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Idealog—in the ideas business

So far, so good—so what?

Okay, so you made it this far. Maybe you made it through a whole year without going bankrupt, you’re still married and your family is still talking to you, even though you owe them all a lot of money.

Your idea has stood up to the battering of reality checks from the world and, like Indiana Jones, it is still staggering along, older, wiser, and with a chance of making it to the buried treasure. There are plenty of creepy-crawlies and traps to get through yet, but the adventure continues.

So how do you know when it’s really taking off, and what you need to do next? While giving birth to an idea is like giving birth to a baby—it’s painful, messy and terrifying but the result can be magical—this next stage is a bit like raising a child. It’s no good thinking that at some point, things will stabilise and go back to normal, because they won’t. And you are going to need help.

Jonathan Kirkpatrick, chief executive of the AUT Business Innovation Centre, has some words for the unwary. “A lot of people don’t get to the later stages, because it’s hard work. Anybody starting a business based on innovation, especially technical innovation, needs to understand how hard it is. There are a million and one things that can go wrong, and the fragility of being a new business is ever-present. You will be working a lot of hours and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future. A lot of people can’t cope with that.”

The biggest challenge at this point is to pull your head up from the day-to-day battlefield to look at the bigger picture and keep sight of your goals. “In the early phase,” says BNZ advisor Sue Lindsay, “you’re really focused on getting runs on the board by making sales. The challenge then is to step out, look at the business model that has been created and ask whether it’s the best it can be.”

Grenville Main, managing and creative director of DNA design, agrees. “When you are a brand new startup, as an entrepreneur you’re a bit naive and optimistic, which is a good thing because otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed. But it is always slower than you think. There are all sorts of challenges and problems that come up. How you deal with a setback defines not just how good your idea is, but how good a business you are building. The idea is not the business. It is just the start of the business.”

If you’re not a people person, you’re not a business person

You won’t have got this far without some expert advice and support, but now is the time to draw this closer, and build it into your core team.

It can be anathema to the spirit of the entrepreneurial maverick, but you have to get used to letting people tell you what to do. If you don’t listen, why should anybody listen to you? And if you don’t learn, you will quickly make big mistakes or simply drive yourself into the floor.

Jon Perry, partner at innovation software company Sopheon, has seen it happen all too often. “People end up focusing on the things they don’t do well, like marketing or finance, because they think they are expensive, and then take their eye off the operational stuff they are good at. They end up getting a mate or a neighbour to do their marketing, or they go to a single-practice accountant because they are cheap.”

You can’t cut corners if you want to be world beating. A cutting-edge business needs cutting-edge advice.

“You have to be realistic about your time and resources,” says Mike Atkinson, business improvement senior manager at specialist accountants Hayes Knight. “People want to save money by doing it all themselves, but they can’t do everything. They won’t build the infrastructure that will let it go to the next level, and end up strangling the thing.”

Getting yourself an advisory board is a good place to start. It gets you in the vital habit of listening and tapping into talent, and will give an all-important signal to potential investors that you are serious and professional. Even if your enterprise is tiny at this point, a couple of experienced friends can help you stay focused and introduce fresh thinking.

Brett Walters, national managing partner at BNZ, says “An entrepreneur can have a world-beating product, but where they let themselves down is in not doing the homework and seeking expert advice.” Atkinson puts this down to the dark side of the number 8 wire mentality—a reluctance to pay other people for things you think you can do yourself.

All our partners in this guide recommend you talk to specialist lawyers, accountants, branding experts and business advisors on a regular basis—and they aren’t just drumming up trade. It’s like the dentist: you can put off a costly and potentially painful experience, but this will almost certainly lead to a very costly and very painful experience later on.

Hire and hire

Along with external help, you’re eventually going to need some staff. This is a quantum leap in the development and complexity of any business, says Kirkpatrick. “You’ve gone from innovator to manager. You suddenly have legal and moral obligations to pay people on time, whether you are paid on time or not.”

And it goes well beyond money. Your company is based on innovation. To survive and thrive, it must become an incubator for further innovation, with a secure yet creative working environment that attracts top talent and enables them to do the best work of their lives.

You must share your ideas and enthusiasm, so your staff can be inspired by having real, meaningful input into something inspiring, real and meaningful. And if you want their ideas to add value to the company, you have to make listening to them a part of your daily work.

Whatever element of risk remains at this point will limit your options when it comes to choosing employees, as someone with a family and a mortgage is unlikely to join you if they don’t think you’ll be around in six month’s time.

“You can’t assume that employees will have your passion for the idea,” says Kirkpatrick. “They haven’t got as much invested in it, or as much to gain from it, as you do. You never really get the team quite right. It’s like putting a band together. You get who is available. If nobody plays double bass, you get a double bass player in. And sometimes from that you will get a group that will do what is required.”

Hiring more people means getting what you have in your head out where your people can work with it. You need to maintain a clear sense of the game plan, which should be reviewed and refined regularly.

This is Perry’s specialty. “Typically at the beginning we find that companies have all the information they need to further an idea and to work out whether it’s good or bad,” he says. “That information is only about 10 percent of the amassed information. The rest is garbage.The biggest challenge is to wrestle that information out of the people that are gatekeepers for it, to share it and collaborate.”

Congratulations, your idea has gained some followers. Now you need to work out where to lead them.

Originally published in Idealog #26, page 36

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