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Opinion: The six things most successful startups have in common

For several decades, I’ve provided public relations services to the tech industry. I’ve worked with some of the biggest tech firms in the world, but more recently and in my own agency, my focus has been on tech startups and smaller tech businesses. These are the companies that may not have global recognition (yet), but are successful businesses that are solving problems right now.

Working with these clients has given me a front row seat to see how great minds and leaders build their success. Here are six of the most common lessons I’ve encountered along the way.

  1. You don’t need to boot-strap, but you do need to manage cash flow: Having worked with a number of businesses undertaking successful funding rounds, it’s become clear that while a good product is important, funders are also looking at how businesses manage their money. They’re looking for proof that their investment will be safe in your hands.As an example of this, client Peach Payments underwent its first funding round after having been in business for nine years. Throughout those years, the team focused on one priority at a time, ensuring that they were never over extended. This meant that they were able to protect their business and their people, and made them an attractive investment for their funders.
  2. It’s always about the people: All the most successful startups have one thing in common – people. And it’s not just that they know how to pick the best ones for their businesses, but that they treat them, whether they be staff, suppliers, partners or journalists, well. We’ve all heard the stories (and watched the documentaries) of founders who treat people dreadfully but the most successful tech CEOs, in my experience, do not live up to this stereotype.One of the best examples of being people-centric I’ve seen is at edtech Mindjoy. They encourage their staff to learn about their platform by using it, and maybe even breaking it. And when something does go wrong, as anyone in tech will tell you it invariably will, the question is “what have you learned?” rather than “what did you do wrong
  3. Radical accountability: Passing the buck is terrible for business. Instead, the most successful businesses work because they’re transparent and treat people like the fully-fledged adults they are.Insurtech platform Root has done this quite masterfully. By being transparent, the business is accountable to its people, and in return, staff take accountability for everything they touch. So, if for instance, a query lands on the desk of someone who can’t solve it and it needs to be escalated, it’s up to that original person to make sure it gets resolved. If it doesn’t, they know they are accountable. It means that people take ownership of every part of the business, and that customers aren’t floating around in a nebulous back and forth on a hunt for answers.
  4. Understand capacity: For startups and smaller businesses, it’s not always realistic or even necessary to build a big team. But in the happy instance that business picks up or a big project lands, having a network of freelancers who are able to step in, is key.I regularly use freelancers in my own business. In addition to providing skills that the business might not necessarily have available full-time, it also means that I am not over-extending my core team.And by applying lesson number two from this list and treating them well and paying them on time, you’ll not only ensure that they’re keen to help out next time, but they’ll also be happy to refer their friends the next time you need new skills or people.
  5. Distributed, diverse teams make a difference: This is something that a lot of tech companies understood even before the pandemic. Your team does not have to be in the same place at the same time, all the time. In fact, having people in different parts of the country or the world allows you to hire from a much bigger pool of talent and increases diversity.
  6. Tell your story authentically: The most successful brands in the world have become beloved for a number of reasons, but at the heart of it is that people support businesses that respond to their specific needs or that they resonate with personally. PR should therefore never be focused on sales, but should focus on building credibility and trust, telling a story that people resonate with, and allowing the right audience to find you. This could be a potential customer looking to solve a problem, or an investor doing due diligence.

The exact formula for how a business incorporates these elements will likely shift over time, and throughout different growth phases. But sticking to the core principles of valuing talent, treating people right, and creating something worth talking about, help build a strong foundation for success.

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