We’re entering an era of real-time business with start-ups setting the pace

Real-time reaction is the new currency in business and – for the most part – entrepreneurs and lean start-ups are making mincemeat out of big corporates.

“Business has sped up in the past ten years,” says Rupert Lee-Browne, founder of broker Caxton FX, which has evolved from order-taking by fax to instant responsiveness in its ten-year life. “Things have never moved this fast, and will never move this slowly again”, said Per Sundin of Universal Music Sweden last year.

Cate Trotter, founder of Insider Trends and guru of the real-time revolution, has bags of data on our speed addiction: the average lunch break shrunk to 29 minutes in 2013 (from 33 in 2012, according to OnePoll); 76 per cent of drivers eat while driving; 70 per cent feed their children in the car.

Think of your own habits. Don’t you feel miffed when your emails aren’t answered immediately? Aren’t you disappointed when a newspaper doesn’t run a live blog for big sports events?

And all of this is great news for smaller businesses. Light on their feet, without the leaden drag of big operating costs, they can respond to customers and changing market trends in a flash. While large organisations agonise over the relative merits of a new service, or fuss over developing what marketing types think is the perfect model (normally to discover that it isn’t), lean startups bring the minimum viable product to market, see how consumers react, and then adapt accordingly.

Part of it is down to enabling technologies or services. It’s easy and cheap for startups to put their ideas in front of the public for very little money – setting up a Facebook page instead of using a website; using PayPal and Square to take payments; and finding retail space through Appear Here or We Are Pop Up.

“Rocket-powered delivery” is the essence of the delivery platform Shutl (which has just been acquired by eBay). It enables retailers to offer one-hour delivery slots to consumers who’ve bought something online. It recently set a new record for an online order-to-delivery time of 13 minutes and 57 seconds.

But it’s about more than technology. For Shutl founder Tom Allason, responsiveness is more important than speed: “entrepreneurs are closer to the profit and loss account, making it easier for them to see hazards or opportunity, and to change direction quickly”.

So we are entering the age of “real-time business”, and Britain seems to be pretty good at it. The real-time sports data business Opta was recently sold to Perform Group for an eye-watering multiple. The much-derided Wonga is, in many ways, a laboratory for a new world of real-time finance.

Earlier this year, I visited McLaren Applied Technologies (which applies Formula 1 R&D into mainstream business). Its chief executive Geoff McGrath told me the firm is talking to media companies about applying McLaren’s live-feed technology (which it uses to monitor drivers’ heartbeats during races) to live sports broadcasts. Via the red button, you could soon monitor Luis Suarez’s blood pressure in real-time. Now that’s entertainment.

This article was originally published in City AM on October 24, 2013.

Marketing turned on its head

High-performance, small and mid-sized companies are the powerhouse of the UK economy. I could bore you with data about the disproportionate contribution of 24,000 mid-sized companies to national economic performance, but these companies are enormously important to the UK.

We live in a fast-changing, real-time, digital, information-saturated, still-in-the-intensive-care-ward economy. From where I sit, a combination of entrepreneurialism and digital technology are redefining the UK and, indeed, global economy.

Our large employers are crumbling under the weight of their operating costs and inflexibility. In a world where looseness and speed are everything, they are no longer fit for purpose.

Okay, this isn’t a properly comparable scenario, but it makes an interesting point. RBS: 150,000 employees to serve 33m customers; Wonga: 400 employees to service three million.

And there are no new giant employers waiting in the wings to replace the mega-corporates and public sector of the past.

We still hang onto data about “full-time jobs” when the economy is moving in a different direction towards micro-entrepreneurship, part-time working, agile working patterns.

Most of the businesspeople I meet don’t want to employ lots more people, but they do want to engage with skilled, highly productive specialists – whether that’s individuals or niche small businesses.

This kind of economy – full of high-performance, internationally focused, mid-sized and small businesses – will put the UK in a much better position to roll with a new world of permanent volatility.

I think that sales and marketing are subject to the same forces as the wider economy.

The old world, in which large organisations bombarded the marketplace with sales messages until they relented, has gone.

The monopoly of the traditional media, too, has been loosened, by social media.

Whatever the size of your operation, it’s possible now to establish a direct relationship with a global audience. Your voice can be just as influential as the deep-pocketed corporates.

But this does bring challenges: your customers can, in the same way, find out about you, your services, your track record. In an instant. And if it’s not good enough, they’ll be away in a flash.

So sales and marketing has become more direct, more transparent, more honest perhaps. It’s my view that businesses have to stand for something bigger than the products they sell. You have to have a voice, a mission, something for your customers to buy into.

This is an edited version of my speech to the Building British Business event on September 20, 2013.