Dipika Sawhney, programme manager for Amazon Advertising Services, on how you can build a tech business from the ground up.
My story of digital innovation started during a three-month trip to London a few years ago, when I found myself unable to rent an apartment for a medium-term stay. This was long before the days of Airbnb!
Faced with that challenge, I was inspired to create Flat Club, later re-branded as Benivo, which has become a great success as a digital service enabling companies to make new employees feel settled in their new city. We generated revenue of £1.2m in the first year, and within two years we had 5,500 flats and 30,000 members on board.
If Flat Club was my first baby, there were more to come! Since 2016 I have been creating and building internal startups within Amazon. Currently I lead a team responsible for helping tens of thousands of small and new advertising businesses to succeed across Europe.
Based on my experience of creating and scaling tech startups from scratch, I would recommend that hopeful tech entrepreneurs consider these eight steps before they get started.
1. Refine the product and be customer obsessed
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Before anything else, make sure your product is fully realised. By focusing on a customer-obsessed solution to a common problem, you can create demand for the product in a short space of time, or fill in an existing market gap. Your product growth will be sustainable, real and quick if you focus on customer needs.
Some young entrepreneurs make the mistake of pursuing their goal without planning a route beforehand. Invest in research, develop your product well, spend time understanding your customer needs and how you will uniquely fill in the market gap with your product.
2. Long-term thinking
Failure to prepare a detailed well thought through business plan is a common mistake. I would recommend a marketing plan, finance plan, market research plan and a measurable plan of what success or failure looks like each week.
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The business plan should also be updated regularly – every month or every quarter – so the organisation is always prepared to answer tough questions from potential investors.
During the planning process, founders should come to understand their business inside-out, so prepared FAQs and user guides will help.
Fundraising can be a challenge for any business – particularly startups. Investors always look for familiar traits: passion, belief, dedication, skills of the founders and a great idea that can be articulated fluently as well as evidence of customer traction. That’s why the business plan is key: investors need evidence of how their money will be spent to ensure their investment grows in value and evidence of how your idea can be monetised will be vital.
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4. Get recruitment right
Recruitment will be key in the early stages of the business, and it can be the second biggest obstacle to growth after fundraising.
As a startup begins to grow beyond its founders, every new hire can change the company’s DNA, and that means a strategic, systematic approach to hiring will ensure the original culture, values and brand personality are upheld. A handful of strategic hires in the early days of the business can be the difference between success and failure.
Working from well-established standards like the Leadership Principles will help you to identify, recruit and retain employees who are best-placed to support the company’s growth by thinking big, diving deep and earning the trust of those around them.
5. Define and refine your brand
A brand is more than the logo, identity, or product – it is the sum total of consumers’ perception of the organisation. As an intangible quality, it can be hard to measure, and sometimes that perception comes down to gut feeling and instinct.
The best brands live and breathe their values every day, so your leadership will play a key role in establishing and sustaining those qualities. Strong brands also have clear proof points: they make an enticing promise and never fail to prove it.
Of course, the visual element is imperative – a strong logo grants legitimacy and authenticity, but this doesn’t have to be a huge expense if you get it right.
6. Customer obsession
With the product, funding, business plan and branding in place, you can start to think about marketing. This should be tailored to the product, sector and target audience.
Informal or formal market research should be the starting point. This needn’t be expensive if you pay attention to customer reviews and feedback. Always ask for feedback and listen carefully to what customers say.
If you’re selling through an e-commerce site like Amazon, maximise the available functionality by using great pictures, easy to understand features and handy instructions that are informed by a deep understanding of the customer’s needs.
7. Learn and be curious
Tech entrepreneurs are habitual learners, motivated by natural curiosity to constantly update their knowledge and challenge their preconceptions. The most successful brand owners are those who take the time to learn important terms, such as keywords and search rankings, and they are always taking advantage of new tools and channels to reach customers.
Popular news aggregators, social media and strong professional networks can be brilliant ways to keep up-to-date with exciting new possibilities of technology. Working with a mentor can also help even the most senior leaders to reflect and improve. And remember that inspiration can come at any time, so make sure to set time aside for reading and networking.
In my experience, businesses also tend to leave the potential of their data untapped. Maximising insight generated from data by constantly updating these practices will help to keep you on “day one”.
8. Bias for action
Remember that speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study – at Amazon we call changeable and reversible decisions “two-way doors”.
Calculated risk-taking does not simply mean throwing money at a project. Sometimes risk-taking requires honesty with yourself when assessing your own preconceptions and practices. Sometimes you will need to be pragmatic when making tough decisions.
Your confidence will be key – confidence is an infectious quality that will help to define your brand and invigorate your employees – but this does not mean that you have to do everything on your own. I would always recommend working with a business mentor.
As a start-up you’re able to think and act with greater agility – use that to your advantage! It’s always better to be the disruptor, not the disrupted, so you may want to run a regular audit on your competitor’s activity to plan two steps ahead.
Even with these steps in place, as your company grows it will be essential to retain that entrepreneurial spirit. That’s why every day is “day one” at Amazon.