How to launch a successful startup using agility
When launching any enterprise, commercial or social, the key question to ask is why? Why am I creating this business? Who is it for? Do they need it? Does it help people get a job done in a better, more effective way? You need to know a project will be economically sustainable.
Once you know the whys, you can explore the how. The answers to these questions will be key to creating a strategy and a plan for attracting customers, users, investors and partners.
I have adopted agile ways of working from the very start of my commercial and social endeavours. Agile is my forte and it is applied to every element of my life. Nurturing an agile mindset and culture in myself, my teams, stakeholders and customers has enabled me to build and sell three successful businesses, and is the reason I count clients including Novartis, Bayer, the NHS, LUSH Cosmetics, Al Jazeera and Vodafone as loyal clients.
What is agile, and how does it lead to success?
Agile is the ability to respond to complexity and change. It facilitates us to better understand what’s going on in the environment that we’re in today, it better enables us to identify what uncertainties we’re facing in a timely manner. It facilitates us to better prioritise and explore how we might better adapt ‘in-flight’, while keeping our focus on value.
We are naturally agile creatures. It was a single cell organism inspecting, adapting and responding to its changing environment nearly four billion years ago that led to millions of species on our planet. So, it’s not an alien concept for us as people. However, in the world of work, especially when launching enterprises, we tend to leave our natural agility at the door.
Why is agility so important for business?
Disruption is more commonplace today than it's ever been, be it technological, health-related, political, economic, sociological, legal and/or environmental.
Consider the nature of disruptions in the last two years. Covid, politics, war in Europe, and climate change. All huge issues that have changed the way we work and live forever.
We live in a connected and interdependent world, as do our people, customers, partners, stakeholders and competitors. It is a necessity to continuously improve how we inspect, adapt and respond to change around us, so that we can identify opportunities to build on in a timely manner.
Why? Because that’s exactly what the competition is doing. And in our world competition tends to be fast and at times unusual!
Being a disruptor is no longer a guarantee of success.
Netflix was a disruptor, but it was disrupted by Amazon Prime. Taxi Magic (Curb) got disrupted by Uber. Even disruptors get disrupted, we can no longer settle on differentiators for long and must constantly evolve, continuously improve ourselves, our teams, our relationships, our processes, our products, our customer experiences. The list goes on.
Startups, by nature, are agile. It was experimenting that led to a breakthrough or discovery that led to enough value being created that you either gained traction in an existing market (iPhone) or created a completely new market (Tesla).
From my own experience of startups and getting it right and wrong, there are four ingredients for agility I distil successful vs unsuccessful journeys down to…
Imagine this… As a leader, I have courage to have open conversations that are respectful of people, focused on my commitment to our collective continuous improvement. Would you like to lead like that? Or as a team member, I have courage to have open conversations that are respectful of people, focused on my commitment to our collective continuous improvement. Would you like to work with that teammate?
Being human is hard, it needs significant self-awareness, emotional, mental maturity, humility and selflessness to do all those things most of the time. I try every day and, on most days, fall short of what good looks like. The key is to keep trying and course correcting yourself using feedback, both internal and external feedback.
If you can do that, you’ll be better placed to inspire others in your journey with you, rather than for you, the result of which is the potential for ‘magic to happen’. In my second startup, in our early days, I went on a Pot-Noodle diet before I asked my leadership team to consider the same, just to keep the raft afloat. Once growing I put people and relationships first, I ensured we as leadership always allocated budgets for team development before leadership development, ensured that our engineering and ‘backend’ teams got just as much conference time as our field force and consultants did.
The result was more bottom-up innovation that enabled us to keep disrupting the status quo and keep growing our community of users, customers, partners and team members.
Being people-centric enables us to better harness empathy to better understand our people, our customers, our partners, their pains/needs and become vested in addressing those pains/needs. Both done together enables us to rally people with us, and to build a community amongst us.
Back in 2002 when I was exploring disrupting the healthcare space and me and my team worked closely with people from the sector, from managers to nurses and orderlies. We convinced them to give up some of their time, to sit with us and help us co-design a product that addressed their needs in a way that they could relate to. What started as conversations around a whiteboard scaled from a prototype with 1000+ users in six months to a suite of products with one million+ users over ten years.
People-centricity enables us to build strong, lasting and purposeful relationships, which in turn influences the culture we nurture and scale in our start-up. In terms of culture, strive for one that is respectful, trusting, and kind towards people; foster a climate of openness, honesty, rapid, respectful and empathetic communication.
Disrupting the status quo
Disrupting the status quo in pursuit of continuous improvement starts with all things internal. From ourselves, to our teams, to things in our control, to all things external and in our influence!
Explore each internal function with this curiosity ‘how might this be done better?’
For example, moving employee reviews from bi-annual line manager-led reviews to quarterly peer reviews, from individual reviews to team reviews. Though tech lends itself better than most functions, it’s not just tech that we must look at through the ‘disrupt’ lens, but every function.
Disruptive advantage rests within incremental gains as opposed to a big bangchange!
Disruption is a continual process, however disrupting your current ways of working is a lot simpler whilst you’re still a startup. An expensive lesson from many moons ago was that scaling inefficiency exponentiates inefficiency. Disrupting at scale is a lot harder.
Adopt a disciplined approach towards being human, people-centricity and disruption in your startup. Define what good practices will work in your ecosystem
Know the people you are employing, and what their needs are. Be open and flexible, a diverse team is a rich team bringing many influences, and just because one person cannot work 9-5, or one has personal commitments that mean less days in the office, that does not weaken the team, in fact it strengthens it.
A happy person is a more effective team member, and by allowing ten minutes to recover from a stressful inbound commute, or accepting an early finish to pick up children, you instil a sense of value and self-worth in your team members, and they then build better teams.
Create and nurture psychological safety for everyone to be able to close the feedback loop, and your people will guide, and course correct the culture as you grow.
Creating a successful startup is about experimentation, knowing and evolving your and your team’s collective understanding of the who and the why. It’s about personal and people growth, about building lasting, meaningful relationships and leveraging them to create and nurture a community around your vision.
Lastly, it’s about recognising your privilege as an entrepreneur of choice, rather than circumstances, and holding yourself accountable towards the responsibility that comes with it.