The brutal truth for start-ups

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

I was at a conference the other day. In between hearing about a clever use for a QR code (yes there is one, but only one, and its in Korea) and learning about future digital innovation (everything will have the internet projected on it, still no hover boards) there was a session on ‘start-up incubators’. In all the talking one particular, and all too familiar, question kept being asked – “How do we behave more like entrepreneurs?”

Because to the people in this room, agency and brand folk that can afford to spend £500 to learn how attaching  an iPad to a supermarket trolley encourages people to buy more mayonnaise, harnessing the illusive ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is the holy grail. In that room it’s a shorthand for the ability to make decisions quickly without having to ask your horrid boss for permission, not having to worry when things go wrong because you can ‘learn from failure’, beta testing your minimal viable product in market rather than spending a soul crushing year in consumer research seeing all your dreams die, riding a Segway to work…

All that and then you can sell your app to Google and retire when you’re 22. Why this entrepreneur stuff sounds pretty awesome to me, let’s all get some of that. And as you’re reading this article on The Challenger Project this magical quality is probably something you, yes you, already have in spades. Hurray! Free Segway for everyone!

But of course there are some stark realities that are pushed to the back of the mind when daydreaming about this mythical fairyland of wealthy risk-taking entrepreneurial unicorns.

Stark Realities

  • Starting your own business is bloody hard work.
  • Loads of people fail, and even with all the learning they’re doing from it, they still fail
  • There’s a lot of personal risk involved.
  • It’s a lot easier to make a living working for someone else.
  • Everyone says ‘no one roots for Goliath’, but there’s a reason the market leader is successful – lots of people are buying their product. AND it’s in Goliath’s big scary interest to keep it that way.
  • Did I mention all the work and financial risk?

It is not enough to have a good product and good intentions and a hankering for some independence. The brutal truth is that if you build it they probably will not come.

But did that stop Kevin Costner from building a baseball field for his ghost dad? Of course it didn’t.

You’re going to do it. And it’s going to be tough. So you’re going to need to do something different to compete, to stand out in the market, and to attract people to your brand. You’re going to need to act like a challenger brand.

Challenger Mindset

At eatbigfish we define challenger as a mindset – so while challenger brands are not always the big no.2 brand against the bigger market leader, neither are they always new or small. It’s also a myth to say all challengers are shouty underdogs or moralising campaigners. In fact it is a very specific kind of company that actually fits the definition of a challenger – as well as having an ambition that exceeds the conventional resources at their disposal, they also need to be prepared to challenge something, and bound up in this challenge will be a very clear reason to exist.

This could be a burning desire to make the world a better place in some way – to fix something that is broken in the category, or to battle an issue in society. Often it’s sparked from a frustration – at the way things are currently done, or not being able to find a product or service to fulfil a need. Perhaps they have seen an opportunity to make something work better, or look better, or be simpler, or more entertaining.

Whatever it is, this is what those successful entrepreneurs and challenger brands have at their core. A reason. A reason beyond simply making money, a reason to jack in the day job, a reason to work so hard and risk so much.

I am aware this is not a huge revelation. Back in the nineties when Adam wrote Eating The Big Fish this way doing of business was pretty revolutionary, but now we hear it expressed all over the place – What does your brand believe? Where’s your purpose, your cause? Define the ‘why’? What’s your mission statement, where’s your manifesto? In fact it is so prevalent, and sometimes expressed so ineptly, it can seem a bit ridiculous. Surely a soap cannot be a feminist, it is soap. Is anyone actually that passionate about orange juice? How can a totebag fight for the environment? Surely a website isn’t built on values, it is built on code (and magic).

Objects don’t have opinions, and corporations don’t have feelings. That is true. But the people who create things, who decide to put them into the world – well they do. And the people who create brands that are able to communicate these beliefs and values in a way that is compelling to others (and to wrap them around a good product or experience), they are the ones who stand out, they draw likeminded people to them, and ultimately they the ones who are able to create successful businesses.

You know when you’re being authentic as a human being. You know what’s within your repertoire of behaviours, and you should know that for your brand as well.
— Heidi Brauer, ex-CMO of Kulula Airlines

Finding the 'Why?'

Whether you are a start-up or a brand builder we would say its vital to find your ‘why’, identify your mission, define your belief, write your manifesto. Do all of these things, and then build upon them. Rather than simply having a reason to exist, we say that true challengers create an identity. Not just a visual identity but a way of believing and behaving that is built into the very core of the business and defines everything you do.

So let’s assume you’ve taken that leap, or you are just about to. You’ve had the idea and you know your reason for doing it. Now you need to take those foundations and build your identity. One that is authentic to you and your values, but that also adds personality and depth to your brand. One that helps you decide what’s right and what’s wrong. One that helps you to stand out.