How small businesses can ditch the ‘start-up’ label

Anne de Kerckhove shares five top tips that will help SMEs shake off the start-up label and move into the larger playing field.

Advancing from start-up to a fully-fledged scale-up is still a subject of much debate and confusion for many business owners. When can we graduate and scale-up? What’s the difference between both types of businesses? Now that we’ve achieved growth in revenue, how do we turbo boost to the next level of scale-up? And what kind of next level are we aiming at? These are all questions that small business owners have to grapple with while planning their next strategic step.

In truth, the distinction between start-up and scale-up is very different, and understanding this is the key ingredient to a successful graduation. But this can be daunting as many may feel pressured to fit into the ‘traditional’ scaled-up business model and risk losing the identity they built as a start-up.

How do start-ups provide frictionless convenience to consumers on a much greater and global reach? How do business leaders grow a sustainable and enduring company? How do companies scale up even to meet emerging trends and develop their product offering?

There are a lot of questions to sift through and with it comes a lot of conflicting resolutions. Let’s break it down:

Know what you’re good at, and what you’re not

The first step in any new strategic phase is to establish an honest diagnosis of the status of your business, warts and all. Often, it’s useful for members of the C-Suite to experience all sections of the business – step out of the office and understand the realities employees are facing on the ground. For example, I became an intern in each department, from billing to customer service, to get hands-on experience, figuring out what we were uniquely good at, and where we could get better. This primary insight can be hugely valuable when pushing the business forward as it will help with the creation of key business objectives in areas that may not be weaker than others.

Discovering flaws isn’t a weakness. Taking the step to understand what the business is good at and what it’s not so good at will strengthen the resolve of the workforce and position the business as a forward-thinker, willing to innovate.

Be consistent with your identity

The next step is to be clear on your ambition. What are you shooting for? What is your vision? Don’t stick to incremental steps – believe in giant quantum leaps instead. This may mean rethinking the way your business works. Whether that is to transform the digital subscription space or launch an industry first; make sure your identity and branding is consistent, otherwise you run the risk of becoming lost, confused or even forgotten.

What you want your business to be also has to do with the values and culture. Are you about action, speed and experimentation? Do you pride yourself on exploring innovative and fresh ideas, that are thoroughly tested and backed with hard data? I encourage our talent to stretch, and to have fun while doing it. Growing and learning also means being transparent and honest: it leaves no room for defensiveness, but rather requires acknowledging weaknesses, mistakes and challenges, so you can all focus on finding solutions and keep improving. Collaboration, not only amongst your team, but also with the outside world, should be part of your DNA. Share expertise, ideas, capital and contacts —because by helping others grow, the business will grow faster as well.

Implement a ‘entrepreneurial’ staff mentality

Making a quantum leap means scaling up dramatically, which in turn requires leverage, cash and resource. I have worked at a range of organisations that scaled up fast, and constantly strived to ‘industrialise’ processes so things could be done better and faster, which validated the jump from start-up to scale-up.

What’s the real trick though? The answer is simple: it’s the people. Even if you have the best product in the world, without the people behind the scenes or those on the frontline, the product wouldn’t exist. Create a culture of entrepreneurs, rather than trying to do it all on your own – share the work, share the reward.

By doing so, the business’ foundation is strengthened with fresh ideas being explored from different areas and seniority that may have not been otherwise discovered. Encourage your employees to enjoy the creative freedom an entrepreneurial mind-set offers. This will encourage people to share ideas and feel less restricted. After all, a business starts and ends with its people.

Build a training ecosystem

Great ideas happen everywhere, not just within the four walls of your business. By creating and supporting an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and offering training programmes, academies and a chance to progress within the company, it will encourage employees to stick around. For example, share hands-on knowledge to those who are eager to learn.

Be open to answering questions and offer insight into what you’ve learnt, weaknesses, strengths and what kinds of skills you feel they are lacking. Not only does this show that you are proactively looking to grow your workforce professionally, but it also demonstrates your desire to include others in the development of the business. Give your employees something great to believe in, and give them the benefits they deserve for assisting in the success of your company.

Ditching the start-up label isn’t easy, but it can be manageable if you’re armed with the right tools and the right attitude. Understanding the business’ strengths and weaknesses, solidifying brand identity, treating employees as entrepreneurs and encouraging growth within the company, will help push the business forward.

Anne de Kerckhove is CEO of Iron.

Further reading on start-up companies

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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