Mind the gap
Lateral vision is an essential tool when growing a business.
Scaling up is hard for innovators as it asks tough questions beyond the initial focus of proving that their technology solution works and has a commercial future. If not addressed early, these issues will leave the innovators bogged down trying to realise their potential.
Sadly, running a company of scale goes far beyond the abilities that sparked the initial technical development. One of the best leaders I have worked with was quick to acknowledge the gaps in his own skills and used others to complete the picture and move forward in a balanced way. This is the lateral vision that drives many a successful start-up.
If you are an early stage innovator, perhaps with a new technology-based device, working informally with a few friends or colleagues, the leap to a substantial organisation serving a significant customer base (let’s call it thirty for the purposes of my own narrative) is huge.
Typically, your great idea aligns with some area of grant funding, or perhaps even attracts an early customer or two. The thrill of getting a first award is huge, the potential is laid out before you, but before diving back into the next phase of development or testing, take a look at the small print.
Every award or customer contract will have terms and conditions that may commit you to do certain things, or have implications for your intellectual property that limit how you can use the fruits of your labours in the future. Care here, outside your own skill set perhaps, can be disproportionately valuable and have a real impact on your future prospects.
As the business evolves and grows, the landscape changes. From a successful prototype it is about reaching out to get the early adopters on board. Flexibility is key here (back to the terms and conditions) because small changes or enhancements may arise from different use cases but which benefit the overall specification. These are possible if managed carefully and show that it works and is needed by a community of potential buyers.
Serving volume customers moves the attention to a whole new place. The specification has stabilised so that each system or unit is the same as the previous, it conforms to a set of documented standards that can be demonstrated to potential customers and used as the quality benchmark through your production processes.
Convincing them to buy your device and then delivering to them successfully needs skills in sales and marketing, quality management, finance, logistics, legal and commercial, recruitment, project management and many more.
The business has now grown up in terms of scale and capability. A few years earlier the prototype unit was built by a few people in a small workshop, perhaps borrowing or renting specialist equipment to get it over the line. Now, you have a larger, specially equipped production facility and have graduated from a small group of flexible, highly skilled individuals to a much larger team of specialists, probably each with narrower skills that must be combined to collaborate within a work plan that is repeatable and consistent.
There are many other factors that will no doubt add to the complexity of your new world and to list them here would be daunting at best.
Your inspiration started the ball rolling, but scale is what delivers value and rewards the investors that supported you along the way. It carries with it a demand for skills, knowledge and experience that goes far beyond the initial recipe that got the thing started in the first place.
Lateral vision, applied early, is the key that can unlock the door to growth. Truly successful entrepreneurs do this quickly, acknowledge where the gaps are and join the dots up with relevant support to be ready for what the next phase throws at them. They are the ones driving forward rather than playing catch-up, or hunting for the next grant award to keep them afloat.