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Thinking like a start-up – advice from business veteran Sherry Coutu

Sherry Coutu is one impressive woman. Not only has she started a number of businesses herself, but she has made investments in over 50 companies including DueDil, LoveFilm and Bonobos. I was lucky enough to hear advice from her first-hand at a recent Women in Business Network event in London on what it takes to found a company – although I think the advice applies not just to start-ups, but to existing businesses in terms of staying competitive and at the top of your game.

I wanted to share these three top business tips for you from Sherry:

1: Don’t see change as risky

Sherry spent a few months in a large corporation before deciding to quit her role and start her first company, ISI Emerging Markets (now known as EMIS), in 1994. This move from a seemingly secure, corporate position to new, unfamiliar waters would be perceived by many as risky. Certainly in Sherry’s case, a lot of raised eyebrows and questions were pointed in her direction.

However, Sherry didn’t really see it as a risk. A number of large companies today didn’t even exist ten years ago, and Sherry knew that all it took was the right idea to succeed.

High growth small businesses like start-ups were responsible for over 250,000 jobs in the UK in 2014 according to the Octopus Investments Centre for Economic and Business Research, proving vital to the economic recovery of the nation. Taking those insights into consideration, starting up isn’t a risk; it’s just a natural step in a changing economy. Staying put is especially concerning for individuals who face the danger of a glass ceiling; by starting up, you can make sure that ceiling never gets installed in the first place.

Beginning something new and putting everything on the line seems frightening, and of course risks should be considered, but if you commit to an idea, the fear of a lack of security should not be what is holding you back. If you do your homework and put forth enough hard work and commitment, you could be at the start of something big.  

2: Think of something that solves a problem – it’s really that simple

Knowing whether or not your idea will be successful is rarely a sure thing, but Sherry broke it down to one simple objective: deliver a product or service that helps someone. It sounds simple enough, and really it is. It is necessary to picture where the product or service will fit into the life of a consumer and how it helps with a task or problem your audience faces. Winning ideas are borne out of solving the problems and inconveniences you experience in your own life.

Think of CityMapper: This online and mobile travel planner congregates data for transportation methods, disruptions and fares along with the weather and calorie-burning value of walking and biking routes. Azmat Yusuf, the founder, lived in several big cities himself and he solved the issue of getting around that was clearly present in his life as well as in others’. Blendle is another creative start-up that tackles the matter of paywalls for newspapers and magazines. The self-proclaimed “iTunes for journalism” lets users pay per article, with publishers setting the price and taking home 70% of the revenue.

Just looking at how people will benefit from the solution your idea delivers will provide an understanding of where the company can fit into the market and will provide you with the confidence to execute the idea.

3: Be passionate and excited about your goals

Starting a business is a large commitment, but having pride in your work and being passionate about the idea is what will set it apart from the rest. The enthusiasm and desire to accomplish your goals with your start-up is precisely what attracts investors like Sherry to help you follow through with it. The same logic applies to making decisions within a business; treating each idea with zealous dedication makes for successful implementation.

Sherry shared with us a metaphor she was once told, to describe the feeling you should have about starting up: imagine you’re standing in a pool and your nose is just above the water, then you find out someone is about to turn the wave machine on. Rather than worrying about drowning, that moment of anticipation, with a combination of fear and excitement, is how you should feel when starting up.

Whether you’re toying with the idea of starting your own business, or need some fresh new thinking to take your current company into new territory, these wise words from the book of Sherry could take you far.

Do you have a mentor or any top tips for embracing change? Let us know!
Image Source: LeWeb11

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