Common Problems Startups Face – A design thinking outlook

Common problems startups face – A Design thinking outlook

I have been directly associated with startups since 2006. That’s when I started my career as a member of a venture capital investment team. All the way to my recent years consulting them and young businesses, I have heard a multitude of problems that startups face. Problems that can largely be categorized under two main causes.

The first one of course, being investments.
The second, being the lack of traction, or growth in business.

With regard the problem of funds, you could further break it up in to funds you must have, and funds that are good to have.

Literally all of us are, more often than not, influenced by awe-inspiring startup stories. About those startups in the world that seem to be on a blistering growth path. With people and funds literally queuing up for an opportunity to invest in them.

Watched the movie ‘The Incredible Hulk’? The Hulk and the Abomination in that are like those few startups that receive disproportionately high amounts of funding.

Everyone is not like them. And even in their case, of the two, only Hulk was relatively stable with the superpower. The Abomination, as the name goes, became that way because of his lust for super-strength to beat the Hulk.

Similarly, even if all startups could be funded like that, or like Uber and PayTM and Zomato and others have been, there is no guarantee they will succeed. Because making a business stable takes managing a lot more variables than merely the investment one.

Which brings us back to the other alternative – funds you must have.

This is the basic minimum investment that you would need to get your startup rolling. It isn’t too tough to calculate it. Just make sure you have sufficient buffer. And keep checking those levels so you don’t realize it’s bad only once you’re broke. The advantage of this mindset, is that even if external investments never come, your startup will be built on a solid foundation and a sound business model. That, as opposed to one of hyper-experimenting, as is sometimes the case with super-funded startups. Take the case of TinyOwl hiring and almost immediately firing hundreds of enthusiastic freshers back in the day. Or Ola paying USD 31.7 million for FoodPanda a year and a half ago, only to fire a lot of the staff and suspend its operations recently.

While such news pieces might be good to hear, they are often not something to be proud of.

A bootstrapped startup will have its share of proud moments too. And they will be far more grounded and not the kind that could be easily taken away, unlike the case with some over-funded ventures.

Now let’s look at the other main problem area of startups. The lack of traction or growth.

In my book, Design the Future, I mention what is to me, a wonderful example from both an investment angle and a strategic one that depended solely on the understanding of customer needs.

One portfolio company whose growth my boss and I used to oversee, was in the car rental space. Around 2009, it was on its way to be the largest player in India, right on the heels of Meru. Meru was then leading the pack in terms of size of fleet.

However, what was interesting, was that Meru’s business had been built largely on debt. Ours had been built on equity. Which meant we were profitable sooner, and could scale much faster. Meru had just turned profitable around 2009-10, if I remember correctly.

And back then, our portfolio company was already onto the model of partnered fleet. That is what Uber is all about now. Our company was collaborating with small tourist vehicle operators to add their fleet and drivers to their own, in a revenue-sharing model.

Now think about this. A company founded in 2006, which was already employing a model that we in recent times popularly know of as Uber, what as of today, has a market capitalization of USD 69 Billion! And Uber was founded only in March of 2009 (conceptualized in 2008).

So what prevented our portfolio company from being the one valued at USD 69 billion?

In hindsight, a lack of better understanding of the stakeholders in the ecosystem, is my guess.

Our portfolio company and other players back then were perhaps used to a certain customer price level and profitability that they enjoyed in a tried-and-tested pan-India market.

However, perhaps we failed to see that we could considerably reduce the margins and incentivize the partner ecosystem, in an effort to gain massive scale.

And with customers, it is only in very select areas that if we offer something at a lower price, they won’t take it. But certainly not with transport.

So, Uber carpeted several countries with the initial attractive pricing, and more than encouraging partner revenue-sharing and incentives.

And companies like ours, that didn’t think huge enough, shrunk into insignificance in that particular space at least, which they had ruled for some years till then.

Putting investments and a better understanding of the stakeholder ecosystem together, it is not necessary that every business and every idea has to be Uber-sized!

You can as well remain small, exclusive and yet thriving in a small or select few areas or geographies, if that is your business vision. Or, as is the case with Uber, you can be the most recognized brand in ground transport.

What is most important, is to first decide where on that spectrum you want to be. Then you need to find out (not in meeting rooms, but by spending time with stakeholders), what their likes and dislikes are. What drives them, what their profit expectations are? And how flexible are they on pricing; or, is there a better way you can offer them what you do? Something that might completely be poles apart from how you offer it right now.

Scenarios in the startup ecosystem are limitless. And so are the possibilities.

Originally written for NODD app and posted here: link

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If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

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