Comment: Navigating the path from start-up to scaling up

Sometimes I think starting a company is like playing snakes and ladders, says Proud. Picture: Simon Williams.
Sometimes I think starting a company is like playing snakes and ladders, says Proud. Picture: Simon Williams.
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After two decades with large corporates like IBM, Accenture and Microsoft, I started Cortex four and a half years ago and we now have more than 30 people working at our Edinburgh headquarters.

Offering a cloud-based technology platform, we’re winning business with some of the world’s best-known brands and have plans to open international offices including in the US.

Sometimes I think starting a company is like playing snakes and ladders; you get a lift and jump forward and up but inevitably you will also land on a snake at some point and slide back down. It’s important though that you keep throwing the dice.

Last week, I spoke at Scotland International Week at IoD Scotland in Edinburgh about some of the things I’ve learnt out on the corporate coalface and what it’s important to focus on as you look to scale your business. Looking at the operational model, you have to test your product well, get external verification and then deliver against a world-class standard. It’s also important to remember that security is critical at every stage.

A company’s office requires attention too – consider what it means to you and realise that it represents the face of the company and will help you to attract and retain the best people.

When it comes to your staff and your culture, it makes sense to ask yourself “what kind of people are going to help make you successful?” Hire “can do” people and avoid “negative sappers” – think of the blend you need for the team and constantly keep your culture on the agenda.

Short-term requirements may differ from long-term ones, and contractors and consultants can often be the answer in the short term. Use quality professional services advisers when you can afford them – Scottish legal firm Burness Paull have been excellent for us. Whatever you do, always think and work like a big company make finance, sales, product, marketing and management meetings a fixture.

As the saying goes, think big from day one. Aim high and build products that have global appeal. At the same time, look at the size of the market and be honest about how you can compete. Innovation usually comes from small companies as large ones have too much in the way of 
politics and legacy to be nimble and agile.

Have confidence, tenacity and don’t give up on the ultimate prize. Human nature dictates that the status quo is easier than change, so you will have to fight against that. Don’t let negative people derail you from your goals. As a founder, your idea is your idea, so your job is to sell it or prove it to other people. If people don’t understand your offering it’s not their issue, it’s yours. Apply the “KISS principle” – “Keep it simple, stupid” – most systems work best if they are kept simple. Storytelling is really important. Ask yourself questions like, “who are you?”, “what is your brand?”, “who are you trying to engage?”.

Also think about whether you are a “wow” company or a “safe” company – you cannot be both. Quality branding and collateral is akin to building your product but it takes twice as long to do and will generally cost twice as much as you factored in.

I define the life cycle of getting to market as follows: crawl, define, design, build, test, walk. Once you can walk, the commercial model kicks in and should incorporate initial clients, marketing, lighthouse wins, client references, working out the most efficient sales routes and then, only then, can you run. And don’t forget to keep testing the commercial model – you can’t afford to rest on your laurels.

It is only when these foundations are in place that you can really start to scale the business and innovate. In Scotland, we don’t need to look far to see companies who have gone from start-up to global scale and, for me, Rockstar and Skyscanner top the list.

Over the next few years, perhaps Cortex will join their ranks.

Peter Proud, CEO and founder of Cortex Worldwide and ScotlandIS board member