a larger organization, ensuring you put in the time -- and allow yourself the flexibility -- to hone your product and approach early establishes important norms which run through the life of your business.
While there are many things entrepreneurs need to think about during the early stages of founding and growing a company, I have found that the following critical areas of focus were the most pivotal during Capriza’s first few years.
What makes you unique?
As a new company, you have to deliver something different, not simply something that’s good. While it’s vital you take a quality product to market, at the outset of building your company you need to ask yourself the question, What makes me stand out?
The fact is, as a startup, your customers are taking a risk buying your services. To be motivated enough to choose you over a more established competitor, you need to deliver something different, and different in a way that delivers clear value to your customer. It’s important to focus on the unique value of your product from the outset, and build out functionality that magnifies and extends that differentiation. With our company, we started with one core product, later expanding to a full product line and suite. But, honing in on that initial offering and what made it compelling against other market competitors is what drove our initial sales, and gave our company a platform and early customer base on which to grow.
So, don’t just focus on being good. Focus on being different, in a way that really matters to your target customers.
Being nimble is more important than being right.
When you hear about the world’s most successful companies, you often hear about how the founders stuck to their vision and never wavered. They looked into the “crystal ball,” saw the future of the company and just did the right things day-by-day to realize that vision.
Unfortunately, however, that’s also the story of a lot of businesses that no longer exist. If we hadn’t listened to our market and our customers and adjusted as we matured, we likely wouldn’t have been successful.
For example, when we were starting out we made assumptions about our potential customer’s technology usage and needs that weren’t completely accurate. Many of our customers were still struggling with legacy back-end systems, and weren’t as cloud progressive as we initially assumed. Making sure we were listening to the market and integrating these lessons into our solution was vital to our success. If we hadn’t responded and adjusted, our offering would not have addressed the real hole in the market.
In business -- especially the early stages -- having a vision is great. However, being nimble and open to new ideas is the key to longevity.
Put extra thought into your people.
We all know the adage that people make your business. However, at the early stages, they can also break it very quickly.
When we were starting out, as CEO I put extra effort and thought into each hiring decision to ensure we were hiring the right people who could learn from the market and rapidly evolve to help us achieve the next stage of growth and maturity. We needed to hire people who not only had an entrepreneurial mindset, but also were committed to the team and "open door" policies we wanted as a cultural cornerstone for our company. I believe that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and the best business strategies can fail if you don’t get the culture right.
When you’re moving quickly, it’s natural to have “tunnel vision” focused on the end goal. But, culture has a lasting legacy, and the wrong hiring decisions early can have a corrosive impact for years. Having all leadership involved in hires at the early stages of your company ensures you’re hiring people who reflect the culture you want to instill. This is essential in the early days of your company because the next wave employees will take their cues from your early staff.
Implement customer health procedures.
At the heart of every company is the relationship you have with your customers. Your differentiators and product quality are cornerstones, but if you lose the trust of your customer base business will dry up quickly. This is even more true now in the days of subscription business models and declining switching costs.
What’s happening with your customers is everyone’s business in a startup. Companies who think customer successes and setbacks belong to department X (usually customer success or some other service organization) will slow or stop their own success. At Capriza, we initiated the customer "Needle Mover" program where if we ever had a customer issue or a major breakthrough, the whole company would be alerted and jump on it, no matter what department they were in. By doing everything to make our customers happy, we were able to establish trust and gain their loyalty, and use what we learned to help our efforts across marketing, product, sales, services and more.
Grow as your company grows.
It’s also important to remember that as your company changes, as a CEO you need to change as well. How active you are in all facets during the early growth phase needs to adapt as your company grows in size, personnel and customer base.
As your business needs change, so should your approach as a leader. In the early days, you might have to be a salesperson in the morning, a product manager in the afternoon and a marketer in the evening. But, as you grow, you need strong leaders across all functions who can implement your vision and reinforce the culture without constant supervision. Maintaining the same approach as your company grows from 15 to 150 people is not only a step to overworking yourself, but is also a sure way to stop implementing practices that will strengthen your company as it grows. Instead of setting the vision and enabling and supporting the team, you’ll be the dreaded “single point of failure” that any experienced technologist knows to avoid.
The people and structures needed to succeed change as your company evolves. Being flexible to embrace these changes -- and not solely sticking to what you know or has worked previously -- is key to fostering a company that can continue to grow.
There’s no golden strategy for building a successful business. However it’s rare for a business that isn’t clearly differentiated -- or is too stubborn to adjust to the needs of the market -- to find true success. Put time early on into building the right team, and an offering that is unique and meets a customer need, and you’re positioning yourself best for continued success.