Problem Solver: Do I really need to take a startup course to go out on my own after 15 years?
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Q Having worked for 15 years for an employer, I am now starting my own business. I am being encouraged to do a startup course, which I feel is unnecessary after my years in business. What do you think?
A You are being given good advice. Most of these courses are run by your Local Enterprise Office and the general feedback I get from anyone who has completed them is very strong.
The fact that you have worked for a long period in industry will assist your business in a very big way and has probably allowed you to develop the business model you are planning to come to market with. You will, however, be dealing with lots of new areas which you have never encountered in the past, like tax, Vat, payroll, and doing your own book-keeping.
Many people who were formerly in industry don't pay enough attention to these headings and really struggle with them when their business goes live.
Don't underestimate the practical aspects of running a business which can sometimes be every bit as critical as generating sales and developing marketing programmes.
You will also find as you complete this course, you will be involved with a mix of 10 or 15 other businesses and the networking and knowledge-sharing through these groups can also be phenomenal. I wish you well and would really encourage you to do this course.
Q I am finding it increasingly difficult for my business to stand out in what has become a mature sector that I am trading in. My competitors have caught up with me and I am not sure what to do now.
A If you read many of the textbooks about how businesses and sectors evolve, what you are describing happens in most business sectors. The sector starts off with a small number of players who compete and create a competitive advantage over each other. As the decades progress, they improve their offers, copy each other and generally try to capture as much market share as they can. A point is eventually reached where there is very little difference between each of the operators.
While the above is true, I still subscribe to the idea that any business can continue to differentiate itself from its competitors for an unlimited period, but you have to look very closely at the business.
One of the things the team in Superquinn were very good at was identifying changes that could be made that would really benefit the consumer - like recognising that customers really wanted their vegetables to be ultra-fresh. We developed a scheme to cut and sell sensitive fresh products within 24 hours, so consumers buying lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, etc, could be guaranteed their product was at maximum freshness. While our competitors could all have done this, none of them spotted the opportunity until after we succeeded in attracting attention with the scheme. By the time they copied us, we had moved on to the next innovation.
Another simple example was when we guaranteed all of our steaks to be 100pc tender and offered to refund any customer that felt otherwise. We caught the market completely off guard and while our competitors could have put the same schemes into place, they didn't see the opportunity. We over-traded in beef for many decades while our competitors tried to catch up.
There are dozens of innovations to the operating model that you can make and I don't subscribe to the idea that this process ever stops. It is always possible to keep ahead of your competitors. Keep your team energised and focused and listen to your customers.