7 tips to survive and thrive as a start-up

After four years at the helm of a firm in turbo-growth phase, Podpac co-founder Toby Strong shares seven ways start-ups can manage rapid growth and live to tell the tale.

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Podpac co-founder Toby Strong has spent four years at the helm of an enterprise in turbo-growth phase. Founded in 2012, the Adelaide manufacturer has clinched a succession of deals to put its Nespresso-compatible coffee pods on the shelves of Australia’s largest retailers.

Podpac’s factory produced 30 million capsules last year for third party labels and its own PODiSTA, Perfetto and Pod-a-licious brands. A second production line will see capacity double in 2017.

The fast track to growth can be a rough ride for those who aren’t prepared to roll with the punches and learn from their losses. Strong shares his advice for surviving and thriving.

  1. Focus on the opportunity

Turning your bright idea into big business, fast, means hard work. The question of whether it’s worth it can strike even the most motivated of founders, according to Strong, who clocked 80-hour weeks for the first three years.

Focusing on the opportunities you’re creating, not the endless tasks on your to do list, is key to staying on track he says.

“I recently worked two weeks straight on a proposal for a new customer,” Strong says. “It’s difficult to put that time into something when I’m juggling 1,000 other things – but constantly thinking about where it could lead means I don’t get bogged by the workload.”

  1. Stomp on aggravation in teams

A dislike of conflict can mean some folk turn a blind eye to aggravations in the hope they’ll self-limit or resolve spontaneously. There’s no place for this sort of prevaricating in a fast-growing business, Strong says.

“For example, when two staff members aren’t getting along it’s easy to sit back and hope it’s going to improve but it rarely does,” he observes.

“As a manager, you need to jump in and get to the bottom of it quick – you’re better off dealing with a little short-term conflict before it turns into something worse.”

  1. Just do it

Waiting for a flash of inspiration to strike before you begin developing your big idea? It may be a long time coming, Strong says. Action creates motivation, not the other way round.

As a pioneer of own-brand coffee pods in Australia, his fledgling venture faced many unknowns but getting started generated momentum and enthusiasm.

“Dive in and learn as you go,” Strong says. “There’s no better motivation than just jumping in and doing the work.”

  1. Talk less, listen more

Think you don’t have the patter to push your product to customers? Listen more than you talk and you’ll likely do okay, Strong says.

He’s managed to ink deals with the likes of Coles, Woolworths, Harvey Norman and The Good Guys despite being a self-described introvert who questioned his suitability for the sales gig initially.

“What I’ve found over time is the best way to sell something is not to go and bombard somebody with words but to try to solve a problem for them by asking a few good questions and simply listening.”

  1. Remember confidence is self-fulfilling

If you’re worried you don’t have what it takes to run a successful enterprise, think confidently to prevent others sharing your doubts.

It worked for him, says Strong, who found starting a company in an unfamiliar industry no recipe for confidence.

“There were times early when I questioned whether I was capable of doing this because I didn’t have any training or a lot of experience, my parents weren’t successful business people, I came from quite a poor family … but I just decided I wasn’t going to let anyone else see that; I was going to act very confidently in front of everybody,” Strong says.

“Eventually, after a bit of time, when you get a few wins under your belt, what you are pretending to be, you become.”

  1. Don’t employ friends

Hiring friends can make the office a fun place to be – until things don’t work out, and it becomes exceedingly awkward. A complication best avoided, advises Strong, who took on a pal early on but later let them go.

“I told myself I would never do that again,” he says. “Instead, employ people who you would be friends with outside of work to keep things fun – just not actual friends.”

  1. Keep learning

Like-minded businesspeople can offer friendship, support and invaluable advice to rookie entrepreneurs. Seek them out, says Strong, who has received inspiration aplenty from contacts made at the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO).

“They might have a different business from you, in a different industry, but the nuts and bolts of it are often quite similar – you’re managing people and you’re managing processes and you can learn a lot from others.”

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