Startups are, and will likely always be, risky business in a very literal sense. Many different aspects of the business need to be working in perfect harmony to deliver a product or service that makes sense to its market.
Many markets are impatient, and if a startup fails to bolster a specific corner of their business, i.e. customer service, logistics, or manufacturing, they may never again have the opportunity to disrupt that market and sustain growth.
Despite all the more typical challenges startups face, no one in tech, finance, or any other discipline for that matter, could have predicted the difficulties of 2020 and the subsequent effects on the global economy.
As we’ve seen over the last several months, certain companies, both large and small, have been especially well-situated to thrive under the conditions of quarantine and social distancing, while many others have struggled to adapt to these conditions and retain their customer base.
Widespread economic turmoil has only made the landscape even more unyielding to small businesses and startups.
With this in mind, we contacted Gyorgy Tomso, who has both extensive experience with (and impressive reputation within) FinTech and startups. We asked Tomso to analyze and comment on these conditions and discuss whether startups can cultivate sustainable growth in what advertisers have referred to as “uncertain times.”
Tomso is an expert in global financial services, having helped to build successful startups in Hungary, his home country, back when the term ‘startup’ was barely being used.
Working with FinTech company Pay U.S.A., Tomso has made major contributions, including initiatives that resulted in year-over-year business growth of 30+%. Tomso also expanded Euronet Worldwide Inc. into fifteen new countries. The former startup is now publicly traded and valued at $1.5 billion.
Key questions for startup success
Those considering forming a startup of their own are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of factors that need to be taken into account.
Even if they have a vision of what they would like that startup to be three, five, or ten years into the future, understanding how to achieve that vision is rife with complexity, and so potential founders sometimes get lost in abstract ideation.
Ideation is inevitably a major part of any startup in the very early stages. But in Tomso’s view, working out a highly useful and potentially profitable core idea for a startup is only half the battle.
It’s also extremely important to consider the practical, execution side of that idea or offering.
“There are two key questions for me. Does the idea address a real-life problem that will provide solutions for an existing or rapidly developing customer base? Does the team have the talent, experience, and dedication to drive the project? If the answer to both is yes, then I think there is a great chance for growth.”
When you take a look at any number of failed startups, it’s fairly easy to identify a deficit in at least one of these two areas.
There have been quite a few startups that offered compelling products or services but failed to deliver on those promises or even to communicate that value to potential customers.
In contrast, especially crowded markets often play host to a large number of startups that haven’t effectively distinguished their product from the competition, and as a result, customers fade away quickly or remain unaware that these smaller brands even exist.
The current startup environment
Given these two key questions, we wanted to know how Tomso felt about the current startup environment and whether he’s noticed any trends among startups that relate back to these very important questions.
Indeed, Tomso feels that many startups look before they leap, not seriously considering whether the central idea upon which they want to base their business is truly worth the time, effort, and significant financial investment.
“I see a lot of initiatives, ideas that are ‘let’s try and see’ without any underlying value. Those fade out quite quickly. The good news is there are several available channels where good ideas can find support and flourish. The actual barriers are minimal to get going with a startup.”
This mistake speaks to a somewhat prevalent misinterpretation of startup culture and the chances of finding success.
This misconception holds that just about any startup, regardless of its market or the strength of its business model and its team, is bound to find success and eventually have an IPO or be acquired by one of the tech giants.
Some startups do achieve this level of success, but many more dissolve by their fourth year.
What Tomso has highlighted here is that, given the ubiquity of startups, there are many resources available than there ever have been before. Taking advantage of those resources isn’t just advisable; it’s also crucial in many cases.
Necessities for long-term growth
Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint, and for startups in particular, the first several years of operation are incredibly vital. This is when the customer base expands and branding is established.
Forming a reputation based on ease of use and high-quality products can continue to generate positive press and contribute to passive marketing for many years to come.
But navigating the many challenges of running a startup will always be a part of the process, and many of those challenges will continue on well after the 5-year mark.
What do startups need to survive difficult times and continue to grow over a long period of time? Tomso walked us through two necessities for long-term growth, the value of which he has seen demonstrated again and again during his professional experience.
Persistence and problem-solving
Persistence and problem-solving may sound like business buzzwords, but in practice, these qualities can make the difference between success and failure for any kind of startup.
Persistence specifically can be applied to a startup’s product or service in the way it needs to continue to offer value over time, but it also refers to the team’s willingness to support their product for many years and develop new ones as well.
Problem-solving works in tandem with persistence. If persistence is the will to overcome a challenge, then problem-solving is the actual work of looking for and executing a clever solution.
Tomso feels that the success of Euronet was dependent on the team’s ability to bring both of these skills to the table, not just on rare occasions but on a consistent basis.
“I joined Euronet in the early days. We grew from one county of operation to a regional company, then a global company. It was a challenge in those days as IT, infrastructure, applications availability, and reliability were very different than they are today. However, clear vision by the leadership team and dedicated focus to reach the next milestone helped to achieve our goals.”
While the specific difficulties Tomso mentions here have been lessened today, there will always be more problems, more challenges to be faced, and without the skill and determination to tackle them, startups will find themselves struggling.
Changing the status quo
This necessity is all about innovation, which is yet another term that has been used and overused in recent memory.
But outside of that usage, the concept remains very important, especially for organizations that have achieved a certain amount of success and so have become complacent in the way things are done. This could force them to miss out on vital improvements, as Tomso explained:
“Continuous improvement sounds great but it’s hard to deliver. Organizations can easily accept the way they work, how processes are set up, and the technology that they use. The challenge is to bring back flexibility and resources to continuously measure, evaluate, and improve performance in the organization.”
That kind of complacency is easily illustrated in different areas of daily life. It’s comfortable to become accustomed to the same routine, the same kinds of meals, and even the same outfits worn week after week.
But a spry company willing to change is immediately at an advantage. It can cost a lot to explore improvements and alternate avenues, but in competitive markets, there’s rarely time to stand still.
Just as the events of 2020 have inexorably changed the startup landscape, Tomso also mentioned that emerging tech could have an immense impact on startups of the near future.
“We hear a lot about AI. Today, several industry players are working to leverage current data assets to provide more customized products and services to their customers with the help of AI. I think successful implementations will exponentially grow in the coming years.”
The potential applications of AI and machine learning in the startup space are extensive. Being able to provide customers with a bespoke experience without needing to have an enormous staff would be a gamechanger in just about any industry.
Even so, AI and Big Data would only affect certain aspects of startups that we’ve discussed here, namely each startup’s core idea and their execution of that idea.
Many of the other traits we’ve talked about would remain just as important as ever, and this is an excellent example of how business itself continues to change while still maintaining certain principles.
Startups need to keep an eye on both: the new and exciting tech that could improve their offering and the work ethic and skill needed to keep the ship afloat.
With both of these in hand, startups can grow and flourish even in challenging times.