The best start-ups are modifiers, not disruptors

“Less is more”, “playing the long-game”, “slow and steady wins the race” – these phrases are not synonymous with start-ups, but they are exactly how the best and most enduring businesses behave. Generally new companies do not burst on the scene in the way many of us would assume. There is often a significant build-up of growth before they appear on the public’s radar. During this time businesses will develop an idea around something that already exists and spend a huge amount of time tweaking and re-thinking it. Only then does a particular product or service begin to gain traction. This is of course the point they are lorded as a “disrupter” of any given industry, yet in fact, they are anything but.

The list of examples is endless; Facebook followed on from numerous other social media platforms, and their original version looked nothing like what we see today. James Dyson did not invent the first vacuum cleaner and he came up with over 5,000 different versions of the cyclone contained within it. And it isn’t a recent phenomenon either. Most famously, Thomas Edison frequently developed other people’s ideas and made them commercially viable. The light bulb for example, first came about over 40 years before Edison patented his in 1879.

Nuance and incremental gains are incredibly important for start-ups, though they can also act as a leaking bucket for a new businesses finance. This is exacerbated by those who believe that start-ups should make a significant and instantaneous impact. Encouraging such a mentality is a recipe for disaster, and yet public policy is often designed to do exactly that. Scottish Enterprise, an arm’s length government body, had previously channelled money to “disruptive” companies through its High-Growth Start Up Unit. Eligibility for their support required businesses to be ‘commercialising potentially disruptive intellectual assets…likely to achieve revenues of £5 million within five years’. Such policy only curtails the period start-ups use to develop good ideas and pushes them towards hedging their bets on the first one that comes to mind.

Support for start-ups should be over a longer timeframe and not all in one go. When Jo and I first started making Lashbrook Lassis we were quick to take advantage of government funding through the Innovate UK scheme. This allowed us to develop our lassis with a local university, yet we had very little idea how to manufacture yoghurt drinks. As a result, the brief we provided for this consultation was vague and in turn, the help we received did nothing to make our drinks commercially competitive. Once this become apparent, we couldn’t go back and ask for further assistance. The Innovate scheme was provided on a one-off basis, and if it didn’t work the first time, well, tough.

Innovation does not happen overnight, but through constant tinkering of particular ideas. However, the pressure and expectation to build a “disruptive” businesses is at odds with the incubation period that a start-up requires. And even then, they still only have a slim chance of success.

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