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Leadership & Strategy


Weighing up quick business wins with longer-burn strategies

Cassandra Stavrou quick business wins
Propercorn founder Cassandra Stavrou looks at the potential for small changes to become big wins

It may be tempting to launch into a series of grand plans designed to catapult your company to the next level, but ignoring quick business wins could mean you struggle with momentum.

One of the required skills when it comes to leading a fast-growing business is being able to balance quick business wins with changes that take longer to have an impact. Just like in life, balancing short-term decisions (“I would like to eat this chocolate bar”) with longer-term ones (“I want to lose weight”) can become a battle over instant gratification and slow-burn overall health.

“Decision making and commercial success are inextricably linked – whether you’re looking at the short or long term, it’s critical you get it right”, said Cassandra Stavrou, co-founder of London-based Propercorn, a premium popcorn business founded in 2011 that employs 35 staff. “This is especially true in SMEs where the results and impact of all decisions are felt harder,” she added.

Stavrou is clearly getting something right, as the company now sells close to three million bags of popcorn a month. Yet cultivating the judgement needed to balance quick business wins with longer burns can be tricky.

Big vs. small

“The thing I struggle with the most is personal biases and instincts, which can easily creep in when you should be relying on the facts in front of you,” she admitted. Stavrou has learnt to view every decision she takes, no matter how small, as having the potential to have a longer-term impact on the company in some way.

“Every business or idea will, by nature, start small and I would urge everyone to care about the detail, about the little things. Just don’t let them slow you down. It’s a hard balance to strike, but maintaining momentum is so important in any brand or business,” she advised.

Strategically, going for low-hanging fruit can be a wise move to bring in cash and add pace to a business, she argued, which can in turn support the team’s ability to prepare and work towards the more time consuming changes.

Signing a lease
Moving to a bigger office is a big move, but one made easier by building small wins

And often the longer burns can bring unexpected quick wins. This happened for Stavrou when she fell in love with a canal-side office space that was significantly out of budget but a place she felt would be an inspiring and productive place for the team to work. “We didn’t want to miss the opportunity and, longer term, we had conviction the company would grow enough,” she said. Stavrou and her co-founder therefore took the decision to sign the lease, knowing that, financially, it would perhaps have been wiser to wait another year before committing to that level of cost.

It forced the duo to get creative in how they used the space by sub-letting to other startups and using it for events. “It has allowed us to build an amazing community around the team,” reflected Stavrou.

A long-term burn that didn’t work out well however was the decision to launch a product called Crunch Corn, which Stavrou described as a “leap of faith” but one which didn’t pay off. The crunchier-style of popcorn didn’t prove as popular as the team had hoped, and production was halted at the end of last year. “But you’ve got to dust yourself off and keep innovating in order to create the best product possible – try, test, experiment and a good idea can come from anywhere,” she said.

Fuelling innovation

James Ecclestone, founder and chairman of The Grown Up Chocolate Company, operates at the more indulgent end of the snack market. He founded his artisanal chocolate making business in 2010 and employees 37 people in its factory in Harlow, Essex – supplying retro-style chocolate bars to Ocado, Virgin Airlines and BP petrol garages, as well as exporting to more than 20 countries, including the US. Ecclestone is about to increase capacity and move premises to Wales, such is the company’s success.

James Ecclestone knows how draining big projects can be

Ecclestone believes that, for an SME to thrive, a balance must be found between short-term and long-term wins. “Too many large contracts can stifle innovation, as well as leaving the company vulnerable each time the contract is renewed,” he noted. Yet too many easier, short-term wins with customers who might be less loyal or always changing their demands can make the business volatile. “You perhaps need to be lighting the fires on the longer burn work, thinking 18 months in advance because the best work can take this long. Depending on where you potentially set the balance of percentages between long- and short-term work dictates where you perhaps place your resources,” he explained.

In his experience, longer burn opportunities are potentially lower margin as they typically involve onerous and detailed competitive tendering. Yet once won, the contracts are more stable, have a higher volume, are fixed for relatively long periods of time and can be difficult for a competitor to replace. They can also provide excellent references for a business, giving it a confidence boost and improving the company’s status for other similar contracts.

Ecclestone went on to explain that he has a target list of 20 potential long-term customers that is reviewed every six months. Although resources are focused on maintaining this list, longer burns such as this and short-term quick business wins are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

“Often a longer-burn customer will have short-term needs and project opportunities,” he said. “We do not actively target short term opportunities as these have tended to present themselves both from our history and reputation in the business and the relationships we have built up over the years.”

It also works vice versa, with quick wins leading to longer term opportunities. For example, The Grown Up Chocolate Company was asked to do a quick marketing job for its bank, Aldermore. “Whilst this didn’t seem worthwhile at the time, we were pleased to support a friend of the business”, noted Ecclestone. “Since doing that first job a number of people in Aldermore have found a need of our services at sales events and promotions. This business has grown from a short-term opportunity to a significant customer.”

What’s clear is that quick business wins and longer burns are not mutually exclusive – it’s just getting the balance right and allowing for the unexpected opportunities in both that matter.

Find out why balancing business ambition means not setting unattainable growth targets.

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