Written for FutureEnterprise by Stuart McRae (IBM).
It is one of the ironies of the age of digital business that the transformation it enables is more about interpersonal relationships than technology.
From the earliest days of disruptive businesses enabled by the Internet (with Amazon, and the way it used reviews) the social aspect of engaging customers with new services has been at the forefront – spreading their popularity, educating the market, providing insights and driving customer loyalty.
Social interaction soon became the core to review sites like TripAdvisor, crowdfunding platforms like Unbound, messaging services like Snapchat, and the new generation of businesses whose online presence is delivered only through social media sites. The watchword of the digital age has become “engagement“. Engaging prospects, engaging customers, engaging partners, engaging employees, engaging citizens – the Internet has become a platform for conversations.
This isn’t just about what we used to call “Web 2.0″ and the way it enables generated content and social networking. The magic happened when that was combined with Smartphones, Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, to create more effective ways to communicate and collaborate: a new way to work. The Internet of Things and Cognitive Computing will continue to build on this, creating even more transformational possibilities through new forms of engagement.
Which is all having a profound impact on business models and how organisations work. The impacts are clear everywhere, but the opportunities are greatest in the entrepreneurial sector. Traditional businesses find it hard to change and their legacy often stops them from taking advantage of new possibilities. A new business doesn’t have that problem.
But as the sudden blossoming of these new capabilities shows, timing is everything and nowhere is that more true than for the entrepreneurial start-up trying to get established. Align the potential of emerging technologies, an evolving business environment, appropriate changes in regulation and the right mood in the market, and the world can shift dramatically. Get the timing wrong, and all that is left is the fight without the success – plus, hopefully, valuable lessons that should encourage a true entrepreneur to try again until they get both the timing and strategy right.
Entrepreneurship is about both ideas and execution. Having an idea isn’t the same as innovation, which is a collaborative process that takes a spark and turns it into a fire by bringing together expertise and action. Good execution uses the skills of the experts not just to implement an idea, but create a business around it.
Incubators have become a proven way of bringing the necessary ingredients together, adding mentoring, resources and a supportive community to help turn ideas into businesses. Whether these are geographic (one study found 40 in London alone) or distributed (like the New Way To StartUp competition), a host of new businesses are getting started because people are being brought together to support and help one another.
However, in the digital age, if there is no incubator available locally, you can build your own. If your enthusiasm is visible, your vision is clear and your approach is open, you can engage with the expertise, mentoring and resources you need to create your own support system. Don’t stop at crowdfunding finance, but crowd-source the advice, mentoring and skills you need as well. All you need is an aptitude for and focus on networking (and few business leaders succeed without that). There are lots of people who will make connections for you, even if they can’t help themselves. After all, this is the sharing economy.
There are positives and negatives to building your own ecosystem: whist it might not be as easy as slotting into an existing, defined structure, or as motivating as having like minded people around you every day, creating a personalised ecosystem that is independent of location can bring in contacts that would not otherwise be available and create a support community around you that can help to differentiate you in the market. But don’t forget, your ecosystem is made up of relationships. Online social media is a great way to find people, coordinate activities and keep in touch, but face to face meetings build trust and better provide emotional support. Whether it is grabbing a coffee or getting your network together at a relevant event, meeting people is just as important in business as it ever was.
Conferences and seminars are happening all the time – but try to find the ones that aren’t just about sitting through PowerPoint presentations but offer workshops and unconference sessions that focus on opportunities to debate – and, of course, include lots of time for networking, enabling you to expand your ecosystem.
Or you can simply organise your own meet-up for your ecosystem (there are online services for that, too) – perhaps in the corner of a friendly coffee shop, tearoom or pub. Use your network to invite other start-up businesses – who knows the ways it might turn out that they can help you, or you can help them.
Being in a start-up is very different today to how it was when I was doing it 35 years ago. But the most transformational thing about being an entrepreneur in the digital age you no longer need to do it alone: you can build your own ecosystem. Just as you no longer need to build infrastructure but can source everything (from IT platforms to HR, programming to collaboration, a web site to marketing services) as services from the Cloud, learn how to use social media and social networking tools to create, nurture, grow and manage your own ecosystem.