The entrepreneurial vision: built to last

The entrepreneurial vision: built to last

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“You don’t always need an exit plan – especially with small companies, where life and business are really interwoven,” says Stefano Maifreni, founder of business-expansion consultancy Eggcelerate. “It all depends on what you want to do: do you want to conquer the world, or do you want a decent life with no real dream of being the next ‘unicorn’ [a start-up worth $1bn or more]? It’s perfectly OK to keep running a business for as long as it makes you happy.”

Maifreni agrees that finding your niche is imperative: “Look for something that is not quite grabbing the headlines yet, but is growing,” he says. “Ride on a trend that you will be able to scale.”

He says it’s equally important for founders of ‘lifestyle’ businesses to know that their market will probably be very different in five years’ time to what it looks like today. “You need to be open and to constantly question your business model,” he says. “You need people who can help you, and you’ll also need to be able to delegate as you’ll have less and less time to do the things you did when the business first started.”

Read the full article on Natwest Content Live.

Why Marketing can be your best friend or your worst enemy

Why Marketing can be your best friend or your worst enemy

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Giving birth to a new product can feel awesome. You’re full of pride as your idea comes to life, passes important tests and gets ready for the big wide world. But your product needs a partner, someone who will help your product to blossom. As a proud parent, you want the best. So when a flashy individual called marketing steps out from the shadows, you might have mixed feelings.

Please read the full article on London Business Matter (page 33). The article was also featured on SME Insider.

When you only need 48 hours in every day

When you only need 48 hours in every day

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Too much to do, too little time? If that’s the story of your life right now as you run a small business, then you need to make important changes. Changes that may help your sanity, your relationships, and your business’s bottom line.

Please read the full article on MBA World.

 

Are you allergic to consultants?

Are you allergic to consultants?

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The symptoms can creep up on you. There’s a sensation that you’re losing control. Perhaps you’re overcome by a feeling of weariness. And maybe your wallet seems mysteriously lighter. The symptoms can come and go, every few years …

 

Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients that want to achieve and manage growth for their businesses. In most cases, this meant difficult change at some level. But they all managed to go through it and achieve their objectives.

However, all of them loathed the word ‘consultant’.

Why? Well, they had some previous experience with consulting firms that came in and told them what to do. The consultant’s report or presentation was slick and stylish. Then they disappeared, leaving behind a huge bill.

Their recommendations didn’t really work either. But it was easy for the consultants to claim that the execution, not the strategy, was to blame. And therefore, another consulting assignment was needed to fix things!

Does that sounds familiar?

Simply telling small businesses what to do isn’t enough. Neither is coming up with a strategy. You need to be accountable for the execution.

Small businesses don’t require consultants. What they really need are ‘committed experts’.

So how can you identify one? Here are five ways capabilities they will display.

1) They can provide the answers that small businesses need – and put them into effect
Usually, ‘committed experts’ have experience working for major corporations as well as for small businesses. They understand the pressures weighing on business owners and senior decision-makers, whether it’s the daily decisions faced by a small family firm, or a key change to a portfolio of products worth millions of pounds. They know what works and what doesn’t. They put their proposals into action for you.

2) They are multi-skilled. One person is usually enough.
Their skill-set extends across many overlapping areas of business expertise: strategy, marketing, business development, restructuring and funding. Normally, hiring just one person is enough. This means you can make smarter decisions faster, without endless meetings with large groups of people.

3) They are committed
They don’t suddenly appear, make a few general observations and then vanish, leaving you with a large bill. They’re willing to work hand-in-hand with your business at a deeper, employee level. You can trust them. They’re open, honest, knowledgeable, committed and genuinely care about making your company a success. They’ll stay for as long as you need them.

4) When you invest, they’ll help you to get more back
During times of business growth, it’s very easy for companies to waste money on marketing plans, product launches and campaigns that turn out to be flawed. When working for your company, they’ll help you to avoid these approaches and focus only on proven strategies that will deliver the maximum return on investment (ROI).

5) They see the ‘big picture’ and can make success sustainable
Expanding in a profitable way is great news for any company. But it often leads to ‘growing pains’ as the business needs to reshape and re-organise around different objectives, products/services and customers. These experts will enable you to plan ahead, so you can prepare for these extra challenges in advance. This way, you can adapt easily, avoid the pressures of unforeseen consequences and protect the morale of your staff. With their help, you can make your profitability sustainable.

Maybe at this point you’re asking whether these people exist!

They do. But you have to look closely.

For a start, try to spot those who ask questions, rather than giving answers straight away.

That’s a good sign they’re focused on you and solving your problems – rather than making a quick dollar and a fast getaway!

 

This post was also published as an article on SME Insider and on the Great British Entrepreneurs Award website.

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Help! My business partner is from another planet

Help! My business partner is from another planet

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It can feel like that sometimes. When companies are growing fast, pressures can bring personal differences to the surface … surprising things you didn’t realise were there! So what should you expect and how can you deal with it in a professional way?

 

My experience has brought me into contact with a number of start-ups in different capacities (mentor, strategist, product marketer and business developer, to name a few). I’ve also worked at different stages of product development, from the birth of an idea, to testing its commercial viability and then looking for growth capital to bring it to market on a major scale.

Working alongside company founders and CEOs gives you a unique perspective. You’re exposed to the rollercoaster of emotions that inevitably happens when companies are growing rapidly.

The excitement of a start-up or new product can take over. Targets, finances, campaigns, spreadsheets and the regular business issues are vital. But all this activity can mask significant differences.

It’s crucial not to neglect the personal and emotional side of your business – and how the company’s founders feel about how things are going and about each other. After all, will the partnership between partners be strong enough to last the distance?

Let’s explore four key areas where differences can put a strain on working together.

1) Different dreams

What do each of the founders want in 5, 10 or 25 years? Is their vision to change the world or simply to get acquired by a large player and then exit with wads of cash for an easier lifestyle?

It’s important to be on the same page from Day 1. Otherwise, this can lead to conflict and affect the company’s direction in a serious way – for example, when deciding what to do about a future round of financing.

An outside expert can provide a listening ear and work to create a common objective at the outset, giving a strong sense of direction and purpose. This can be kept in review of course.

2) Different geographies

Is it viable to have a co-founder based in a different city or country to most of the other founders? This is linked to the ability to manage expectations.

The people that live and work in the same place (often the same room!) can meet, discuss and decide what to do. This can often be spontaneous. But their remote colleague can feel more and more excluded from the decision-making process – and simply be told what’s been decided already.

It’s as if they have become a ‘virtual’ partner, not a real one. Even with the latest tech, face-to-face communication is always better in this kind of scenario. It’s so easy to misunderstand the tone of an email, isn’t it? Miscommunications can have disruptive effects – eroding trust in a way that may destroy the business.

I’ll be honest, sometimes having a remote partner doesn’t work. But it can succeed with good communications, equal input from everyone and regular calls – not simply unstructured decision-making. Sometimes decisions need to be taken quickly, so the remote partner needs to make themselves easy to contact – or be happy to delegate some decisions. You can’t have it both ways.

3) Different planets!

Often, friends go into business together, which is great! But it can be difficult for everyone to enjoy the same strength of relationship at a serious, professional level.

It’s important to have a structure in place, to define how to make decisions and what to do in case of disagreements. Formulating a shareholders’ agreement at the outset is fundamental. Someone told me once that it’s a document you write when you’re sober – to use when your drunk, and I agree.

Think about what can go wrong and add it to the agreement: if things work you’ll never read it again. But if things become challenging, it’s essential. I know of co-founders having an equal share and no agreement. They were unable to decide if/how to take their start-up to the next level – and lacked the legal ground to unlock this difficult situation either way.

4) Different levels of resilience

If two people always agree, only one is needed; if they always disagree, both are not needed!

Disagreements can drain the life out of people – and your early enthusiasm for the business ebbs away. Companies grind to a halt. So how can you keep going during tougher times?

Even in healthy and active working relationships, sooner or later, you disagree and get to a conflict situation. This is usually amplified by the stress, the workload, the lack of sleep … and ultimately governed by the level of resilience of each person.

It’s here where points 1-3 all come together. But on top, you need a deep respect for each other, enormous patience and an acknowledgement that the skills/roles/experience of each person may be different, so should carry weight accordingly. Sometimes a decision is more to do with the other person’s side of the business. Sometimes you just have to ‘let things go’ on some issues, while the other person does the same on points that matter most to you. It’s give and take, which gives you balance. In many ways, this is the sharp end that may decide the fate of any company.

Conclusion

The points above speak for themselves and are worth considering seriously before going very far with any new start-up business or offshoot operation.

I would strongly urge anyone in this situation to get outside expertise to set a whole range of ground rules – from goals to communications. I know it’s often the last thing of people’s minds – and no-one likes to think of worst-case scenarios during those giddy early days of a new venture.

Getting a sympathetic expert to work alongside everyone to agree some helpful ground rules doesn’t have to be a dry, awkward, clinical experience. It’s a good way of thrashing out important details before politics or other problems raise their ugly heads. You could even decide how partners can exit the business gracefully if they wish (which is to be expected, almost inevitably). Sort these things while everyone is in a good mood and feeling positive. It can actually prove to be a motivating experience too, unlocking ideas and goals.

Ground rules will give everyone that added confidence as you move forwards. Over time, they’ll effectively serve as that grounded and sensible voice in the boardroom – that everyone can call on for impartial guidance.

Without thinking ahead, that first rush of enthusiasm that got your company started could disappear as quickly as it arrived.

 

This post was also published as an article on SME Insider and on the Federation of Small Businesses website.

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Make your pitch – but avoid a horror show

Make your pitch – but avoid a horror show

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Cringe-making, toe-curling, awkward, confusing, arrogant, shabby, disorganised, unbelievable, deluded … all words that could be used to describe the worst business pitches. And most of us have been there, at one side of the table or another. If you want to avoid pitfalls with pitches, then read on …

First up, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘pitch guru’. However, over the years, I spent some time in the vibrant start-up London ecosystem, and have mentored start-ups in the UK and across the channel.

I come across pitches a lot – and I’m usually in the audience or watching from the wings. Sometimes it’s on a one-to-one, confidential basis. Other times, it’s at so-called pitching events. The latest one was the PitchFire event, which was part of the RoboBusiness Expo in Milan earlier this year. It was interesting and well organised. Well done to them.

This experience prompted me to clarify some thoughts about pitching. I haven’t provided any ‘general rules’. But this article might prove helpful as a checklist when you’re preparing your next pitch. These points are based on what I’ve actually heard before at pitches, time and again.

5 things you need in a pitch – but what’s often said

1) What you do

Q) I didn’t understand what you do

A) Well, the timeslot was too short to talk about our business model

If you can’t articulate what you do in a pitch to potential investors, partners or others, then how will customers have any a chance of understanding? Be very clear at the outset. You should be able to give anyone a good idea within 30 seconds.

2) Unique selling point (USP)

Q) What is your USP?

A) My what … ?

What makes you different? Why does the marketplace need your products or services? Three reasons are ideal. Make them clear, compelling and unique. And show you know the TLA! (That’s a three-letter acronym standing for ‘three-letter acronym’! 😉 )

3) Competitors

Q) Who are you competing against?

A) Oh, we have no competitors

Unless you’ve designed the world’s first teleportation machine or pizzas that deliver themselves, then you will surely have competitors. But even in that case, you have substitutes or at least one competing technology, maybe from adjacent industries (for some time, bicycle would be a competitor to teleportation to me!). The answer above is naive. Prepare for this question. Research competitors, even if their offering is slightly different. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Work out if your advantages are sustainable.

4) Your team

Q) Tell me about your team

A) We have known one another for so long and have very diverse skills – pretty unique

So many people respond this way. But we are all unique in some way. This kind of answer also points to a slightly unhealthy inward looking approach to the business that could be viewed as self serving. Much better to explain the business benefit of each individual, which might be their experience, contacts, etc. Then your ‘stock’ will grow in their minds of investors. After all, they are investing in your team. So why should they?

5) Finance

Q) What will you be using the money for?

A) Mainly product development. And BizDev. Oh, and people.

This is where many pitches come unstuck. Until now you’ve been talking about ‘your world’. Now you’re firmly in their territory. And they are the experts. Make sure you have the right answers and figures to back up everything you say – otherwise your pitch will unravel at this point (if it’s still intact). Be detailed about what you’re using the money for. Use an expert to help you with this – so you’re absolutely confident in all you say.

Other points

There are plenty more I could add which are important too: trademarks/patents, working capital, return on investment, and exit strategies … to name a few.

Then we could get into all the detail beneath of each of these, which is really crucial because your audience may push you for more information. The conversation could take all sorts of twists and turns. But each pitch will be so unique for every company that a single article can’t do the job.

Parting advice

I have mentored many start-ups in different sectors (telecoms, IT, agriculture, maritime, tech manufacturing, fin-tech, and more). But when it comes to pitches, many of the ground rules are exactly the same and they all need to work towards answering a single question: Is this a viable business worth investing in?

What I hope you’ll take from this article is the need to be 100% prepared for your next pitch. Work with someone who will give you clear, honest and constructive feedback. Much better to take it from them and work together on making it better, than emerging from a pitch with your dream in tatters and a potentially brilliant business plan that’s failed at the first hurdle.

 

This article was also published on London Business Matter, sign up to  our newsletter here if you liked it.

Why falling in love with your product can be fatal

Why falling in love with your product can be fatal

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As Director of Eggcelerate, I’ve met companies at different stages of product development. These businesses have ranged from early-stage start-ups to SMEs, mid-sized companies to corporate enterprises. They’ve been in different vertical markets: telecommunications, IT, fin-tech, energy and manufacturing. Yet, they’ve had one thing in common – technology has been at the heart of their new product or service.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not against technology. Quite the opposite. I have a technical background and I love technology. Every time some new gadget or innovative service is launched, I’m fascinated.

But this is a warning about the dangers of falling in love with your product – not one that belongs to someone else.

If you’re bringing a technology-based product to market, then you could be at risk from this malady. It’s something I’ve witnessed again and again.

So what are the signs and the dangers? Self-analysis is always difficult when you’re so close to something to get perspective. But here are three areas where you can test yourself to see if something is going wrong.

Symptom #1: You’re looking for perfection. You keep adding new features and tweaking the product before it’s launched.

This is the problem of over-engineering. The consequences are serious: longer and longer time-to-market and overspending on a product that hasn’t started bringing in any revenues. In the meantime, the window of opportunity is closing. You’re also locking up valuable resources (people, time and money).

Symptom #2: You’re dazzled by the features of your product and can’t stop talking about them.

This is where an understandable passion for your creation mutates into excessive product focus. Damage occurs when you start reaching out to potential customers: You talk about yourself and your product, not the benefits you bring to customers. Excessive product focus can also weaken your marketing proposition. You become too distracted – caught up in feature-by-feature comparisons with other products and pricing discussions.

Symptom #3: When it comes to budgets, you’re only willing to spend if it makes the product better.

At first, this sounds like good business sense. But it’s really a misallocation of resources. Suppose you spend 95% of your budget on the product, but you refuse to spend 5% on Marketing and BizDev because you believe that money may be enough ‘to improve the product’ that tiny bit more? Without spending on these other things, you’ll have no first-day clients. In fact, it could take weeks and months to create demand. Really, you should be investing in developing the commercial proposition much earlier – while the product improvement phase is happening.

What’s the antidote to product love?

I’m tempted to say the answer ‘product loathing’ but that’s the worst outcome of all – if everything goes wrong.

Rather, the best approach is to always focus on your clients – and how you can help them to tackle their business challenges in a simple, effective and profitable way.

Build a prototype/MVP as soon as you can. And if you don’t have capabilities, time or the right focus, rely on experts (not consultants! See my previous blog) to help you.

Technology is a means to an end. We should always reflect this in the way we define strategies and approach clients. Their challenges need to be at the top of the agenda. Technology follows.

 

This article was also published on Realbusiness.co.uk, sign up to  our newsletter here if you like this post.

High-flyers: loose cannons or your greatest asset?

High-flyers: loose cannons or your greatest asset?

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Stefano Maifreni, founder of business expansion consultancy Eggcelerate, found himself wondering what to do with something of a high-flyer when he appointed a new expert in operations and enterprise resource planning (ERP). “It was a pretty rare skill set in our arena,” says Maifreni, “and the person we hired immediately wanted to restart our ERP from scratch and also take over key financial operations. Showing initiative was great, but his ambitions were all a bit ‘too much too soon’ and potentially disruptive.”

Maifreni’s solution was to challenge the new hire with objectives that were slightly out of his comfort zone. “I also had to balance a collaborative and more direct style of managing him,” he says, “and ensure that there was a continuous review of the projects he was working on.” It worked – this approach channelled the employee’s energy and drove positive change for the company.

Read the full article on Natwest Contentlive.

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