Secrets to making a start-up success

July, 07/2018 - 09:00

Brian Spence, our expat financial services expert, shares his wisdom on how to make a start-up business a success.

Brian Spence
Viet Nam News

Brian Spence *

I recently wrote about UK “unicorns” - start-ups that have reached a valuation of US$1 billion or more - demonstrating how British entrepreneurs are finding mythical levels of success in a whole range of sectors. And what inspiring stories those are.

Growth of that order is, of course, very rare and most entrepreneurs will be aiming for success of a far more modest level. One should always aim for the stars, but most people will be very happy to achieve long-term financial security for themselves and their family. That has certainly always been my objective in starting new businesses.

As readers will know, the Vietnamese Government has set out ambitions of creating a vibrant “start-up nation” and wants to see a million new enterprises being born by 2020. The entrepreneurial spirit is remarkably strong in Việt Nam, and I would be delighted to see it nurturing unicorns of its own. However, the reality (at least for the present) is that Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) are likely to form the bulk of these start-ups, and prove the engine of job creation and Việt Nam’s further economic growth.

For entrepreneurs, there is always something to learn from success stories of any kind, however. The principles for growing a successful business remain largely the same, irrespective of magnitude, region and, indeed, sector. My own specialism is in financial services, but I have learnt an incredible amount from business people of myriad kinds. Often a fresh perspective is invaluable and you should always share insights where you can.

So, here are some of the secrets I always try to convey to my fellow entrepreneurs.

Know your market, and constantly eye your competitors

You may have a great idea, but it may be that others have had similar (or will do). Keep a constant eye on the competitive landscape to ensure you keep up with new developments. Know what has worked, and what has not, for others in your market.

Keep your customer central

The customer makes or breaks your business, so it goes without saying that you must keep them central to everything you do, however fast your business grows. Larger firms should do regular market research and test new products/services with real clients extensively. Smaller enterprises should enlist help from wherever they can (family and friends are useful here!). Really listen to any customer feedback you get. It is gold to a growing business.

Cultivate candid contributors

It is vital to have as many experienced, honest viewpoints as possible as your business evolves – people who will tell you how it really is, even if you don’t necessarily want to hear it. Larger businesses should look to employ non-executive directors to help steer their business, but even smaller ones can seek regular input from seasoned business people in more informal ways, so get networking!

Keep the passion alive

The luckiest (and often most successful) businesspeople have chosen to start businesses in sectors they truly have a passion for. This ensures that they really do see gaps in the market and are sustained with innate enthusiasm when things get tough (as they always will in the course of growing a business). Stoke your passion by watching competitors and giving back to the community through your business where you can. Also make sure to reward yourself for your efforts and take time for you – this is very easy to forget.

Keep control, but not too much

At first you need to be involved in every decision to lay the right foundations for your business, and you should certainly remain “captain of the ship” as it grows. However, no one can possibly have responsibility for every single thing in a business of any appreciable size, so find the right people to help – and then let them.

Nurture relationships

Strong relationships - with customers, staff, suppliers, authorities – are the foundation of any business, so nurture these by “living your brand” in everything you do. Also maintain a good relationship with the person who started the business (you!) and don’t stray too far from your vision.

Stick to the plan, but not too rigidly

You should never compromise on your vision for the business, or your values. But while you should formulate a strong business plan, you must be open to changing it as circumstances dictate. Reacquaint yourself – and any staff – with your “mission” regularly, but also look for signals that your past roadmap is taking you slightly off course.

These are of course just a few of the key precepts I have picked up over the years, and I look forward to sharing more with readers as this column continues. It would be great to hear from entrepreneurial readers what their “secrets of success” are, and perhaps what the big pitfalls are to avoid also. Please get in touch with your business stories. – VNS

* Brian Spence is managing partner of S&P Investments. He has over 35 years of experience in the UK financial services industry as an investment manager, financial planner and M&A specialist. He is a regular contributor to the UK financial press and has a deep understanding of the financial services community. Brian’s column will reflect on all the challenges and opportunities within the Vietnamese market, bringing a fresh perspective to today’s hottest issues. The columnist’s email address is