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Scale up lessons from leading entrepreneurs

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Today’s business owners are operating in a fast-changing environment with key future trends set to impact the global economy; from rapidly shifting demographics to increased automation and disruptive technology. It’s an exciting time to be growing a business. Despite the disruption and pace of change some of the key tenets of success remain constant.

We brought together over 80 small business entrepreneurs to discuss their scale up journeys and to hear from the founders of larger sized businesses who shared their insights, knowledge and reflections on what they wish they had known when scaling.

Below is a summary of what our inspirational business founders had to say.

Focus on people and retention

The war for talent shows no sign of abating. It’s no surprise that those business founders point to the attraction and retention of talent as one of their biggest challenges and a crucial area of focus.

Getting the right people on board in the first place is, of course, critical. But it’s retaining those people that can really drive your growth journey. If you’re taking the same people on the journey with you, you’ll get through your milestones much faster.

When you’ve got the right people on board, it unlocks time for you to move away from operational issues and get that strategic thinking time, which is so vital to driving your business forward.

Get the culture right

At the heart of retention, and attraction, is developing a strong company culture. It starts at the top but needs to flow throughout the business. So how do you do that?

As an entrepreneur you need to embrace the power of saying ‘yes’ to the seemingly impossible and then ignite your team’s passion to turn it into a reality.

You need really good people that are not just highly capable, but also extremely committed, and really believe in what you're trying to achieve at the same level as you, maybe minus 10%.

At a senior level, high levels of commitment are to be expected but bringing the whole company with you on the journey can present a tougher challenge. For some companies giving all employees shares is a key part of this as it changes the conversation from ‘I need’ to ‘we need’ and makes the challenges and opportunities ours.

Fundraising - do your research

While many businesses grow without the need for external funding or by accessing more traditional financing, some will look to avenues such as venture capital to support their growth plans. They don’t teach you how to fundraise at business school, but gaining a few tips is key.

It’s about doing your research to make sure you’re speaking to the right people. Do research on the people who are contacting you or that you want to contact, make sure that they have dry powder and that you're not potentially the last investment in their current fund.

As a founder, you need to treasure your time as a priceless asset and protect it fiercely so make sure that the person you speak to is a decision-maker.

Like so much in building a business, it’s about tenacity and being proactive in approaching the VC fund that might work for your business. You also need to be very clear on your runway and run your cash flow forecasting through different scenarios so you know how long that funding will last.

Be flexible but have structure

Entrepreneurs build great businesses because they have a great idea that disrupts a sector or addresses an unmet customer need. There is a danger, though, of becoming too wedded to that initial, ground-breaking idea and not reacting to changes in the market. Flexibility is key to success.

Successful businesses tend to start with a great idea but are not afraid to move away from the original plan and it’s important to realise that what you start out doing may not be where the business ends up. So you need to plan but be prepared to pivot your proposition or product when innovation is necessary.

Part of the journey is moving from start-up to scale-up and beyond. It’s important to recognise the point when you need to build more structure into the business. The challenge is to maintain your entrepreneurial flair but get the structure right.

Build resilience

The rollercoaster of entrepreneurship means that resilience is almost a non-negotiable character trait and you need to embrace the inevitability of mistakes. But resilience can be learned. Focus on the learnings and progress that come out of failure and remember that every time the business has hit a challenge it has rebounded.

You need to be able to deal with setbacks and instead of being upset when it gets tough, convince yourself to be excited because it means you’re one step closer to your goal.

Ignore your competitors

Most guides to building a business will tell you to do in-depth research on your competitors, understand their products and what they’re likely to do next.

Knowing your market is important, but spending too much time looking at press releases from competitors and thinking we need to react is a distraction because it is staying laser focused on the customer and your USP that will help you succeed.

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