Navigating the formative stages of a business

Here, we interview two small companies about starting up, the challenges they faced and how they survived the first year.

Starting up a business inevitably faces trials, tribulations and a generous amount of challenges. After time, you begin to realise what works for your company, what doesn’t work, and ultimately what factors indicate the right direction for your business. A small company is where your business begins; a period in which yourself and your business face a crucial learning curve. But when your determination remains strong, you begin to see your business succeed and grow. Ensuring you boast a team who share the same vision as you will encourage a bright future for your company and the path it will take.

In order to gain an understanding around how small businesses drive their success, we interview two small companies to gain interesting evidence for others to adhere to.

Interviewees are Alex Outlaw, co-founder of fashion brand The Idle Man (AO), and Swetha and Jonah Batambuze, co-founders of online boutique Kampind(SB)

What made you decide to start the business?

AO: Oliver was working at ASOS and thought menswear was massively overlooked and so came up with the idea of The Idle Man; a one-stop shop for guys interested in looking good rather than following the latest trends. He felt frustrated that menswear was often an afterthought, either stuck in the basement of a shop with womenswear taking pride of place or, online, a one-size-fits-all approach that most retailers had taken.

I’d been working in the menswear content arena during the heyday of the big lads’ mags; Loaded, FHM, Zoo and Nuts, learning and understanding what they wanted and how they used online to get it. The style sections were only increasing in popularity along with the websites vs print yet I still felt that there wasn’t an e-tailer that really capitalised on and delivered to this growing demand.

Sure, there was the likes of Mr Porter in the premium sector but that was about it. I was in my early 30s and had outgrown the likes of the normal menswear high street brands and hated having to wade through thousands of products on the other online giants. So when we met via a mutual friend we hit it off straight away. I quit my job as marketing director at a fashion/tech start-up and joined the business in the basement of his dad’s shop just under two years ago. Since then we have been growing at 150 per cent with a turnover of more than £1 million and have added 20 staff.

SB: 2014 brought with it the birth of our first child who served as the inspiration for our Double Dribble Bandana bibs and Blankies. Like all new parents, we spent the early days investigating the best strollers, cots, organic towels, shampoos and clothing. We wanted our baby to have the best products that made her feel and look good. When we went shopping for multicultural products that reflected our heritages, Indian and Ugandan respectively, we always came up short. It was with the realisation of this gap in the market that the handmade, Double Dribble line was born.

What difficulties did you face in the first year and how did you overcome them?

AO: It’s all been really challenging, from the basics of finding office space to building a core team and really getting the message out there about The Idle Man. We’ve had to watch every penny and then some but it’s all worth it when you get positive feedback. Whether it’s industry professionals or our most important actual customers it helps you realise you are on the right path.

SB: There were numerous difficulties in the first year to overcome such as; maintaining production of quality handmade product, shipping costs and customs between US and UK, and creating a responsive website able to cater to US/UK customers. We tapped into our existing network with diverse skillsets, and also placed an advertisement to outsource certain components of the production. Using the internet, we were able to find a cheaper and more reliable shipping provider that cut costs. We invested in two Shopify websites with a redirect between the two allowing them to appear seamless to US/UK users. 

What tips do you have for new start-ups looking to survive their first year of business?

AO: Try and set goals and, most importantly, stick to them! It is natural that with so many things to do and avenues to explore that you get pulled in so many different directions. But if you and, most importantly, your small team understands what the number one priority is then it will help to keep everyone working to the same goal.

Don’t do things that don’t scale. Don’t invest huge amounts of time in building process/systems and, even worse, code that might not work. It is all too tempting to think we need an all-singing, all-dancing IT system but in reality you could have done it with a basic excel sheet. ‘The lean startup’ by Eric Ries is a great read. Recruiting the right people is also incredibly important. Yes, you want ‘A-players’ on the team but you also need people that share your vision and who are prepared to work hard and be self-starters. My advice would be to ensure you recruit for cultural fit.

SB: We recommend that start-ups keep initial investment low while they learn about their businesses and prove they are viable. Obtaining early exposure via word-of-mouth marketing and earned media is vital to educating your target audience about your product. Social media is free of charge, and is a great way to promote their services and reach influencers in their respective marketplaces. We also recommend participating in markets, speaking to shop owners about stocking your goods and trying to obtain as much customer insight as possible. Initial feedback allows you to alter your product to hone in on your ideal customer.

Indeed a diverse range of businesses exist and competition is always high. But what is most important for your small business is ensuring that you only focus on factors that lead to a positive outcome. Mistakes may be made and hiccups may be had, but these are mere encouragements in informing you what works for your business and what doesn’t. Focus on your ideal target audience, not other companies around you as all business’ function differently. Once you acknowledge the best route for your business, be sure to see growth and success!

Stephen Verber specialises in corporate finance and heads up the forensic accounting department at Alexander & Co. He is also a member of The Academy of Experts.

Further reading on setting up a company

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