Lessons from 20 years of working with high-growth startups

Growth and evolution are always possible, writes Rebecca Oatley of Cherish PR – but your business must be prepared for competition

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For 20 years, I have worked in the glow of new digital startups and scale-ups; young companies with great ideas, big ambitions, hungry for success, impatient for the journey. As a marketeer, it’s a wonderful place to operate and I am proud of the many global successes that we supported when they were at seed round or in some cases no more than a MVP.

From internet dating to crowdfunding, eReading to marketplaces, SAAS to ecommerce, working alongside brilliant minds, using and applying new technology is an amazing place to be.

As the industry has grown, so have my clients and today, I spend more time working with scale-ups, unicorns and listed companies than I do with those early ideas and innovators. That experience of seeing companies succeed and one or two fail, all the while growing my own business, I realised that there are no greater lessons learned than from the bumps along the way.

Here are a few of mine but they’re certainly not exclusive.

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Cherish has launched the Communications Accelerator program, designed to find one amazing early stage business that could benefit from two decades of experience working with world-leading startups and pay it forward to the innovation of the future.

The program, which begins in January, will commit 150 hours of communications services on a pro bono basis, to help young startups grow.

Entries are open until November 8th 2023 – you can apply to the program here.

Always think someone can come along and do it better

Sounds paranoid but the lesson here is never to be complacent. If you have a good business idea, it’s likely someone else is also thinking of it, or may have done it already. And that’s okay.

If it’s a good market, there should be plenty of room for a few competitors. The more positive awareness is generated in the market, the easier it is for your product or service to take hold. People will understand what you are offering and why it works for them. Creating markets is expensive and it’s hard being on your own. So whilst being a “first mover” is an advantage, it’s also a burden.

The new thinking is to be open and share, collaborate and create, build alliances with similar or complementary businesses. Grow the market together, but market better. Invest and build awareness for your brand so that you are recalled first and realise the opportunity.

Evolve, evolve and then evolve

Life rarely stays the same, just look at the last few years of trading conditions with a pandemic, Brexit, rocketing interest rates and now a war in Europe. Like life, changing business conditions are business as usual.

Downturns are great for reviewing your strengths and reinventing them. If you are struggling at the moment, double down on your strongest product offering (what you’re best at and what makes the most margin) and evolve it.

Think of ways to reintroduce it to the market, maybe future fit it ready for the upturn. You will evolve your business in the process. When times are better and there are more resilient trading conditions, then it is time to invest capital in new products but for now, invest in marketing to reposition and reintroduce your strongest suit to the market.

Looking back over the past 20 years, my agency has been through two or three strategic evolutionary phases.

We started life focused on media and lifestyle brands. It was just after the internet bubble had burst and whilst we had digital clients, many were brushing themselves off from the dot com boom and bust. In 2007, media was hit badly by the bank crashes as brands pulled up the spending drawbridge. For us, it was the same time that digital was bouncing back so we evolved our product to target this growing market of digital disruptors.

Moving forward a decade and we saw that innovation was now directed at solving some of the world’s trickiest problems, carbon and climate, waste, the circular economy, social movement, and we evolved again. This time, merging with another agency to form a Group structure and a dedicated brand called Wilful focused on using communications to help companies making the world a better place.

Merge, sell, acquire, move on. That’s the great thing about being in business.

Businesses are for customers not for founders

We love a charismatic founder. Life is entertaining and meetings are inspiring in their presence. Founders have the vision and their eternal energy drives the business forward. They can be fabulously stimulating and furiously frustrating.

Occasionally, we have witnessed the founder take their belief a step too far. They override their customer in importance. They steamroller an initiative without listening to the advice of experts, feedback from customers and exert pressure on those around them simply because they’re the boss. The business quickly becomes poisonous and the opportunity to succeed diminishes.

In these cases, we quickly re-sign the client. As marketers and as employers, we have a responsibility to protect our customers and our staff and both are affected if we carry on marketing businesses like these. Not only that, it’s highly likely that these are also the clients that are loss making. If you have a client or customer like this, the smartest thing to do is walk away because in continuing, you will fail your business in the process.

On a positive note, the smartest founders ask for advice and guidance from experts – and most importantly, they listen to it. They consider their decision making in the context of this advice and they are happy to back down and give others a chance. Fortunately, there are many founders like this too!

New connections are the lifeblood of opportunity

It seems strange to say that this is a lesson that I have learned but in owning and running a small business, I have neglected a few things and they tend to be the bits that I am least comfortable with. For some people that may be the HR, others finance. They’re the bits we never realised we had to do.

For me, that was networking. The thought of spending early mornings and evenings with coffee or wine in hand walking up to strangers and making conversation, well that was terrifying and stomach churning in equal measure.

However, new connections are the lifeblood of business opportunity. In their book Agencynomics, authors Spencer Gallagher & Pete Hoole cite a direct correlation between the numbers of people they met networking and the size of their business pipeline.

In fact, they set a KPI for the number of people they met monthly, beginning at 15 and rising to 50! Zoom and Teams make this task much less onerous and I now try to arrange at least 3-4 meetings per week both face-to-face and in person. Strangely for me, it’s now one of the elements of my job that I enjoy the most!

Contracts come from relationships

Thinking about connections is one thing but being awarded a contract is also based on trust and opportunity exchange. Those contracts (and recommendations) are much more likely to come from happy previous customers that a new connection who has never met or heard of your company before. That’s why it is so important to keep in touch and build strong relationships with previous customers.

From a testimonial or review through to a commercial referral agreement, there are many formal and informal ways in which you can foster and grow your relationships for your business. What is always important, is to give generously yourself. Think of others as you would wish to be thought of and goodwill will grace your business.

Get the balance right, ignore the numbers at your peril

I experienced the dot com boom and bust. I remember scratching my head as I watched those early investments in digital technologies shrink because at that time, customers weren’t even online. There was no way these businesses could sell when most homes didn’t even have a router.

I learned this lesson then. Investment needs a return and understanding and setting expected returns on capital expenditure and then keeping a tight rein on subsequent spending is crucial in the early days.

This doesn’t mean you cannot and should not invest but be clear on how this will pay the business back?

Enjoy the journey not the destination

It’s a bit of a cliché I know, but the reality is how many businesses actually get to the founder’s ultimate vision. How many Uber, Tesla, Amazon-scale companies can actually exist?

Many founders exit well before they add multiple zeros to their company value, and they look back on the journey they took as much as their eventual exit.

You may or may not get to be another Uber, but you are creating new ideas, building livelihoods for the people who work with you and growing your experience. So, enjoy the journey. Try to experience something new every day and remember good times alongside the challenges.

headshot of Rebecca Oatley, founder of Cherish PR
Rebecca Oatley

Rebecca is the founder of Cherish PR, which runs the Cherish Communications Accelerator program

Cherish Communicator Accelerator Program
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