What would you do differently if you started your business again from scratch today?
Startup mentality is what every company in the world needs to thrive not just survive in today’s highly competitive environment. Perry Haydn Taylor explains why.

As a brand owner you won’t be surprised to hear that times are getting harder and businesses are facing a myriad of new pressures. Unless you have a unicorn business you will almost certainly be suffering from growing pains as markets become increasingly saturated with new entrants chasing the same or fewer consumers with more money. If that’s not the case with your business then don’t bother reading on as you’re doing just fine!

However, if like the 99.9% of other business leaders who are under immediate pressure from legislators and consumers to radically reform their companies into climate considerate ones then this article is for you.

Just about every business in the world is having to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategy in some shape or form thanks to the climate emergency. And, if they’re not doing that right now, they should be because time is running out. But what has all this got to do with a startup mentality and why should you adopt it?

The fact is that unless leaders use this opportunity to reboot and rethink their models and strategies for growth most will end up left behind those that do. If you want to be in business over the long term you need to start asking yourself and your teams some difficult questions. Insurgent new comers have never had more of an unfair advantage of not having sunk capital into initiatives that are rapidly becoming out of date, inefficient or even illegal!! Not only that, but those challengers are able to attract new money at higher valuations than incumbents because of attractive growth rates and potentially lucrative returns. There’s never been a better time to be the “second mouse that gets the cheese.”

The business landscape as we know it is changing so fast with a switch from profit to people and planet, from indulgence to health, from fashion to anti-fashion, etc. Whole categories are being challenged, not just the brands within them. Companies like Netflix and Spotify have removed the need for hard copy CDs and DVDs. As Tom Goodwin points out in his book, Digital Darwinism, companies like Uber don’t own a single taxi yet are the biggest taxi firm in the world. AirB&B are the biggest hotel group but don’t own a single hotel, etc. Entrepreneurs are building new ways of doing business that are literally wiping out vast swathes of old school businesses and it’s going to accelerate.

At big fish®, we’ve spent the last two years working with the incredible Picnic who are a Dutch firm that have removed the need for supermarket shelves! Within just 5 years they’ve raised a billion euros, hired over 10,000 people and now serving 100’s of thousands of consumers their weekly groceries taking share from the incumbent bricks and mortar players. And what’s more is they are significantly more climate considerate and efficient. They don’t have vast infrastructure that’s out of date. Their technology is tight and slimmed down to suit the consumer’s needs without being compromised by legacy integration. They hire people with little or no category experience to prevent a lack of new thinking. I could go on but I won’t! These guys are the ultimate example of a business that has startup mentality.

These and many other big players who embed and nuture startup mentality in their businesses are the ones who actually get shit done. They’ve broken the 20 levels of management indecision, they relentlessly focussed on sustainable growth and have built cultures on simple team structures all of whom are able to speak truth to power to one another.

They’ve ignored conventional wisdoms that prevent them from doing things because of a fear of failure. They focus on the future and don’t dwell in the past. They never got caught in the trap of inertia as a result of decision making by committee. They all think and behave as if they were a startup even though they’re no longer a startup! How? because they have leaders who actively encourage it.

Why does it have to be a startup mentality? Surely mature businesses have many unfair advantages. The answer is simple. When a business starts up it is free to do as it pleases. It simply looks at the market, sees what’s broken and sets out to fix one or more problems that will draw consumers in. It usually has a clear purpose, clear proposition and doesn’t waste time and money on things that won’t make a difference. They reach consumers like innovators and early adopters because those people will happily shiny new offers. However, as these startups mature into adolescents they begin to experience issues. As Bain often say, complexity is the enemy of growth. As team sizes grow and communication becomes harder, these businesses are faced with the job of driving penetration.

It’s at these stages of growth that they start to forget why they started the business in the first place. They lose institutional memories as people leave because the culture has changed. They lose sight of the bigger picture and their original purpose as small problems escalate into big challenges. They hire people who bring in systems and processes which are vital for scale but also, ironically can slow things down and damage culture. Those people are great but they’re different to the one’s you hired when you were a startup.

Your new people tend to be a bit more linear and organised than the chaos mongers who were around at the start. In those days people just did stuff without researching it first or asking anyone for a budget! Yes it was chaos and yes it wasn’t scalable, but my goodness it was more fun and actually more effective in its own way.

If only one could distill the best of both worlds. If only there was a way of combining that entrepreneurial power and scale it. That’s where startup mentality comes in. It allows structured, well organised but perhaps slightly lost souls to decant the best of their business into a refreshingly focussed and actionable strategy that will transform them rapidly and effectively into businesses fit for the next generation.

The current biggest challenge that most businesses face is turning themselves into climate considerate companies. This is a Herculean task that requires a deep understanding of the science of climate change, the various approaches to reducing one’s impact and a whole universe of experts and snake oil salesmen to vet. Who are the experts? Who are the lazy sensationalists? Who are the con artists? Which people do you listen to? The ones who confirm your biases or the ones who speak truth to power?

Our startup mentality programme is designed to cut through the bullshit and focus your team on where the sustainable growth lies and how to cost effectively reach your goals with minimum impact on the planet and maximum impact on your top and bottom lines. Whatever the challenges you face, the time and focus spent in rethinking your proposition from the ground up is never wasted. This process will disclose things you never thought of. It will help you rethink your supply chains, optimise what you have and remove barriers to growth. Every business is different. There may be many things you need to revisit or perhaps just one. Whatever the business, the first step is the same. It starts with one question which will lead you on a journey of rediscovery right back to your purpose and core strategy.

Once that’s done it’s time to set about helping your team build a revised plan for the long-term that will deliver growth without carnage!

You don’t need us to help you. This is something you can do without consultants if you wish. It simply requires discipline and focus.

Here’s what you need to kickstart the process.

Firstly there are two key behaviours that everyone in the process must adopt.

1. The ability to speak truth to power.

2. The ability to think big, dive deep and swim fast

If people can’t sign up to either of these then you must politely ask them to step out of the process.

Why is speaking truth to power so important?

Startups don’t care about the past. In fact, they laugh at the incumbent players and point out all their stupid mistakes. Just like the second mouse looking at the first mouse lying dead in the trap and saying “what a fool” And as the second mouse takes the cheese and walks off they think to themselves “where are all the other traps?”

If people are sensitive to what’s gone before, to having their work criticised then they will never embrace the new. In general, people who avoid conflict or speaking their mind find it almost impossible to change. They will be reluctant passengers and get in the way. So, politely ask them to get onboard the bus or stay behind. The bus is leaving and there’s no room for naysayers. As Wim Hoff says, “criticism polishes the diamond of truth!”

Startup mentality requires people to be compassionate but objective. People who can empathise but still remain objective are more effective than people who are easily upset. This may sound harsh, but the startup mentality process isn’t for everyone. That said, any organisation should require its people to be able to accept criticism and not take things personally or put others needs before their own. If you can achieve this you will find you have direct but highly effective people on your team. Everyone needs to put their egos and fear of failure to one side.

Armies are built on this. They do away with all that emotional stuff and simply rely on a system where everyone pre-agrees to being given clear direct instructions without being offended. Clear, direct, succinct, actionable. If they didn’t do this they’d spend their lives tippy toeing around each other inviting people to a group huddle to consider whether or not they’d like to attack the enemy!

Imagine the Ukrainian infantry soldiers stopping to jump on a Zoom workshop to group-think how they’d each like to deal with the imminently advancing Russian tanks firing on them! The enemy would have a field day. What they need at that point is clear instruction from a single source without delay. However, they need to trust that source and know that what they’re doing is for a cause and that there’s a master strategy. Their ultimate purpose is to preserve freedom and justice for their people and future generations.

In the case of climate change, the enemy is less visible or tangible than Russian tanks. The enemy are shockingly poor human behaviours that aren’t going to wait around to be politely asked to move on.

The biggest baddest behaviours that have the greatest potential impact are:

Investing – where we put our money
Policy making – the laws we agree to abide to
Innovation – the solutions we come up with
Consumer habits – the things we do everyday

To help fix primary climate change issues ALL businesses must start by acknowledging an uncomfortable truth which is that 99.9% of all businesses aren’t climate considerate. Every firm has some kind of negative impact on the planet by dint of existing! Even the greenest of green ones have an impact. Greenpeace has an impact as do any charities fighting for net zero. The point is that transforming your business for the next generation and making it more climate considerate is the first step. This is about starting something and then sticking to it in perpetuity relentlessly pursuing better.

To make a meaningful impact most organisations will need to make pretty radical changes in the next 3 years. That requires their leaders to be objective and self aware and open to heavy duty criticism. Most of us over the age of 50 have committed all sorts of crimes against the planet without even knowing it. So, it’s time to make amends and lead your teams into battle with renewable energy and an invincible spirit!

More often than not, radical action is required to turn businesses around. Most management theories advise against this (rightly so) because it can seriously jeopordise the performance of a company. These things take time. The problem is that we don’t have any time left, which is why adopting a startup mentality is required. Every company on the planet should see this challenge of climate change as an opportunity not a threat. We literally need every business to “turnaround” and reverse the things they’re doing that are causing global warming issues.

Mostly this starts by having to listen to uncomfortable truths. That process means everyone of us has to toughen up and be more effective at listening to the scientists, the insights, identifying the issues within our firms and then making change happen.

It means being interviewed by seemingly cynical attackers out to trip you up. They’re intentionally trying to find the darkest places that perhaps you feel you’d rather not have exposed to the outside world. Accepting that we haven’t done a great job and are suffering the consequences is a key step.

This process is not about patting ourselves on the back and saying we’re great. It’s about recognising that we got things wrong because we thought we knew better. It means accepting that we aren’t perfect and that the only way to improve is to embrace criticism and relentlessly pursue better. And then keep doing that.

We need things to change fast which means we need to be more like the army. Accept criticism, put our egos to one side, take the truth onboard and face up to the hard realities. Having done that you are ready to re-build your startup and put a plan back together.

So, how do we ensure that people can accept criticism without turning them into hedgehogs or becoming depressed or demotivated? Within my own company I’m literally the worst person in the world at this as my team will testify. I constantly say the wrong things which then have unintended consequences that often lead me to being called up by the HR department asking me to apologise.

But with clients and anyone who isn’t on my payroll I seem more able to get a point across without offending anyone. There’s a reason for this. It’s because I’m on the inside. That’s the weird dynamic of employer and employee relationships. However, when an external person comes along and says exactly the same thing it’s taken totally differently. In fact, they embrace criticism like you wouldn’t believe. This is perfectly understandable because, as their boss, I’m the one who reviews their work and they look to for support and validation. Whereas an external consultant is simply there to observe, provoke and recommend. It may sound subtle, but that psychological nuance makes all the difference. Who knows why? Anyway, the fact is that speaking truth to power via a third party always seems easier for people as does accepting new ideas.

One could argue that good leaders don’t have this problem. Their management skills should overcome these issues surely? Well, the big news is that visionary leaders are usually terrible managers for precisely this reason. Leaders come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of directness. Most successful leaders are always looking way into the future and not worrying about the short term. That’s why they are quite often insensitive to the feelings of the people who live in the present and who have helped get where they are today. People tasked with integrating a vision and making it happen aren’t thinking about five years’ time, they’re worrying about how to make today happen!

So, when the leader says “we’ve got to get better at doing x, y or z” it’s seen as a negative rather than as an opportunity. Relentless pursuit of better is hard for most people and exhausting too! However, in times where things must change at speed, this is an important point that requires skill and sensitive restructuring. People who are blind to their own failures and weaknesses make terrible leaders in my experience.

by Perry Haydn Taylor, Founder & Chief Stoker at big fish®
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