What would the perfect business look like and does it help, when formulating a strategy, to know?
Entrepreneurs can be sure of one thing, whatever business they’re building, they will never achieve perfection. It’s a chimera. “If anyone tells you their business is perfect, they’re lying. It’s a constant work in progress,” says Alastair Mitchell, chief executive of British collaboration software provider Huddle.
Yet this doesn’t mean organisations shouldn’t seek perfection. Many successful businesses have held grand ideologies, however nebulous they might be, and stuck by them. Phil Libin, chief executive of Silicon Valley productivity tech vendor Evernote, has big ambitions for his company. “We want you to achieve the best work you’ve ever done using Evernote. Current products are indifferent – a typewriter doesn’t care what you’re writing on,” he says.
Perfection, for Mr Libin, is more about brand than it is about the precise features of his company’s products. “I want Evernote to be Nike for the mind. That’s the North Star for us; that’s where we’re pointing.”
Mr Mitchell too believes in having a single vision and sticking to it, while understanding that there will be distractions that might cause a business to adjust its strategy. One of the biggest distractions for Huddle was the social craze.
The rise of Facebook caused many makers of collaboration tools to add social functionality, which would comprise the real killer features of their apps. The likes of Yammer, later purchased by Microsoft, became hugely popular, but Mr Mitchell chose not to follow the crowd. He believes it has set Huddle apart from those who put all their chips on social.
“When we started, we were trying to create a platform for people to work together on the web,” he says. “This was the late-2000s, there were different tensions – everyone saying social [was the way forward], e-mail is going to die. But we stuck to files and content because we believed that’s where the real work is done. Social was going to be a trend, but not the be all and end all. You can’t get distracted by momentary trends.”
He cites the example of Apple, a company which thrived in the early days of computing, then nearly died out before the return of Steve Jobs and the focus on user-friendly design. “They lost their way, but then rediscovered it – so it even happens to very big companies,” says Mr Mitchell. That original aim – to create whatever the company believes to be perfection – is vital, he adds. “If you lose that, you can lose your way.”
It’s a futile pursuit to go after digital strategy – you need a single strategy for the digital age
But there is one trend that every business can’t avoid, one that both Evernote and Huddle have driven: the rise of digital. The wave of innovation in IT that took place during the 1990s and 2000s caused massive disruption, largely because of how cheap it became to access high-quality computing infrastructure. There’s no need for expensive, bespoke systems anymore, so changing strategies to shift with technological development is considerably easier.
“Rather than building a super-sophisticated Formula 1 car with bespoke features, you can build your IT car with LEGO bricks,” says Carlo Gagliardi, partner in PwC’s strategy and digital division. Those bricks are often cheap or completely free, he notes.
Businesses shouldn’t keep digital as one strand of their overall strategy, it should be core to every single organisational goal, says Mr Gagliardi, who has been driving the message that businesses can and should reinvent themselves at speed as part of PwC’s World in Beta campaign. He thinks this requires organisations of all sizes to embrace a startup mentality with the ability to adopt new business models as fresh competitors bring them to the market.
“You need to have a very clear idea of what products and services you’re providing, but be prepared to be flexible as things change a lot more quickly now,” he adds. “It’s much better to adapt to the future; it’s a futile pursuit to go after digital strategy – you need a single strategy for the digital age.”
It is likely to be trickier to maintain the culture of a business than it is to stick to product ideals, given how many stakeholders are involved. Mr Mitchell has tried to keep Huddle’s together, despite significant expansion in the United States as it seeks to take business away from Microsoft. “Sure cultures change and they have to become more disciplined, but you will still find [the best firms] will have a shared DNA and vision. It is one of the things you have to work hard at,” he says.
Evernote’s Mr Libin thinks culture should be far more malleable and transformative. “It’s a mistake to think about preserving culture. I don’t think you can preserve it. If you try to preserve it, you get something that becomes very brittle. That’s a cult, not a company,” he says. “Culture is going to change – it’s the CEO’s job to help change the culture.”
His other big ambition is to have Evernote become a “100-year startup”, one that creates a culture that helps employees and customers accomplish more of what they want to achieve. “When does a startup become a company and become something worse?” he asks. “When people are just doing work and they don’t understand why.”
However a business’s culture changes, entrepreneurs can still keep chasing their dream. “We wanted to do something sufficiently epic – we’re thinking about how we do more,” Mr Libin adds.