Why start-ups should be marmite not vanilla

Sarah Dunwell argues that businesses need to be conviction politicians, like Thatcher, willing to take risks and innovate

I’m not the sort of person who will add to the words of other people, if I don’t feel I’ve anything very useful to say.

Over the last few days, world leaders, journalists, activists, economists and historians have written and spoken millions of words about the late Baroness Thatcher. So is it useful for me to add to the words of those esteemed experts and share my opinion of the Iron Lady? I don’t think so.

Can businesses learn from Margaret Thatcher?

However, those who know me know that words of hers like “bring me solutions not problems” slip easily from my tongue so I have to recognise her impact on me. I was struck yesterday by one simple comment that she “was a bit of a marmite politician” people loved her or loathed her in equal measure. She stuck to her convictions no matter what people thought, believing and acting from her convictions, whatever others might have thought of them. She had little time for focus groups in politics.

How important is market research?

When I opened my first customer facing business, a café in Leeds city centre, people warned me about doing the research… lots and lots of research! When the major coffee chains decide on the new layout of a coffee shop, what colours to have, what chairs to put in what positions – they spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on focus groups and customer research to guarantee that most of the food and most of the colours will be mostly accepted by most of the general population.

I never did this – for two reasons.

  1. I didn’t have hundreds of thousands of pounds.
  2. I didn’t want to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I did guess at the colours but I did that by ‘leveraging the consensus of industry expertise’. Now, that is my own speak for copying the stuff that big businesses with lots of money to spend on this exercise had come up with! I think that is common sense, especially in the early years of running your business.

Why passion and originality is key

But I didn’t do too much research mostly because I think that entrepreneurs with a passion for start-ups must be that kind of conviction politician who is sometimes marmite. I don’t believe that real innovation, real brilliance, can be achieved by delivering something that will produce a concept, product or service that will cause the least offence to the most amount of people. That might be one route to commercial success but it really is a very boring one! Even if we have the money to do all the focus groups and customer surveys in the world, maybe we shouldn’t. Because potentially for every Starbucks there is an Innocent, perhaps people want conviction and passion as much as, well… vanilla!

I am not arguing that tried and tested methods of analysis of markets, trends and buying are not relevant for the start-up entrepreneur. They have their place, but their place should not be to paralyse us to inaction because we are not one of the ‘big boys’ in our field. Start-ups must play to their strengths – their speed of movement and change, their agility and ability to innovate, their chance to take risks and to respond quickly when those risks don’t work.

The start-up’s greatest ability is to embrace being small, local and responsive, to celebrate the strengths that they have over their larger competitors and not be defeated by their weakness. Every sensible business person will recognise the time that their company has grown and developed enough to need to adopt new structures to meet new demands.

But, in those first few years – be marmite not vanilla, because for every person who wants to sing that the witch is dead there will be another who wants to give you a state funeral.

Sarah Dunwell is the founder of the award-winning social enterprise the Create Foundation, an organisation which provides training and employment opportunities to marginalised or vulnerable people. For more information, visit: www.createfoundation.co.uk.

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