Today’s start-ups are like organic sausages

By Bertie Stephens on November 21st, 2012

Odd, isn’t it? Scrumptious pork-filled delights, sometimes with additional garnishing of apple or caramelised onions, representing an industry sector. So as not to alienate the vegetarians, I will happily extend this metaphor to the entire organic range. My thought was the mention of food in the headline would draw more visitors if the column was released around lunchtime. Brave, especially when I have no control over when this might be published. [We’ve got your back. — Ed.]

Let’s imagine you order a gift card for a subscription to a top magazine for someone for Christmas. It arrives through the post to you, but comes in a hand-written, obviously second-hand, envelope. You’re in a dilemma. (This happened by the way.) Firstly, how special does it make you feel? Someone from a top magazine has actually had the time to hand-write your envelope and more than likely pop it in the post to you. That’s a really great, personal service.

But then, how small fry is this? I thought this was a top magazine? I thought I was buying something that loads of people were buying? Surely if this is as popular and great as I thought, no-one would have time to write it out by hand to me, and it would all be done automatically by a machine.

There certainly comes a point where you have to move from “I” to “we”. I’ve never been able to get this switchover right. Over the last five years, as side projects, I’ve started a radio voiceover company, a print magazine, a coupon card company, plus a few others.

These have always been just me, experiments as I explored my own business acumen, and the only external funding I got for these was my parents once putting in about £500 (as part of my birthday present) to help with initial print costs.

On all these websites, I always wrote “We provide some of the best…”, “We publish articles that are…”, but yes, it was only me.

At my current start-up, where there are quite a few of us, and the company has received some investment, I still handle a number of the customer service e-mails, and if the phone rings, I sometimes answer it. We have a couple of people who handle the customer care on a more regular basis, but I haven’t fully removed myself from it. I probably should; many successful business start-up leaders talk about firing yourself from day-to-day positions as quickly as possible. But at the time of writing, so far I haven’t.

Earlier in the week, a lady phoned up around 7am. Why on Earth she thought anyone would be in the office that early, I’m not sure, but there you go. I was the only one in and obviously had to answer the call. She was angry, and rightly so: according to her, we had completely messed up about two or three of her orders in succession. I dealt with the call, sympathised, offered solutions, and by the end of the call I was confident we’d come to a resolution.

She asked my name before she hung up. I told her, but then she asked my position, and I hesitated. Naturally, under my default guise of “we”, I would normally at this point have blended into the thousands of employees we supposedly have at this giant e-commerce company she bought from. But over the immediacy of the phone I came back with the truth: I’m the founder and (albeit self-appointed) CEO.

She was surprised, but also happy that she had inadvertently spoken to the best person possible. (She wasn’t, of course: someone who’s able to spend all day sorting out her problem rather than being dragged from meeting to meeting with investors would have been much better, but that’s beside the point.) And this is where my juicy organic sausages come back into the story.

Not so long ago, big supermarkets and mass produced food were all the rage. It makes sense. If things can be done more efficiently with machines and food can be made cheaper in bulk, that’s obviously the future. But then the organic food revolution came along, and suddenly we flipped back to how things once were. The past was suddenly cool again.

We all know, thanks to Apple and Android opening the door and enabling anyone to create an app, and therefore almost anyone to create a tech start-up, that the industry became filled with one man bands, starting new businesses on a global scale. And just as we’re now accustomed to the picture of a local farmer on the front of our ready meal, suddenly we now all accept that the innovation that can come from micro-companies also offers us true advantages.

In other words, it’s OK to be “I” now: people won’t mind or lose trust in you just because you’re small. It wasn’t like this in the world of business just a few years ago. But “I” is in fashion again, just like it used to be down the High Street with your local butcher. (Except now it’s your local butcher finder app, or something.)

There is a point where “I” must become “we”. I still don’t know where that point is. Right now, my start-up is small enough to have a bit of both, but I think the more money you exchange with your customers, the quicker you must become “we”.

Because you wouldn’t really want the chief executive of Tesco to answer your call, would you? As much as you might initially want to “speak to the manager”, there’s comfort in a bit of bureaucracy. You enjoy that the company is big enough to look after you, and big enough to write off a product return because it’s not going to send them into the red.

Imagine if, when you took back that broken hoover, you had to worry about whether the store owner would be able to afford to replace it. Worse, imagine every time you complained about your poor experience, you visualised the unhappy owner with his small children standing by his side. Perhaps one of them has a grubby outstretched hand, or an empty porridge bowl.

Luckily, with Tesco, you can express your annoyance to any degree you feel happy with, and then stride blissfully back there the next day to buy your weekly shop. No one needs to care when they’re a “we”.

There’s a stage at which “I” isn’t as good as people think it is, or at least good as people want it to be. Finding that tipping point needs serious consideration, but it’s great for us, starting out, that these days you can once again be honest and be “I” again.