Four tips for growing a 'boring' business

You don't have to be a trendy start-up or a cool brand to be a success.

by Dr Stephen Bence
Last Updated: 18 Dec 2015

Most entrepreneurs want to develop not only a successful venture, but also a business which demands attention and captures the imagination. Yet as many strive to develop the next big thing, some of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs have instead decided image isn’t for them, building successful companies that, to many, may seem boring.

These firms often have substantial appeal because their market is already proven. Sectors such as healthcare, law and engineering are rarely talked about in the same breath as Apple, Facebook or Amazon, yet they are essential services.

I'm interested in changing ‘boring’ sectors, such as legal services, care of the elderly and business information. In each case I’m seeking to shake up the establishment by taking a novel approach while getting right some basic principles that apply to all growing businesses.

Here are my top tips entrepreneurs should follow, if they are to see sustained growth in what to many (not me) are dull industries.

Focus on effectiveness, not just efficiency

Efficiency can be incredibly important in boring businesses where there is established competition. But unless you produce an effective product or service you risk creating a highly efficient "machine" producing something customers don’t actually value.

When you are small you have time to fix whatever is wrong, but when you scale up you simply won’t have time. Examine critically what your customers really want and strip out anything that doesn’t add value, really challenging your assumptions about this. Only then look at efficiency.

Motivate brilliant people

Bill Gates said the key to building a successful business was finding brilliant (not merely good) people to build it with. This is even more important in boring businesses because you need to find novel ways to out-perform your competition in well-trodden territory.

Given that on the face of it you don’t have a glamourous offering you need to find different ways to attract and retain brilliant people. Although money talks, in many cases brilliant people can also be inspired by things such as making society better, receiving peer recognition, being part of something revolutionary, or simply working with other brilliant people.

Put ego to one side

Your business has been successful up until now because of your hard work and the risks that you have taken. Your self-belief has been critical. But as you move to scale-up your business you are going to need to delegate. Of course this is true for all businesses, but especially so for boring businesses where outstanding execution is often the key barrier to entry (in contrast to technology businesses, where patents and know-how often provide the strongest barriers to entry).

I often hear from entrepreneurs in scale-up mode that they can’t delegate because they don’t trust others to do it your way. This is, in my view, the wrong way of thinking about it because it presumes that 'your way' is the only way. But what works for you may well not work for others who have complementary and (if you have hired correctly) better skills. While you should certainly provide guidance, let your brilliant people achieve in their own way.

Inspire other stakeholders

One of the biggest challenges for boring businesses is competing for air-time and column inches with more glamorous companies. The same applies to getting the ear of prospective investors and partners. But in my experience even the most traditional business can create glamour. Obviously this plays out differently from business to business, but try thinking about what impact you are having on customers, on your employees, on your supply chain.

As long as you are making life better for someone you can always find an angle. I’m currently launching a venture that will provide care services for the elderly. Written like that it sounds pretty boring, but in fact it’s all about improving the lives of people entering their "golden era", and most people agree that that’s a worthy aim.

Dr Stephen Bence is director of strategy at Fast Track 100 law firm Vardags, chairman of ‘Bloomberg for private companies’ Beauhurst and an investor in the Golden Era Club

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