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Founders need the stamina to run a marathon, not a sprint

This piece by Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M, see here

Who’d have thought it? Turns out that marathons are good for you.

New research last week revealed that one of the best ways to reduce your cardiovascular age is to get your jogging shoes on and complete the mammoth test of endurance.

This comes despite years of expert warnings that this type of exercise was a sure-fire way of achieving injury — and worse.

In business, the idea of the marathon innings has also been out of favour for some time. With the rise of young technology firms, the idea of the sprint — start it, scale it, sell it — has been very much the established wisdom.

Little wonder. If your mantra is to “go fast and break things”, you either make it quickly or find that you can only go so far before the gravity-defying stresses and strains of never-ending velocity take their toll.

But times change. Just a few years ago names like Zuckerberg and Musk were used as shorthand for the young fledgling firms of the future: Facebook and Tesla. Today, these erstwhile disruptors have evolved into the new business establishment. And what’s more, they are sticking around.

But getting it right over the long term is easier said than done. Last week’s slew of disappointing results for John Lewis, Tesco and M&S shows that there is no respect for age if it can’t be paired up with performance.

Indeed, a report from Schroders revealed that only 28 of the companies from the 1984 FTSE 100 remained on the index in 2017.

Clearly, the issue of not only scaling but sustaining is crucial. And the apparent inability of so many British firms to do this is perhaps why critics of the UK cite business short-termism as our fundamental flaw.

With this reproach comes the accusation that we are outstanding as a nation for starting businesses but not skilled at scaling them to endure over the long term — a charge usually phrased along the lines of “why can’t we create a British Google?”.

It’s an uncomfortable question because it speaks to the levels of ambition and stamina required of leaders to create and build genuine world-beaters.

Sometimes founders are indeed tempted to sell up too soon before the full potential of their business has been realised: I’ve heard it described as the lure of “mansions and Maseratis”.

However, there is definitely more to the story. Over the last decade the enterprise scene in the UK has transformed, and with it the stock of British businesses has not only grown — it has survived and very often thrived.

In 2010 there were more businesses going bust than being created. Fast-forward to now and that position has not just been reversed, but has led to a much larger overall stock of firms, from 4.5m in 2010 to 5.9m in 2019.

Philip Salter of The Entrepreneurs Network explains the significance of this: “UK business survival rates have stayed constant over recent years. Combine this with the ever growing stock of companies and you have a higher number of mature businesses in circulation than we ever had before.”

However, if this change represents the reality of UK enterprise today, it doesn’t reflect the culture that supports and nurtures it.

As a co-founder of Startup Britain I’m hardly going to bemoan a focus on startups, but the excitement about new firms needs a corresponding buzz about those that are in it for the long haul: the proven performers that have persevered and prospered.

And make no mistake, this is much more than a profile issue. If entrepreneurs are going to be working on their businesses for longer, they need to learn new coping skills and also access support structures that promote endurance.

Take the issue of “founder fatigue”. Too often, this is seen as a worrying sign of a founder’s brittle weakness and likely failure, rather than an issue that can be addressed.

This needs to change, and fast, because burn-out is a serious threat if you are going to hang around for the long term.

Indeed, many highly successful entrepreneurs will privately tell you of the emotional and physical strains that go on behind the scenes of some of our most exciting firms, citing them as issues of real significance that could threaten long-term sustainability.

So while the accelerated scale and sale of businesses represents a very healthy part of the UK enterprise scene, with a new decade comes a new challenge: what does it take for unparalleled numbers of British firms to be built to last over the long term? Because for a great many, this won’t be a sprint — it will be a marathon.

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