Entrepreneurship — it’s not all about beards

Startups are everywhere. With their beards and their co-working spaces. Hanging around in the hot spots of London with a Mac covered in stickers. To be fair to the startup community, they have made having a business hip. It’s made coding cool. Having a business based around code is super cool. And it’s scalable.

But people have been setting up businesses for years. My Dad, every Sunday, cuts the hair of a few chaps around Crewe and Nantwich. When he set up that little enterprise I’m pretty sure he didn’t say he was running a start-up. That would have been too funny, thinking about it. The good news is that entrepreneurship — and not just the startup sector — is cool again.

Whilst I was having a break at Christmas, I took the chance to chat to three friends of mine about running a business and anything else we could think of. None of them can code or have a Mac. The topic I’m really interested in is why large businesses are different in culture to small ones and how to prevent that loss of ‘feeling’ in the system. If you do work for a large company, see what you think and whether any of it resonates.

Mia Stanza

First, let’s meet Nick. Nick’s part of a family run business called Mia Stanza that sells furniture based in Nantwich, a market town in Cheshire. http://www.miastanza.co.uk/.

Nick’s one of these people that I bounce ideas around with. So we were talking about leadership and why small companies don’t talk about creating good leaders (see my previous blog).

“It’s simple. In your own business, you own it and people vote with their feet. If you’re a good leader, people will work with you. If you’re not, people won’t. If people won’t, you’ll go bust. In bigger companies, it’s not your own business so you have to earn the right to lead and you can handle people moving on more easily”

He’s clever like that. We had a good chat. I’ve always been struck by Nick’s inquisitive nature and how he’s using that to build a business. The Mia Stanza website is his and he’s able to say that because of the thing he did (built a website) he gained £x in sales.

He’s constantly expanding his knowledge to try new things and apply that to business. In the Civil Service, Nudge is everywhere. Apparently it’s also being used in small companies too:

“After each sale of a certain amount, we write to our customers to thank them and send a loyalty card offering discounts off future purchases. My sister suggested that we simply add a sentence to the letter asking them to review their product on our site.
My first feeling was that not many people would put that much effort in for us. Over 50% of customers who receive this letter now leave a review. It seems so obvious now that I feel a fool for not doing it earlier, but sometimes you are blind to simple solutions, when it comes to your own business”

Civil Service Learning has a review function on its website that nobody uses so Nick has basically told me how to fix that problem.

Mia Stanza isn’t backed by huge resources. It can’t pay for Nick to do a Masters in Behavioural Science or hire one of the many consultancies out there. So Nick learns it on the cheap but is an innovative soul:

“I was sent the link for an edX course by a friend, I’d never heard of the edX courses before and was pleased that I could do it online for free.
The course was behavioural economics led by Dilip Soman. This is an area of real interest to me as learning how to influence customers into certain behaviours could be hugely advantageous to our business and help our customers make the best decisions for themselves. I’m still only part way through the course as I have to fit it in around work and leading a healthy home life”

If Nick spends too much time learning stuff, nobody is there to do the selling. Larger business can absorb this but smaller ones can’t. It’s a really fine balance between learning so that Mia Stanza can sell more tomorrow versus making sure that they can sell enough today.

We consider this a lot in Civil Service Learning: our phrase to remind ourselves is “it’s all very well if you want to go to Barbados for 3 months but you still need to get to work tomorrow to pay for it”. It’s a delicate balance between investment in the future and the here and now.

It’s all about doing things as cheaply and as well as possible too. Their logo was designed for free by a friend many moons ago. By having good relationships there are plenty of people who want to help and will do work for you.

Parkinson’s Law seems to apply again too and a theory goes that small firms might be more efficient simply because they need to be.

“One of the big differences between smaller businesses and bigger firms is that bigger firms employ too many people. We do everything because we cannot afford loads of people. That forces us to have an in-depth knowledge of all areas and that helps us massively”

There might be something in that.


The other friends are John and Hannah who run Trailscape (http://www.trailscape.co.uk/). This is a trail running company where all runs start in the countryside within an hour’s train journey of London. They do this as well as their day jobs — John is a vet, Hannah is a psychologist.

I’m struck by their customer closeness. They are CONSTANTLY seeking customer feedback. And I mean constantly. They ask runners themselves for suggestions. They ask the marshals (who make sure runners don’t get lost) what the feedback was en route. They have special customers who they can trust to give really great and in-depth feedback. These customers are so close, they’re almost part of the business.

They have a complete commitment to improvement. When I was on a checkpoint one runner asked for hand sanitizer. From that point on it was in the box at every other checkpoint. They didn’t ask whether the benefits (the extra revenue) would outweigh the £20 of costs. They just did it because it’s right to keep their customers happy.

So many large companies are run by people who have never met their customer — and get confused about who their customers are. Here we have two people who are running something and are so keen to hear how things are. If they need to, they improve it.

I’m also really intrigued by their approach to project management. We don’t discuss Prince v Agile here (and a race needs 20+people to do their jobs well). No. We have a list of things to do, someones name by them and a little bit of space for them to write where they’re up to. Easy stuff. But I’m not proposing to run a multi-million pound company like this.

As someone who has seen the journey of Trailscape, there are 5 things that really stand out for me:

  • The team. On race day it’s staffed by volunteers. They do their jobs so well, so professionally with customer service that compares with the best. That’s the power of goodwill and caring about the product (and caring about the owners too).
  • At the start, they will freely admit that they didn’t know what they were doing. Getting a website, marketing, the whole thing. But it doesn’t matter. They’ve learnt by doing and giving it a go (I’m going to do a separate blog about them where we explain a bit more tangibly what they did).
  • Now it’s getting easier. The hard work is in getting it going. Once it’s going well, it’s far easier. People now want to work with them rather than them doing all of the chasing.
  • It’s all about the networks. They have friends who are graphic designers. Friends who work in the legal sector. A supportive family. This means that they don’t have to hire people permanently in but they can call on (good) expertise as and when they need it.
  • Doing this alongside a day job is tough. Their annual leave is used by Trailscape experiences. Their weekends too. That’s tough.

But it’s immensely worthwhile. I’ve seen their reactions after a race, tired and exhausted after a 15 hour shift. So pleased with what they’ve created and how they’ve made 200 people go home tired but happy.

Stu Bennett