Never lose the start-up mentality; Act like a start-up, even if you’re a well established company,

Never lose the start-up mentality

Act like a start-up, even if you’re a well established company, advises our entrepreneurial columnist.

Martin Luther King perhaps unwittingly captured the essence of the start-up spirit when he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” Photo: GETTY IMAGES

By Michael Hayman

9:09AM GMT 29 Oct 2013

My team is thrilled. The Start-ups 100, the listing of the most inspiring early stage businesses in Britain, has just ranked us as No.11. It’s a landmark for us. Not least because from next year we will cease to “officially” be a start up; we will have moved on to the ranks of the grown-ups. Indeed, some of the feedback we have had on the ranking is that many never really considered our firm as a struggling start-up anyway. We did, still do, and this is why.To my mind the most dangerous moment for a business is when it no longer sees itself as a start-up and loses that entrepreneurial spirit.

This spirit inspires people to relentlessly do more, go further, give the very best of themselves. And it is most potent and precious in the early days when the chips are most clearly down.

Martin Luther King perhaps unwittingly captured the essence of the start-up spirit when he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” The start-up culture is about fierce activity, urgently undertaken with the keenest sense of its impact on the present. It galvanises young firms to achieve incredible feats through the power of belief.

It’s an ethos that goes beyond the confines of business. In his new autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson states that, “a constant tactic of mine was always to have players on the edge, to keep them thinking it was always a matter of life and death. The must-win approach.”

When we set up our firm we stated that we aspired to be the Saatchi of this decade. It is an audacious and unreasonable ambition that any sane review of the facts would confirm as far-fetched. We don’t believe so.

The reason is that the start-up spirit is, at its essence, an asset of the heart not the head. It is emotional and requires a simple ingredient to work: belief.

But it’s also a highly volatile and intangible asset. You can’t make a provision for it in your forecasts. It can corrode badly and disappear quickly.

I think it is best described as the Cinderella asset. You never know quite what you have until you’ve lost it.

The big start-up spirit slayer is the grinding energy required to maintain it. We describe our firm as having an “always on” mentality. My concern is: how long and how far can you take an attitude like this? How long before a business simply exhausts itself or gets ground down by the day-to-day?

The second assassin is comfort. As you get bigger, people start to buy into the siren belief that somehow size equates to safety. You’ve done your time, it’s somebody else’s turn to slog it out on the front line.

It gets worse. As time marches on and teams develop that weren’t there for those start-up days, it becomes harder to focus the organisational mind on maintaining that extreme energy and focus.

Irony of ironies, the third enemy at the gates can often be success itself. When we started our firm, a big part of the thinking was that small is smarter, small is more agile, better value and, most importantly, a prize for clients.

Of course, as the market buys this message you grow. So, avoiding becoming the very thing you set up not to be is an overriding challenge.

The fourth and final challenge is heartbreak. How do you stop the corroding effect of failure, of setbacks, of losing? What happens when the world teaches your business a brutal truth?

The pressing period of risk for most businesses is the first 1000 days of trading. Only one in every three firms will make its third birthday. But these tough times don’t go away; risk is your everyday companion.

To counter this, businesses such as Facebook have whole teams now charged with maintaining the start-up culture and they are right to do so. Maintaining that flame is much more than a melancholic yearning for the past; it’s an essential part of the survival tool kit.

Most of the entrepreneurs I know, when they are recounting the story of their business, will provide animated accounts of those early days. Indeed, it often provides the rationale for everything that follows. The triumph of hope or guile over adversity.

But, of course, life moves on. Today’s cute baby start-up soon becomes the adolescent. To mix a metaphor, the agile David can, some years later, wake up to find themselves a bloated Goliath.

And while the risks for start-ups are well documented, the pitfalls for larger firms are less well profiled but no less acute. The mistake is to think that because you’ve survived the start-up phase that you are somehow safer. Unfortunately it’s no rite of passage to an easier life.

Lehman Brothers, Woolworths, Comet, Enron. The list of names, that you might quite reasonably have thought would be around for the distance, turned out to be as fragile as the most brittle of young start-ups. Jeopardy and volatility abound.

The start-up culture is emotional, fragile and precious. Look after it.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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