You lucky, lucky start-up

You lucky, lucky start-up

Earlier on this year we had the privilege of becoming one of the chosen few to join the Microsoft ScaleUp Programme, based in London. I’ve always been an admirer of Microsoft – it’s my most trusted IT brand in fact – so I was very proud.

The programme is designed for Series A start-ups. Ok, so I get the Series A bit, but I really have a problem being called a start-up. And here’s why.

Let’s play a guessing game. You are a start-up in London (or Berlin, or Madrid, or Brisbane, or Austin etc.). You have a great idea. (It must always start as a great idea; no really, it must.) You’ve saved a bit of cash and tapped-up your friends and family. (It always starts with friends and family.) And you’re off!

Now, it’s one year later. Are you still trading? Almost certainly not. The perceived wisdom is that one in 10 start-ups will be successful. Harvard Business School put their best brains on it and reckoned it was much better than that: they found that only 75 per cent of venture-backed companies fail. (Yup, it’s not your friends and family now. It’s nasty, brutal capitalists who will disembowel you if you cock it up.)

Most recently I read a report (right here) that reckoned there was far too much optimism kicking around and the answer is actually 99 per cent failure.


Now I understand why Microsoft view us as a start-up. We have only eight-figure revenues and they have a market-cap closer to 13 figures – on their way to $1trn. We are a flea on the back of a massive unicorn.

But imagine how cross I feel when people say we’re starting up. We’re not starting up. We’re bloody sprinting up an endless mountain, pushing everyone out of the way and we’re never, ever stopping. We’re not starting, we’re bloody well scaling. Literally and metaphorically.

Right, enough with the ranting, because this challenge goes to the core of what being an entrepreneur actually means. I’ll give you three tricks to help with the climb:

1. Tilt the tables. I don’t ever gamble, whether it’s on cards, horses or the stock market. I’d rather be the fella who owns the casino, the track etc. I like to win too much to let lady luck help me out. What do I mean by tilting the tables? Well, here’s a parable: I always get a space in a car park. My long-suffering wife noticed this and could not understand why I was so lucky. I wasn’t. What she hadn’t noticed was that I go the wrong way around car parks. While the majority are stuck in the queue, I’ve nipped into the space nearest the exit. It’s a win-win. I tilt the tables in my favour. Do that in business – leave nothing to chance and make your own luck.

2. Be insufferably optimistic. Success breeds success. Be happy and it’s more likely that others around you will feel happier as a result. Success is a virus – even in your darkest moments, when everything seems to be falling away and your luck appears to be running out – do not despair. It will all work out. Honestly, it will.

3. Do not accept the notion of failure. For a Brit, this one is a challenge. We are the plucky losers. We remember epic failure and we salute it, we ride towards the cannons with a happy smile on our moustachioed faces. Of course, you will get stuff wrong but when you do, learn from it. Get up with a smile on your face – laugh, even – and keep climbing.

What have I learnt in my third decade of growing businesses from start-up to exit? Surround yourself with clever people – cleverer than yourself if possible. Do not accept the notion of luck – tilt the tables instead. But above all, when you get the inevitable kicking, get back up, dust yourself off and get back to scaling the mountain.

You are the 1% and I salute you.

Dr Mark K. Smith

Founder & CEO