We are now officially at the end of our ‘Design Thinking’ module, and it has been quite the experience. Coming onto the MACE program with almost no understanding of what it means to start a business, I have made significant progress, reaching a point where my team ‘Emperatigo’ have been selected to pitch at the Young Enterprise UK Final. The journey was long and challenging, but the lessons I have learned and the experience gained have fundamentally evolved the way that I see the start-up process. In this blog post I hope to reflect upon the trials and tribulations of the last few months, and to identify and summarize the key elements of my start-up education.
Anyone Can Start a Business
Initially, I assumed that entrepreneurs had something that I don’t – some talent or ability that set them apart from everyone else. What I learned swiftly after embarking on the course was that they did indeed have something special, but it was by no means exclusive. The key to being an entrepreneur, it turns out, was determination. Through my attendance of a large number of networking events and the Bright Ideas competition I witnessed first-hand that individuals of every background, gender and ethnicity were setting out on the same journey as me. What everyone involved in these events shared was determination. Each person was passionate about their ambition, and was doing everything they could to get closer to running successful organisations. Businesses are fundamentally influenced and shaped by their creators, and are ‘born of their labours and survive because of their dedication’ (Stokes & Wilson, 2010; p.144), so a borderline senseless drive is central to getting a fledgling company past its’ initial struggles. Being immersed in this culture had quite an impact on me, and I quickly grew to embrace it. I gained confidence and began to believe in my capability to achieve something great whether it be with Emperatigo, the male grooming company that I founded with my classmates as part of our master’s, or Fairlight Studios, the recording studio and media production company that I run from home with my brothers. I had caught the bug, the push that turned me towards entrepreneurship, but there’s much more to being a successful entrepreneur.
Pivot Like Your Company Depends Upon It
‘Creative Confidence’ (Tom & David Kelley, 2013) communicates the belief that creative ability is innate within us all, and that it is the way that society is geared, from our education systems to our corporate hierarchy (see Ken Robinson’s TED talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’), that encourages people to fear failure. It asserts that what we should instead be celebrating failures as the learning opportunity that they are. Thomas Edison, who is famously quoted as saying ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ and ‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were when they gave up’ (ThomasEdisonQuotes.com) was one of the most prolific inventors in human history, and clearly realised the value in appreciating why it was that he had failed before trying again, better equipped to tackle the problem at hand than before. This mind-set is something that I have grown to understand, and it is liberating to feel that failing at
something is acceptable as long as you learn from it. The trick therefore is to minimize the damage that is done when things go wrong – to run lean and fail fast (Ries, 2011) so your company can adapt early with as little waste as possible. An open-minded approach to change will strengthen your operation, and allow the entrepreneur to start from a significantly stronger position than the competition. This very essay is in fact born from this perspective, and I hope to take the best lessons from the shortcomings and strengths of Emperatigo and use them to nurture Fairlight Studios in the coming years.
The Importance of Empathy
When it come to user design, listening to your users is far more beneficial than simply trying to convince them of your product. If you can ‘frame the issues pertaining’ to the problem at hand (O’Grady & Visocky, 2006; p114), identify what it is they need and then design a solution for it – to ‘pave the cowpaths’ (Lockton, 2016) – then your offering will be naturally valuable to them. Truly try to engage with the customer, and recognise the research phase for the pivotal roll that it plays in adapting a product or service to its environment. For Emperatigo, it made sense to use coffee cups to package our products, as they were low-cost and accessible. After speaking with our trade fair customers however, most were confused by what it was we were offering, and so we pivoted our package design and found something more appropriate. This lesson is something that I have taken on board at Fairlight Studios, and we try whenever possible to go back to our clients to ask about their experience of our service and to see where we could improve. Over time, we hope to modify our offering to provide customers with the service that they truly want.
If you focus on the customer and exercise empathy, your clients will appreciate it. Mistakes are expected, and if you are able to swiftly and accurately address your customer’s needs, then they will remember the experience far more favourably than if things had been unremarkable and everything had gone right at the start. We recently had an unreasonably rude and demanding client at the studio, despite the high standard of professional service that we were providing them at a reduced price. Rather than reacting to the situation however, our communication with her remained measured and understanding and a compromise was reached. As a result, we continue to work with the other band members and build fruitful relationships.
Communication is the route of all problems and all problem solving in a team. Communicate honestly, clearly and with respect, and another of the many barriers to success will have been removed from your path. Do the opposite and prepare to struggle against each other for the duration of the project. This is not to say that conflict should be avoided; being honest about your issues with how someone is operating is vital to keeping a team together, but rather than fighting each other, use empathy. Recognise that we are all working towards the same goal and look to resolve your differences with a compromise that doesn’t put the team in jeopardy. At Fairlight Studios, this challenge is all the more trying as I am working with my brothers who are no stranger to a good argument, but that only means that overcoming our Egos and putting the business before our subconscious rivalries is all the more vital. The first step is to talk about things, even if they are uncomfortable, but to do so in a way that defuses the situation.
When establishing roles within Emperatigo, I wanted to use the opportunity to learn as much as I could, and so elected to take on the position that I felt I had the least experience in – Finance. As Finance Director, I learned a lot a about constructing Cash Flow spreadsheets, Income statements and balance sheets as well as honing my Excel skillset, but this learning came with an opportunity cost. My inexperience meant that the team member who was best suited to the task (as he had a previous career in finance) was pulled in to help me sort everything out, which meant that we were functioning inefficiently. This environment was the best place to learn this lesson, as the damage of failure was mitigated by the Young Enterprise program, but it has taught me the value of recognising one’s strengths and maximising output by playing to them. As Tom Kelley suggest, ‘T-shaped people’ (Kelley & Littman2001) are the best kind of people. They are adaptable with a broad basic knowledge, but should be reliable concerning their specialist area. This is something I am keeping in mind as I consider hiring the first employee for our studio.
It’s true that a flat hierarchy and ‘freedom […] concerning process’ (Amabile, 1998) promotes openness, creativity and motivation, but I found that Emperatigo suffered from being too flat. While reservation of judgement is necessary for ideation (Reeves, 2016; p229), we lacked clear delineation of goals. This meant that individuals were left to decide which tasks they would like to deal with, and unfortunately this sometimes meant that agenda items were left to be dealt with by the most proactive team members, while the others enjoyed a lighter workload. This situation would have been resolved by having someone take a more autocratic managerial role, designating tasks to people, but it would have had to be done so with empathy, understanding and discussion as mentioned above.
Perhaps the lesson that has impacted on me the most is the importance of ‘purpose’ as a motivator. I was sceptical at first that a business required such an element. We were, after all, in it to make money. That was a purpose right? Wrong. Money is the lifeblood of a company, but it is the meaning behind the money is ‘the key to exceptional performance’ (Craig & Snook, 2014). Those with purpose at their core not only have the grit to get through the difficult times, but are united behind a common cause. Employees can identify with an organisation, sharing pride in and commitment to an organisation (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1994). It seems to bind culture together, driving teams forwards and inspiring diverse stakeholders to want to be a part of what you are doing. I found first hand the difficulty of working without purpose, as towards the end of our Design Thinking course Emperatigo began to wane without something meaningful to bind ourselves to. I will not make the same mistake with Fairlight, however, and it is now a priority for me to establish purpose within our business that inspires and drives us to achieve great things.
Works Cited Small Business Management and Entrepreneurship.
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Bartlett, Christopher, and Sumantra Ghoshal. “Changing the Role of Top Management: Beyond Strategy to Purpose.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business School, Nov.-Dec. 1994. Web. 25 Apr. 2016 <http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.kingston.ac.uk/ehost/detail/detail?sid=23647715-f8e2-45d8-8d00-d0aad4f18a7c%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4206&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d&preview=false#AN=9411155359&db=buh>