Business Planning

The conundrum of entrepreneurial culture

Business Advice | 21 October 2016 | 8 years ago

office culture
Startup founders should be professionally gutted but privately thrilled when a close colleague decides to leave to launch their own venture
In his latest blog post, Small Business Charter chairman and ByBox CEO Stuart Miller discusses what it means to instil and maintain an entrepreneurial culture at your startup.

Ask any entrepreneur to rank their company’s most powerful assets and you can bet that culture? will always feature in the top three.

Ask them to describe their culture and they will invariably use language such as can do, disruptive? or never say die.

While the entrepreneur might set the cultural tone, it’s the troops that bring it to life. Therein lies the conundrum of an entrepreneurial culture: some of those troops who have experienced first-hand the alchemy of entrepreneurship will eventually leave to launch their own venture.

How you manage that transition is critical to the future of your company and its most important assets.

Practise what you preach

I should declare that I have form in this area. Since I started ByBox over 16 years ago, we have helped five close colleagues to fly the nest and launch their own ventures. So I have experienced all of the emotions that go with this kind of thing.

My first reaction has always been the same: professionally gutted, personally thrilled. it’s identical to the feeling you have when a female colleague tells you she is pregnant.

The authenticity of your personal reaction matters most by a million miles. Let’s be clear this is not about smiling on the outside whilst fuming internally. You really should be truly delighted for them on a human level for one absolutely critical reason.

Go back to when you started your first venture. Why did you start that company and what did you tell your staff? Chances are, your opening speech would have closely resembled a David-versus-Goliath mantra. You would have painted a passionate picture of how the idea in your head would revolutionise a corner of the world for the better.

The incumbents in your market needed a good kick up the pants and you were the ones to give it to them. Your call-to-arms would no doubt have broadened into a rant about the critical role that entrepreneurs play in the success of any economy. After all, we are the people who truly create new jobs. So praise be to our collective bravery and commitment to the cause. And so on.

Now suddenly one of your loyal lieutenants is off to follow the same path. Stop for a second and think about how completely hypocritical it would be if you did anything other than celebrate their courage.

Of all the people in their world, you should be the proudest. Be really careful here, because if you are genuinely not delighted that your alumnus is about to be blessed with another addition to the entrepreneurial tribe, then your founding mantra was clearly one big lie.

This is the deadliest of slippery slopes if your colleagues no longer believe that your core mission is for the greater good, then presumably your driving force is purely personal gain? If that is true or if people believe it is true then your once all-conquering entrepreneurial culture will crumble in a flash.

Lock-ins don’t breed loyalty

One of the most common acts of self-delusion for a CEO is to think that share options satiate would-be entrepreneurs. The best entrepreneurs never start companies to get rich they do it because they have no choice. It is in their blood to rebel and create and the life sacrifices go so far beyond the few quid they will forego in share options. To be clear, this is not a reason to ban share options they are a very fair way to distribute wealth. Just don’t fall into the trap of believing they will make any soon-to-be entrepreneur think twice about leaving.

Far better to take the lead set by Mike Jennings an Oxfordshire-based business park entrepreneur. For over a decade Mike has pioneered a refreshingly liberating approach to how his business parks tie-in their tenants.

Put simply, he doesnt bother. There are no legal contracts or any form of lock-in. The tenants are free to leave whenever they please. This has created a wonderful entrepreneurial community that positively encourages business to grow and move on when the time is right. This honest approach to business means that Mike knows well in advance when his tenants are likely to leave. You could do a lot worse than to treat your troops like Mike’s treats his tenants.

Help them with cash and contacts

So it is as simple as wishing them well and having a good leaving do? No. If you are genuinely committed to entrepreneurship (and you should be) then you can do far more to help them in those critical early years.

Again, think back to when you were starting out on your own. What were the things you needed most? No doubt cash and contacts were high on your list.

Am I suggesting that you give them cash? Sort of. I don’t mean investing in their business that is a different matter. But why not let them wind-down to four/three/two days a week over three months but pay them full-time? Fund their first web site using your existing provider? Pay for their first batch of business cards, stationery and office furniture? Be honest you will probably spend more on your Christmas party then all of those things put together.

And then there’s your contacts. Nothing could be more useful to a first-time entrepreneur than some fast-tracked introductions to your network. Credibility and potential customers in one hit. Of course their very first customer should be you.

So celebrate rather than castigate. Support them in the early years and stay in touch over the long-term. And don’t be surprised when your entrepreneurial culture becomes even stronger as a result.

Stuart Miller is Small Business Charter chairman and ByBox CEO?

Read more from Stuart about the’supposedly “black art” of entrepreneurial pivoting

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