Why you need a start-up mentality to work with start-ups

With 5.7m SMEs now operational in the UK, with a 14% increase in size in the last year alone, there are huge opportunities for companies offering services that aid and expedite business growth. Working in the communications industry, this is music to our ears. We know that, at some point, a start-up is going to want to start telling people what it is doing. But is it possible to work with a start-up if your company is not in the same place? Would a multi-million-pound communications agency know how to effectively work with start-ups, or even want to, given that revenue generation might at the outset be limited, as investment in brand and marketing is unlikely to be an immediate priority?

Fifteen months ago, I started a business with no clients and no investment, but with a service to sell. I felt that a strategic communications agency predominantly focused on helping seed to series B companies get to their next phase of growth had huge potential. Being in the same shoes as those businesses – being in that start-up mentality – arguably helped us establish ourselves because we inherently understood what start-ups need to grow, what their biggest pain points are, and what choices they need to make. Here are the top three things that we would advise every SME to take into consideration when building their business and their brand.

  1. Budget planning – a common mistake that new business owners make is thinking that, as long as they can get their hands on enough investment, they will be able to launch and scale effectively. This may well be the case but, to achieve this, they will need a defensible, realistic and granular budget. Not least because any prospective investor will ask for this before they hand over the cash, but also because wise spending at the beginning will give any business a longer runway. Every penny should be accounted for. This is the same for a small comms agency. We need to know everything coming in and going out to ensure that we can resource accordingly and plan for any potential issues, such as a client reducing its budget, which is a common occurrence with start-ups.

  1. Team building – when starting a company, it is absolutely essential that you put the right team in place from the start. Given you don’t have the funds to train multiple replacements, it’s critical to identify the key roles needed for growth and to fill those with people who absolutely fit the criteria, who have a proven track record of delivery, and who share your vision and values. The same applies when you start a communications consultancy and you have clients with specific needs. Unlike big agencies you can’t just hire generalists; sometimes you need to be much more prescriptive as you don’t have the flexibility to move people around accounts.

  1. Protect what’s yours – be that intellectual property (IP) or ideas, don’t give too much away when you are starting out and make sure that everyone and everything is under NDA. Unlike bigger companies you neither have a legacy of making great products nor a recognisable brand. Equally, you don’t have a broad portfolio or other business streams from which you can draw on if things go wrong. You therefore need to be super careful about how much you share with people, while simultaneously providing enough insight to generate interest. I have seen companies which have not protected their IP, and which have suddenly found another company with more money, with which they have had previous dealings, doing a similar thing. It put them out of business. Agency wise, I have also been guilty of giving away too many ideas ‘for free’ only to find companies ‘changing their mind’ about using an agency and then activating those ideas – my IP – internally.

Obviously, these are only three insights of many, which are instrumental in helping to ensure the success of a start-up. Whilst businesses of any size can be impacted by not taking the above approach, it carries far less risk for companies which are already established or have big cash reserves.

Written by Julia Herd, founder and managing director of marketing agency Five in a Boat