By Matthew Cushen
New Year. Often the time we take stock of our lives. When we think about what we value and whether our current career paths are leading us to where we ultimately want to be. For many it’s when our dreams of creating a business take root. Then the question is whether we are brave enough to take the big step – giving up a regular job, maybe some status that goes with it, and the financial security of a regular income. Are we courageous enough to take a path less trod, to cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with setting up a business?
If this sounds like you, then there is little advice to be offered without understanding your context. It’s very different for a parent with responsibilities. Or to someone who has built up a nest egg. It may be that the day job gives some latitude to start a business on the side. If so, you owe it to yourself to consider how properly committed you are. Are you playing around or do you need to be ‘all in’ to really make a go of it? And whilst potential investors will be OK with that as a start point, they will only back someone who is properly committed to one path.
The one audience I could offer some advice to are the ‘young and straight out of education’. We always say – you’ve got a long life, there is no rush to forming a business, and there is huge value to having built up some experience and credibility. Go gather some experience and make some mistakes on someone else’s dollar. Energetic naivety is celebrated when it ends well, and the media overweights their coverage of college drop-outs turned success stories like Mark Zuckerberg or just graduated Larry Page and his mate Sergey Brin. However, the reality is more usually that the really young find it difficult to build credibility with clients, team members and investors and can often lack the reference points that help decision making. There are several studies that show the average age of a successful entrepreneur at the point they found their business is 43 or 44.
When anyone thinks of making a big career change decision like this, they’d be forgiven for thinking it is all about courage. But someone much smarter than me (the American author, Robert Anthony) said ‘the opposite of bravery is not cowardice it is conformity’.
The important questions to be asking are whether your ambition, your proposition and your business model are suitably different from others to be successful? Perversely, the more ‘normal’ an idea, the safer it feels and the less courage that is needed to pursue it. But also the chances are the proposition will have less cut through with consumers and the chances of success are less. Although not always, a business usually needs to be zigging whilst others are zagging to create something really valuable.
A proposition needs to be differentiated to build the reasons to believe that will get people to try initially and then return. The business model may need to be different to create the price and cost structures that create a sustainable competitive advantage. Then a brand needs to be distinctive to get cut-through and build awareness.
A rare example of all of these was Dollar Shave Club. The proposition was different to the incumbent razor manufacturers. DSC’s promise was and is for cheaper products, with the performance that a consumer needs rather than a load of superfluous features to justify a higher price, but had little true utility (guys – do we really need a third or fourth blade and in head lubrication?). The business model was and is direct-to-consumer, to cut out retailer margins and digital advertising, cutting out the huge celebrity endorsement endemic to the sector (we probably don’t need to fret too much for Roger Federer though). Then DSG created a distinctive brand, with an irreverent and truly amusing tone of voice that was bang on their target market. If you’ve never seen it then do check out their first, original and still fresh viral video from 2012. The punchline being their $1 billion sale to Unilever after only 6 years.
Whilst us mere mortals are unlikely to create a billion-dollar unicorn, and even if you are only looking to dominate your town or county, the same ingredients apply – proposition, business model and brand. And the same question applies – are you brave enough not just to do something, but to do something different? To risk the sniggers from the doubters, to zig whilst others zag, to not blend in with the rest and to create something that consumers will notice and love?