Many years ago, when I was the senior buyer for all the "men’s" products at Boots, I met a great many entrepreneurs. To an individual, they were all intelligent, highly responsive and incredibly passionate about the products they were pitching me. But more than that, they were prepared to agree an order, without a clue how they’d fulfil it, then work like hell to make it happen. That self-belief was captivating and it’s the reason I’m still friends with many of them, all these years later.
One of those entrepreneurs was Will King, the man behind the King of Shaves brand. He once described to me how he made his first bulk sale to Harrods, then raced back home and spent most of the next few weeks hunched over his kitchen sink hand-filling tiny bottles with his hand-made shaving oil, just to get enough stock for the order that he’d sold. Like most entrepreneurs, with half a dozen different ideas, he couldn’t afford to build all of them in the hope that buyers would like them. "Build it and they will come" might have worked for Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams, but it’s a recipe for disaster for an entrepreneur.
The same is true for innovating within a charity, especially when it comes to developing new commercial income. Ideas that look great on paper might not look quite so great to your potential customers; and prices and margins that look fine in a spreadsheet might well turn out to be a far cry from reality when the numbers actually come through, as the RNIB’s recent experience should testify.
The worst thing you can do is to develop some great ideas, then go straight into building the capacity to deliver them. Instead, like an entrepreneur, the first thing you should do with your idea is to go out there and try to sell it. You’ll learn pretty quickly what customers really think, what they would and wouldn’t pay for, and how you’ll need to evolve your offer, your approach and your thinking in order for it to succeed.
When I start a project with a client to help them find new opportunities, one of the questions I invariably get asked is: "Will we get a sense of the investment and resources we will need to deliver these ideas?" It’s a logical question to ask, but it’s also the wrong question to ask. The right question is: "What will we need to invest to get out there, to test and refine the ideas with real customers and to start making a few sales?"
That question is far easier to answer. In fact, I can tell you the answer now. You’ll need to free up one or two people for each area you want to explore, people who are intelligent, responsive and passionate, and, most important of all, can act like entrepreneurs – working out the opportunity with an individual customer, making the sale, then racing back to the office to try to make it happen. It’s a smarter, leaner, much less risky approach. More to the point, it works.
Occasionally you might make a promise to a customer that, even with your best efforts, you can’t entirely keep, but expectations can be managed and relationships can be repaired. You might even find you’ve invested in six months of salary only to discover the opportunity you’re exploring doesn’t actually exist, but what you won’t do is invest seven figures in building a team, a department, a whole baseball ground and finding that nobody will pay the full price of a ticket.
You can’t jump from idea to capacity-building without proof that an idea works and that the numbers actually stack up. And for commercial opportunities, the only way to get that proof is to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, to go out there with your ideas and start selling.
Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting