Founding a startup that becomes a unicorn – a startup valued at more than $1 billion – is the elusive end-goal many aspiring entrepreneurs dream of. For those founders sweating it out in a cramped garage, the promise of industry recognition and making a mark on a global stage is enough to make those hard days, long nights and cup noodles worth it.
From Atlassian to Canva and MYOB, Australia’s unicorns have cast their name on an international stage and carved out a niche in their market thanks to one common approach. Their founders have all identified a gap in the market, created a solution to fill this gap, then employed structure, enthusiasm and tenacity to ensure this idea thrived.
For entrepreneurs looking to follow in their footsteps, there is good news: success comes from more than just good timing and a great idea.
Across the board, the approach to building a unicorn can be boiled down to a three-step process: Identifying a gap in the market, developing strong leadership and business skills, then tackling global markets head-on.
That means even if you’re not on-track to becoming a startup unicorn within the seven year timeframe, the skills needed to grow a fledgling startup into a billion-dollar giant can be distilled, learned, and honed.
Find your niche and own the space
Identifying a gap in the market and effectively marketing your unique value proposition is one of the first steps to creating a business success story.
The growing emphasis on sustainable business practices, for example, is opening up new niche opportunities in the market for savvy founders with a focus on social responsibility and sustainable environmental practices.
“One of our big focuses for 2018 has been to invest more in our value of “being a force for good”, and this stretches across all parts of the company, from small things we can do around the office, to community based projects, and on into our product,” says Cameron Adams, co-founder of Australian startup unicorn and graphic design platform Canva.
Matthew Jones of Melbourne-based salon management startup Honee has built his startup with a similarly sustainability-focused approach. Since launching, Honee has collected and digitised over 10,000 paper menus from salons, which Jones says has saved up to 81 trees a year.
The startup is also founded on a passion for helping the small businesses it works with generate more revenue from clients.
“What really excites me…is the people we are helping in small business. I’ll never forget the first [salon] owner that told me that they’ve been able to put their daughter in dance classes because of the extra revenue they were getting,” Jones says.
Once you’ve identified your market niche, it’s time to own the space with your products and services. Approaching growth and marketing efforts from a place of authenticity, responsibility and honesty will help build a global network of loyal brand advocates, according to Justin Dry, co-founder of Australian online wine retailer Vinomofo.
Dry advises marketing new products and services on a personal level, with an emphasis on community and sustainability that will have a global impact.
“[It’s about] ground up, grassroots community building. From one on ones, to one on 20, to one on a hundred,” he says.
“It’s what we did when we started out, and what we do when launching into a new market. It can create strong brand advocates who will share your product with the world. Recommendations are so much more powerful (and cheaper) than interrupting attention with paid advertising.”
Develop strong leadership and business skills
As international success stories, the founders of unicorns become household names in the Australian startup ecosystem: equally looked to for leadership and exposed to industry scrutiny.
That’s why it’s so important for entrepreneurs to deal with this pressure by developing strong leadership and business skills as they scale.
“Scaling a business is a crazy ride with lots of ups and downs so an ability to deal with pressure and uncertainty is a major plus,” says Dry.
“You need to be resilient in this business, especially when scaling, otherwise you can fall flat.”
For Adams, the secret to scaling successfully is multi-tasking.
“Being able to simultaneously think about the long-term vision while being able to prioritise short-term goals is an extremely important skill to have,” he says.
“If you can hold both of those in your head at the same time you will be able to make quick decisions that don’t penalise your long-term vision, and contribute to making a responsive, sustainable company.”
When scaling a rapidly-growing business, responsible and effective change management is key. For Dry, that means recognising the importance of those that make the day-to-day possible: your team.
“People really do make or break a business… Your team need to believe in you and your vision, and you in them,” he says.
During times of rapid growth, communication provides the vital buy-in needed for team members to feel engaged in the process of change, rather than threatened by it, according to Dry.
“Transparency, clear and continuous communication brings your team on your journey, they feel part of it and feel clear on what they’re contributing to,” he says.
Adams agrees, emphasising the importance of establishing a strong company culture as the basis for a growing business.
“One of the core things that we strive to hold onto as the team grows is the feeling that we are a close-knit family, so a lot of our initiatives are based around making newcomers feel welcome,” Adams says.
“Everyone can be part of the decision-making process and feel empowered to make Canva a great place to work.”
Growing a global perspective
The increasingly interconnected nature of work means finding success in the 21st century business landscape involves cultivating a global mindset from day one.
“If the market is there you should take it, before someone else… decides to,” Jones says.
Being aware of opportunities and competitors in global markets from the outset makes your offerings more refined and attractive to an international audience. This in turn allows businesses to capitalise on international opportunities faster.
Global expansion plays a key role in Canva’s continued growth, with the startup establishing offices in Manila and Beijing and last year announcing its plan to launch its offerings in 100 languages.
Even with the success of this global growth, Adams highlights that having a global perspective is about more than just capitalising on market share: it’s about helping as many people as possible with your product.
“[Canva’s] external impact is measured by how much positive change we bring to the world,” he says.
“Someone might look at our unicorn status and think that’s the hallmark of a successful company, but for me success is measured more in the positive internal and external impact that Canva has on people’s lives.”
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