Somewhere in the history of every successful business there is an identifiable turning point: a moment in its evolution when new opportunities sprouted, and when the future direction of the business became clear and growth suddenly erupted.
Take, for example, stories from some of the big technology brands we know and love today. Facebook’s decision to open its doors to non-students, Microsoft winning the contract to provide an operating system to IBM, and Steve Jobs’ decision to push Jonathan Ive’s creative designs for a new range of iMacs.
However, it’s not just the big names that have defining moments in their evolution – smaller businesses have turning points too.
Mike Soutar talks about how his Shortlist magazine empire sprung from an original idea for a consultancy business, while Lara Morgan admits her hotel supply business, Empire Direct, only really flourished after she went back to school to learn about big company management.
It’s the same story for Tony Banks, founder and chairman of care home business Balhousie Care Group. For him, it was a change of mindset and a new strategic direction that saw his company transform into an industry trailblazer.
“When I first started the company it was more of a lifestyle business to me. The family were young so I didn’t really want a business that would take up too much of my time,” says Tony. “The turning point came in 2003, when I went through some sort of ‘mid-life crisis’.
“It made me sit up and take notice of the opportunities that were readily available to me in the care home sector. My business was never struggling at any point – far from it – but the decision to make something more sustainable and expand my group of care homes was what made it really successful.”
The group has its origins in 1991, when Tony uncovered an in-demand niche for high-quality residential care. After 2003 – and partly because that need was still not completely satisfied – the group swelled to 23 homes and 800 residents being looked after by about the same number of staff.
Listening to customers
Phil Rothwell, sales director at Actinic Desktop, says turning points often happen when businesses discover what their customers really want. “From the customer’s viewpoint, great companies either deliver life-changing products and services, supply commodities in a stand-out kind of way, or do both at the same time”, Phil says.
“Marketing geeks call it differentiation, but you don't need an MBA to achieve it, just the ability to understand what your customers really need and deliver in a way that somehow exceeds expectations,” he adds.
Paul Ephremsen, founder of experiential creative agency iD, admits his business suffered a series of bumps during the early days, not least when the company nearly went bust after four months of trading and had to be bailed out by his parents.
However, a real transformation happened when the business switched its customer focus from agencies to brands. “We experienced a huge bad debt about 10 years ago when an agency client went out of business, owing us hundreds of thousands of pounds,” Paul explains.
“It was a tough lesson learned, and as a consequence we tightened up on our financial systems and reduced the amount of work we do for agencies. Nowadays, our client base is pretty much all brands direct which don't offer the same level of risk. So, in the long term we are a better business as a result of that bad break.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
Turning points are not always planned, though you generally have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Oli Christie, founder of app development business Neon Play, knows this better than anyone and he puts at least some of the firm’s success down to a chance happening.
Neon Play was already successful – with a number of popular gaming titles under its belt – and it had just launched a new app, ‘Paper Glider’, which was set to do well. At the same time, the Apple App Store was about to register its 10 billionth download and the tech industry was abuzz with talk of this notable milestone. The app that got the 10 billionth download was going to attract a lot of press attention and it was partly due to this that Neon Play switched ‘Paper Glider’ from a paid to a free model, to boost activity.
Oli picks up the story: “One Saturday night in January 2011, I had a missed call from California and an urgent text requesting a call back. It was Apple saying that our game ‘Paper Glider’ had become the 10 billionth download. Suddenly, and for a few days afterwards, we became the hottest story in the tech press and it gave us global news coverage on blogs, sites, papers, radio and TV – and all for free,” Oli says.
“We had endless ‘exclusive’ interviews and it really helped put Neon Play on the map as an app developer, which made it much easier to get coverage going forward. It also opened doors to speaking opportunities and it got people talking about us.”
Learning to adapt
Turning points can be drawn out over time, like in the case of Bucks and Berks Recruitment, established in 1922 and modernised during the 1980s to adapt to the new needs of increasingly mobile job hunters.
Turning points can also be the result of better communication, as in the case of PR agency Making Headlines. Founder Rebecca Gunn only experienced true growth when she realised her model of low cost PR for small businesses was proving tricky for potential customers to grasp. By offering a 30-day free trial and simplifying the wording of the service, customers had more opportunity to understand the offering. And it was this change of tack that saw Making Headlines’ client base grow from 15 to 140 almost overnight.
Turning points can save a business or even transform a good enterprise into a thriving multinational. Yet the most important lesson to take away from these examples is that listening to customers and regularly reviewing your business model is the best way to invite such an event to take place.
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