2017 was a big year for start-ups. Companies House data shows over 600,000 new UK businesses formed last year. Statistically, half of these start-ups will fail within five years. Some will become somewhat profitable. Very few will leap to market dominance.
There are of course a dizzying array of factors that dictate whether you soar to success or spend twelve months wondering whether you should call a recruitment consultant. But one fundamental mistake is to think of your venture simply as a business. To save yourself a lot of time and money (or embarrassment in front of Dragons in Dens) think of your venture as brand from the outset.
THINK OF YOUR START-UP AS A BRAND, NOT JUST A BUSINESS
A business is simply a commercial entity trading products and or services. It can be identical or very similar to other traders. This makes it very hard for customers to choose your business over a competitor; your business has very little competitive advantage.
Imagine I start a business. Let’s say it’s a taxi company in London. I have cars on the road, people driving them, collecting some fares. I certainly have a business. But I suspect not an entirely successful one. There are loads of taxi firms in London and currently consumers have no genuine reason to choose my service over another provider. This is just a business. It’s certainly not a brand.
A good brand has a unique proposition that is compelling to customers, giving them a very strong reason to choose that business in the face of competition.
I appreciate that most people will grasp the idea of having a selling point, a differentiator, a USP. But that is not necessarily a proposition. For instance, being the only taxi service to offer cars with red leather seats might be a differentiator. It might be unique. But it’s not a proposition upon which I should base my start-up.
But what makes a good proposition?
In simple terms, the proposition should be a marriage between a fundamental ‘market truth’ (a market insight), and the single most important thing your business does. This sounds more theoretical than it actually is in practice.
To help explain this simple unity between a truth, and a business function, here is my stab at the business idea behind some well-known brands and the market truths they address:
Truth: Soft drinks are full of additives and other stuff that’s bad for you, yet manufacturers aren’t clear to consumers about this.
Idea: Consumers would appreciate our honesty if we bottle real squashed fruit and nothing else. Innocent.
Truth: Technology is functional but ugly.
Idea: If we combine design and functionality, our technology will be more enjoyable and exciting to use. Apple.
Truth: Search engines often return poor quality listings because of their reliance on keywords.
Idea: We’ll create an algorithm that considers the relevance of content and therefore delivers far more reliable results. Google.
Truth: There are a huge number of books out there. So many that stores can’t possibly stock them all.
Idea: We’ll set up a virtual shop that can stock millions. Amazon (originally)
If you can articulate this simple marriage between a market truth and what your business does, you probably have the seed of a great brand. More to the point, you have the perfect elevator pitch for the stereotypical investor. You have your opening line to knock Deborah Meaden’s socks off. And if nothing else, you have a sensible way of checking if your start-up idea has legs.
PREPARING FOR COMPETITIVE MARKETS
At this point, you may be clicking your heels with glee, but what if it’s less clear cut than this? Perhaps you’re entering a market with very strong competitors. Perhaps the market appears saturated and all this talk of propositions and truths has you sobbing into your business plan. It shouldn’t. Because in this case, thinking about your business as a brand will ensure you enter the market with your strongest foot forward.
Regardless of your situation, the rules don’t change. You still need a proposition based on a truth, on a key piece of insight. The only difference is that the market truth and therefore proposition is more difficult to spot. And you might need some research and planning and maybe an agency’s help to find it.
For example, let’s look at my poor flailing taxi service. In the real world, it would be faced with the playground bully, Uber, a company worth an estimated $50bn with vast technological resources. But robust research and planning could reveal a number of opportunities in the market.
The approach – One option would be to segment the market. I take a smaller percentage of the people in the country who use taxis, but by being more focussed and therefore targeted, I ensure that I ‘own’ that segment, rather than battling for every man and his kebab.
The truth (Insight) – The insight here is that other taxi services, including Uber, might well be efficient, but the experience and level of service from one driver to another is still very inconsistent.
The idea – In this case, I would have a far more focused proposition to target only vulnerable travellers; the elderly, perhaps young people travelling alone, maybe the ill or disabled.
The outcome – If my proposition and therefore my business met the needs of these consumers, I create a niche in the market where Uber, for all its clout, will struggle to establish substantial credibility. Although I’m not looking to beat Uber into submission, my little taxi firm may still give them a bloody nose.
So, even if the odds appear to be stacked against you, some planning and research will reveal how you can turn your start-up into a competitive brand.
DON’T BE PRECIOUS
I suppose my final bit of advice would be: if the market truth and therefore the proposition aren’t clear to you, stop.
Have a re-think. Speak to a friendly agency before you waste time and money heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps you need to do some research. Maybe review your service. Invest in product development before launch. Adopt a different positioning.
Planners spend a great deal of time unravelling new business ventures because they’re simply not competitive. Your friends and family will be supportive of your start-up idea, but not necessarily honest. Think of your business as a brand and you won’t fall at the first hurdle.
Planning underpins everything we do here at Ponderosa. Drop in for a chat and pick our brains about your start-up.