Building a business is brutal. Building a business that is successful over the longer term is even more difficult. What isn't difficult is finding the hundreds of books that claim to give you the magic method for start-up success. Well the good news for first-time entrepreneurs is that you can save a lot of money and a huge amount of time, because you don't need to read any of them.
Successful businesses are built on three things that you have already: head, heart and gut. Your head will keep you focused on the right business model, your heart will get you through the tough times and your gut instinct will drive the decisions you will need to make along the way.
Since we launched ByBox in Silicon Valley back in January 2000, there has been no shortage of those difficult decisions. One theme that has remained central throughout is to anchor your decisions around two key questions: what problem are we solving for our customers and how can we do this better than everybody else? The real challenge is noticing when the answers to these questions change over time.
Back in January 2000, ByBox was committed to creating locker technology to help solve the last mile of online retailing. This question soon became redundant as the dotcom market crashed three weeks after we opened our (tiny) office in Mountain View - and we were presented with the classic entrepreneurial conundrum: to pivot or persist? Were we flogging the dead horse of start-ups or were we about to have a golden breakthrough and be heroes of ecommerce?! Should we take the ‘never, ever give up’ route and continue with Plan A or find a Plan B pronto?
We opted for Plan B and shifted to the B2B market of delivering mission critical spare parts to field technicians (called 'field service'). And so the answer to the core questions changed in an instant. The problem we were now solving was how to use locker technology to remove cost from the field service supply chain. This time - luckily - our timing was spot on. The field service market was ripe for being disrupted with better use of data and technology - and the ByBox solution was ideal.
What followed was a sustained period of rapid growth as we built locker-based logistics networks across the UK and Europe, as well as licensing the technology globally. The result was a wonderful customer base, a truly amazing team and a string of business awards - including being crowned the Fastest Growing Technology Company in the UK (we ranked number 1 in the Deloitte Fast50 in 2008).
So we were clearly solving a problem for our customers. But how we could continue to do it better than everybody else? For ByBox, the answer was software. For years, the field service market had been preoccupied with trying to deliver the right part, to the right place, at the right time. Rather than focussing on moving parts, we changed the emphasis to moving data. Move the data, not the part became our sales mantra.
After all, most of our 400+ customers had plenty of parts which were often in the right place - they just didn't know it. This was the catalyst for the creation of our Thinventory™ platform - designed to enable customers to operate their supply chains with the least amount of inventory possible.
Thinventory™ unleashed a second wave of growth that was even more brutal than the first, as customers connected with the concept of using data rather than delivery drivers to permanently remove cost from their supply chains. Of course, the punishing reality for any co-founding CEO is that there is never any let-up. The moment your business is hooked on a new mission is the moment that you need to go hunting for the next Horizon 2.
This means, of course, that you are back to the core question, ‘what problem you can solve next for your customers?’ For ByBox, this triggered a period of acquisitions that culminated in buying four companies in four years as we established a national network of our own field technicians. Today, our customers can buy technical resource at a variable cost - rather than stomaching the full cost of technicians for the whole year.
Did we ever think that we would be in this space when we launched ByBox in our Mountain View shoe-box office in January 2000? Of course not. For me, this is what makes building a successful business over the long term such a fabulous vocation. You can have a plan, but where the plan ends up is far from predictable. It depends on your head, heart and gut. Do you need to be world class at all three? No. I'm certainly not. But I do have amazing colleagues who make up for it.
As the old adage goes, it takes three people to make a business successful: a dreamer, an accountant and a son-of-a-bitch. I guess that's just another way of saying head, heart and gut.