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Learning To Be Small Again: Start-Up Thinking (and Acting)

Learning To Be Small Again: Start-Up Thinking (and Acting)
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Checking in at the three-month mark of 2018, do you feel like you’re in a better or worse place than you were one year ago? We’d venture a guess that regardless of how that pulse feels, you’re probably hearing more and more buzz around boardrooms and water coolers that includes words and phrases like “agility, innovation, and startup culture.”

Before you roll your eyes and say, “that’s precious,” take a second to consider why “Startup Thinking” was identified as one of the key themes of 2018 for fashion brands in McKinsey and Business of Fashion’s joint year-end report. The reason why? Today’s fashion camp can resoundingly be divided into three parties - those on the brink, those who were on the brink but have put some space between themselves and the cliff’s edge, and those taking market share by the demographic-load from the former two groups. With the pace at which the market moves, this is a reality that cannot be ignored and it’s precisely why innovation culture is top-of-mind these days.

So how can a company whose history can be measured in decades - particularly those whose establishment well pre-dated the internet - act like one of those WeWorking, draft latte drinking cool kid crews we hear so much about? Well, to start, for some companies startup thinking has entailed buying small companies outright - Walmart being a prime example of this. And it’s the right idea - look outside for strengths and customer demographics that aren’t yours. But Walmart’s also a good example as to the challenges of this approach. One, it’s incredibly costly; all you have to do is read the recent headlines around the drag on the bottom line in conjunction with the slowing of their e-commerce growth, despite enormous investment in building out these very capabilities, to see that it’s not only expensive, but two, it also takes time. Yet this is only one approach, and for companies who may be less flush with cash - there are still ways and means to innovate.

It’s a topic we know a little about - we are a young company ourselves - and we also call some of the world’s biggest apparel brands our clients. It gives us a unique perspective on some key ways of thinking and most importantly, acting, that we think very much transferable to businesses big and small. So whether or not you have already had exposure to a “build, measure, learn” kind of project, listen up. We have some advice for you.

Embracing Uncertainty

For better or for worse, there are increasingly fewer things in this world that are certain - and those in the business of catering to today’s consumers know this all too well. Yet you can see different ways in which these businesses have reacted to the big unknown. Some continue on, head down and pretending things are business as usual. Others have become somehow frozen in inaction - with limited sightlines on what’s ahead - they’re unsure of which path to take. The other, and much less taken road, is that a business sends a small and intrepid group ahead, to explore those various paths and to report back on what exactly the road(s) ahead look like, and, this part is important, to actually start moving down a new path. Why so many businesses are either rocking those blindfolds or frozen isn’t news, what is headline-worthy is the increasingly shorter lifespan that such an approach guarantees. The other crucial point here is about the explorers - the group who needs to be empowered to go into that uncharted territory. (We'll talk more about that shortly.)

Here’s the thing about why startups willingly run straight into an uncertain future. They see the road ahead, not defined by their own history and the context of it, but more as something that they get to actively shape. As we’ve experienced firsthand at StyleSage, we also don’t have the luxury of being able to “wait until later to see if something works.” It’s “try it now, imperfect as it may be, or you might never have the chance to do it again.” On the surface, the idea of scarcity is terrifying - but embrace that stomach drop because on the other side of it, fear is gone and clarity on what’s possible is yours.

Unfortunately, however, a misperception of comfort (or lack of scarcity) is a trap into which lots of companies fall. Buffered by bureaucracy, the urgency doesn’t trickle down to those it needs to, which in turn can create a false sense of time being on your side. Look around you - for every retailer who has died (or is dying) the long and painful death - there are those whose demise was markedly rapid.

Empower Both Experience and Potential

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast?” (If it sounds familiar, it was coined by Peter Drucker, the grandaddy of all management consultants.) We’re dropping it in here because culture - the values, behaviors, and outcomes that are most important to a company - is defined and manifested by the people in its employ. And if there’s one thing that we at a start-up can tell you, it’s that the culture of the team, particularly in its youth, is a make-or-break factor. The shared culture of the team should optimally entail a mixture of people with experience and potential. As we already spoke about, moving with speed requires people who can readily adapt to shifting circumstances and quickly solve problems, and these are qualities people with potential inherently embody. The separation between potential and experience (aside from its realization) - is this - with experience comes fewer uncertainties and there’s also an ability to communicate and interact with stakeholders from top to bottom. Both potential and experience are important in change management, and we are big advocates that the two should mix and mingle for optimal results. In more established companies, there will be people who are cool with this, and those for whom, well, this is their worst nightmare embodied.

And that is why you have to start with identifying your champions (aka who is cool with this approach). Every team has one - the person who is communicative, asks questions, collaborates well, and has a high EQ. They’re also ideal because they’re the ones who will be able to not only rally others around the cause, they’ll also be able to spot and work around issues as they surface. When you have these champions operating across your business - there is strength in numbers - they also have others with whom they can consult when the going gets tough. And it will - no one said change is easy - but its foundation is people.

Celebrate Momentum

We’re betting that when you’ve most enjoyed your work - it’s been marked with supportive cast members and clarity on what you were striving to accomplish. On the flip side of that coin, you were lacking all of this and more. The positive reinforcement thing really is so critical - and it’s not just millennial therapy talk here - that we do need to not only feel, but also hear, positive reinforcement from those around us. These small but meaningful gestures have a way of sticking with you - when you're successful and when you're less so.

But let’s talk about celebrating those victories. We’re 100% serious here. It shouldn’t be underestimated. First, when you’re in a place of change - the truth is you may have to recalibrate your expectations on the size and scale of what defines a victory. Maybe it’s not landing a new client, it’s about scoring the opportunity to get in front of one because you’ve hustled to build that credibility, or maybe it’s getting critical feedback from an existing client that something you’ve created is indeed useful to them. Whatever it is your team has achieved - let them know - no matter how small or big their role was. At StyleSage, we use a Slack channel that lets us publicly brag on each other. For us it builds camaraderie and awareness of all the different types of contributions we each bring to the table.

Lest you think we’ve gone completely squishy on you, there is a “but” here. One of the things successful startups realize is that yes, you celebrate today, but acknowledge that tomorrow the winds could change. Only by realizing what you have come so far to achieve, will you be able to focus on successfully clearing your next hurdle.

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