How Start Ups Eat Elephants

Author: Bernard Clarke @berneeclarke

When we see another person's success, it can appear like it just happened for them. What we do not see are the many, many steps they took on the way. Success so often comes from lots of little steps.

A wise gentleman once spoke to me about how to overcome, what seemed to me, like an insurmountable task. “Bernard,” he said, “stop worrying about the task and focus on completing an action. ANY action. Think about it, if you had to eat an elephant, how could you do it?” My first reply was not one he took well, “With a blooming big fork!” “No,” he patiently replied, “The size of your fork is irrelevant. You eat an elephant one mouthful at a time. That’s it.”

What my wise friend was reminding me of was the need to move from the all-important big picture – even if it is an enormously big picture – to the first action I needed to take. Yes the task I faced was hard but it would never get any smaller if I did nothing but worry.

Talking again to a group of start-ups recently I was reminded of my friend's 'How to eat an elephant' advice.

They were discussing their business ideas and how to form a plan that they could turn them into reality. They were daunted by the opportunity and with no-one else to make the final decision for them they needed help to work out how to make their business ventures a success. They felt in a catch-22 situation – that everything they need to decide upon is connected to other information they do not yet have. So, where could they start?

Let’s start with the idea, as that seems logical; after all you need an idea to create something new. However, I’ve seen many people have wonderful ideas that are weird, confused or maybe even excellent but so fleeting they never get them finished. An idea is a helpful place to start but you need much more.

How about their skills? Again this is a logical answer. Start-ups are heavily reliant on the person who founds them; their skills and knowledge play a big part in how fast (or slow), big (or small) the business becomes. A good SWOT analysis is an essential part of a business plan and often connects closely with the strengths and weaknesses of the founder. Yet, to do a SWOT we need a detailed plan but to do a detailed plan we need the SWOT analysis!

So let’s go for a good opportunity as the kick off point. This could be handy because for a business to work it needs to solve a problem for others that they are willing to pay for. An opportunity might be a gap in the market, an invention, a need or a failing by existing companies. All this is great stuff for a business plan but how do you know that there is a market in this gap?

This is where market research is required. A good plan takes time to identify ways and means to prove its viability. Primary research with potential customers on price, product, place and promotion can be invaluable. Desk research gathering data on potential customers is superb but who are these customers? How can the founder possibly narrow them down yet? How can we market the product well, and often the question is better framed - how on earth do we market the product? Founders are often highly skilled technicians not experienced business managers nor even hardened sales reps.

So let’s cut to the chase and look at the money. We need to cost out the business to gauge profit and cash flow. Ah, but the founder will find it hard to count the future pennies if they have not scoped their market and capacity, or researched sales volumes, or tested the idea, or maybe trialled the service. But without the right costs how do they know the idea is worth pursuing?

Thus the questions a start-up needs to ask are all interconnected. The challenge for start-ups is to start somewhere in their planning. Anywhere in fact. A business plan might have an order but its compilation does not.

The American businessman Lea Iacocca is quoted as saying:

The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

It is only when we begin to articulate the plans outside of our own head that we can assess them ourselves and share them with others for a review. Whatever we start with will inform the next stage; what you learn in the next stage may (in fact almost certainly must) cause you to change your starting point. The skill of the entrepreneur is to make sense of the business opportunity and create a viable, profitable company from the complex tapestry they are viewing. It is why starting a business is not such an easy task. Millions do manage it every year; two thirds dissolve their company within three years.

If you are going to eat an elephant a start-up needs to take it one bite at a time; preferably exhausting their options in the planning stage, because when the business begins it becomes even harder to eat the elephant whilst it is ‘up and running’!

So, if you are a budding business owner, look around for a piece of paper and a pen (or the nearest electronic writing device of your choosing) and begin. What happens next is the ‘magic’ of being the boss!

Disclaimer: Please note, no elephants were harmed in the writing of this piece and the author does not advocate in any way the attacking one of the world’s most majestic and precious creatures :-).