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Why Start-ups Like Uber Stumble When They Scale

High-growth companies will more often than not stumble and fall because of internal factors. Here’s what you should be paying attention to in your organisation if you have ambitions to scale.

Chris Zook and James Allen

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The news last year that Uber’s CEO was stepping down was probably not a surprise to those who had been following the company in the headlines.

In our work over many years, we have learnt enough to know that you have to be on the inside of any company to have the full picture of what went wrong and how. But we do know from our research that rapidly growing companies — especially unicorns like Uber — face a high risk of stumbling.

As a business term, ‘unicorn’ was coined to describe a rarity: In 2011 there were just 28 early-stage companies, still privately owned, with investment valuations of $1 billion or more. Today there are more than 200 unicorns, with a total value estimated by CB Insights at almost $700 billion. Uber is one of them: Its valuation rose to a record-setting $68 billion just seven years after its founding, despite reporting losses of more than $700 million in the first quarter of 2017.

But when we tracked those 28 unicorns (along with 11 similar companies with valuations of $600 million or more) over the period from 2011 to the present, we found that 33% failed to grow at all and another 28% grew less than expected. Nearly two in three died or stumbled. Unicorns and near-unicorns actually are much more prone to self-induced internal breakdowns than they are vulnerable to adverse events in the marketplace.

Related: How To Drive Customer Referrals (When You Aren’t Airbnb, Dropbox or Uber)

And they’re not alone. One of the hardest acts in business is scaling a business rapidly and profitably. Bain’s research concludes that of all new businesses registered in the US, only about one in 500 will reach a size of $100 million — and a mere one in 17 000 will attain $500 million in size and also sustain a decade of profitable growth.

Why internal threats are real

More often, they trip over themselves. Research for our book, The Founder’s Mentality found that 85% of the time, the barriers to growth cited by executives at rapidly growing companies are internal — as opposed to, say, external threats such as unreceptive customers, a misread business opportunity or the moves of a dangerous competitor.

The title of the book celebrates the internal energy and sense of insurgency that propels rapidly growing companies, but the book also warns of four predictable internal growth barriers that all too often trip up these companies during their pursuit of scale.

lightning-in-a-bottleOne of these is what we called the unscalable founder. We believe the founder’s mentality is a strategic asset. Nurtured correctly, it can help a company achieve scale insurgency — a company with the benefits of both size and agility. But many individual founders aren’t scalable. Individual founders can become a barrier to growth if they are unable to let go of the details and micromanage, fail to build a cohesive team around them, or allow hubris to get in their way. We found that 37% of executives at growing companies describe the unscalable founder as a major barrier to their success.

Scaling a business requires enormous determination — it’s like catching lightning in a bottle.

Typically, founders discover a repeatable model of success that is extraordinary and are rewarded for ignoring distractions and focusing ruthlessly on that single insurgent mission and the repeatable model that delivers it. But over time the market changes and the company needs to change its model. The same founder who was rewarded for ignoring distractions previously is often the last person to adapt.

The skills that help founders get their company to take off are often the opposite of those needed to sustain new growth. Founders focus on speed, ignore good process and relish breaking the rules of the industry they are trying to disrupt. They cut corners, ignore detractors, and avoid naysayers. Their Herculean efforts are responsible for the firm’s creation, but also its chaos. Once the company reaches cruising altitude, its leaders need to listen more to competing voices and invest more time in emerging stakeholders.

Founders are also often responsible for driving their teams to stretch and accomplish far more than ever seemed possible, sometimes at enormous personal sacrifice. Yet this can make it impossible for them to replace or supplement these foundational team members with new professionals who can take the organisation to the next level. The founder remains too loyal to the original team.

Founders who both create and successfully scale their company are like lightning striking twice — the miracle of creation and the miracle of sustainable growth in the same person. That is rare.

Internal breakdowns in action

The other three barriers described in our book underscore the challenge. Some 55% of executives cite the problem of revenue growing faster than talent: The company grows so quickly that it has trouble attracting the quality and amount of talent that it needs. And as growth creates complexity, complexity becomes a silent killer of growth: 22% of executives cite a lack of accountability as the company expands and the rules become unclear. At its worst, this can breed a toxic culture. Perhaps most perplexing, 25% of executives cite loss of the voices at the front line as the growing company becomes preoccupied with internal matters, numbing it to customer feedback that can improve the business model or to the concerns of frontline employees.

In our study of unicorns, we took a closer look at ten that stumbled the hardest, companies like Groupon, Zenefits, Jawbone, GoPro, and Zynga — a group that experienced a peak-to-trough valuation decline of about 75% on average. We concluded that about half encountered major external market challenges that clearly contributed to the decline; we found that these external factors always impeded the progress of the company in combination with a well-documented internal breakdown.

Related: How Uber Grew To A Billion Dollar Business (And How You Can Make Money With It)

For instance, GoPro discovered that to really fulfil its growth potential it was going to have to not just become a manufacturer of small camera devices — a difficult business to defend against the large consumer electronics companies like Sony — but also create an ecosystem of services (uploading to the Cloud) and products (drones with cameras) that would differentiate it in the future. This is what founder Nick Woodman described as becoming a sort of ‘mini Apple’, a much harder strategy to successfully execute. That challenge was reflected in a near 50% revenue shortfall in 2016 from what analysts had expected, ultimately triggering a decline in the company’s valuation down to $1 billion from its onetime high of $12 billion.

In contrast to the moderate frequency of external breakdowns, literally every one of the fallen unicorns we studied encountered well-documented internal issues that contributed to or actually caused the stumble. Consider Zenefits, a provider of efficient online employee benefits services for small and medium-size companies.

In early 2015 Zenefits announced that its revenues were going to increase by a factor of ten that year, to $100 million, causing investors to flood it with money at a valuation of over $4 billion. The core idea for the company had been well proven, the market was certainly large and untapped, and Zenefits was clearly in the lead. Yet according to the company itself, Zenefits stumbled because it wasn’t prepared internally for scaling up.

When its valuation collapsed by 55%, and its CEO-founder was replaced, the new CEO wrote an email to staff noting, “It is no secret that Zenefits grew too fast, stretching both our culture and our controls.’’ For instance, the company’s ‘frat-like’ culture became too dysfunctional to run a tight operation in a highly regulated industry, and some of the measures taken to certify new employees in health insurance law became severely compromised.

Assessing your ability to Scale

If these are the rock stars of business — surrounded by the best investors, boards and advisers — what about the rest? To dig deeper into the challenges facing high-growth companies, we held more than 25 workshops across the world, assembling a group we called the Founder’s Mentality 100: Companies that attained early success and scale, and showed further promise and desire to grow by five or even ten times over the coming years. When we surveyed executives in these private discussion sessions, we found a consistent story:

Only 15% of the time did these leaders feel that the primary threat to achieving their plans was external (a superior competitor, a new business model, government regulation, market shifts or saturation). The majority were internal factors — factors they should be able to control.

Related: Should You Scale Or Should You Grow? (The 2 Strategies Are Not the Same)

When monitoring our health, doctors use a set of proven questions and tests. With so many company growth stories coming undone because of internal causes that their leaders could have controlled, what is the equivalent protocol to diagnose growing companies? We suggest asking these five questions to assess the general health of a business and its ability to grow to large scale:

  1. Is your founder scaling the team at a pace to address the opportunities and challenges of a scale insurgent?
  2. Do we have a talent plan to match our growth plan? If not, how do we close the gap?
  3. Is the voice of the customer and the front line as strong as it used to be? How do we know?
  4. Is our insurgent mission, so inspirational in the early days, still strong, or is it getting diluted?
  5. Do people still feel an owner’s mindset that drives accountability and immediate problem solving?

If you are part of an organisation with bold growth ambitions, make sure you are asking these five questions early and often.

Chris Zook is a partner in Bain & Company’s Boston office and has been a co-head of the firm’s global strategy practice for twenty years. James Allen is a partner in Bain & Company’s London office and a co-head of the firm’s global strategy practice. Zook & Allen are co-authors of The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth.

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How TomTom Telematics Can Keep Your Business Moving Forward

Successful businesses need to find ways to improve their margins while still delivering excellent and efficient customer service. VDM’s CEO, Deon van der Merwe, explains why this wouldn’t be possible in his business without TomTom Telematics’ solutions.

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When TomTom Telematics entered the South African market in 2010, the local team took a deep dive into the different industry verticals they were servicing.

The more they got to know their customers, the more they realised a different solution was needed to address local conditions, and a subscription model was introduced whereby customers didn’t need to invest a large capital outlay into TomTom Telematics’ technology, but would receive the tech and software, including installation, at no extra cost, in exchange for a monthly subscription fee.

This model gives SMEs affordable access to TomTom Telematics’ solutions, but it’s had another benefit as well: As TomTom Telematics introduces new innovations, existing customers can benefit — without the costs associated with replacing all of their existing technology themselves.

An indispensable tool

For a transport and logistics business like VDM Group, which has more than 160 vehicles on the road, this means they have access to incredible new offerings, without needing to replace their TomTom units themselves.

“TomTom plays a critical role in our business,” says Deon van der Merwe, CEO of VDM Group. “It’s an indispensable tool in ensuring quality customer feedback and the management of KPIs for all supply chain stakeholders.

“Earlier this year, TomTom Telematics launched their New WEBFLEET product. We were very satisfied with what we had, and yet they still approached us and offered to replace all our existing units with new tablets, and they’re covering the installation costs,” explains Deon.

Related: Driving Your Business Growth Towards More Customers

“New WEBFLEET is the result of TomTom innovating their product based on customer feedback from around the world, and the local team wanted to ensure we had access to the additional functionality and innovations that had been introduced.”

Seamless integration with your network

According to Deon, the new TomTom PRO 8275 units seamlessly integrate VDM’s fleet scheduling software with information they extract from TomTom, including individual vehicles’ standing time and arrival notifications.

“The software from TomTom is open API, which means that all our various applications can communicate and interact with each other,” he explains. “From a productivity perspective, we no longer need to manually capture any trip information.

In addition, we have every conceivable piece of data available that will assist us to run a leaner, more cost-effective fleet, enabling us to ensure that we are delivering on all our KPIs — particularly with regards to meeting our customers’ needs.”

Related: Changing The Shape Of What’s Possible

VDM is a large transport business, but Deon believes the benefits for SMEs are as great, if not more so. “Many SMEs don’t have the back-office support that we do. The ability to capture and use this information without a team of admin specialists at your disposal is a huge competitive advantage for smaller businesses,” he says.

Offering you the competitive edge

VDM offers a specialised logistics service that creates custom-made options for clients. In order to ensure the most optimal and cost-effective solutions, while still ensuring top quality delivery, they need to consider special and complex individual customer requirements, from the point of origin to the point of destination, before finalising a customer-specific solution.

“We take into account a host of factors, including inventory carrying costs, volume requirements, product specific factors and route to market,” explains Deon.

“Road transport significantly impacts total supply chain costs, and if not managed properly, can have a severe impact on the sustainability of any particular channel. We try and manage this risk by continuously improving our service through innovative logistical solutions, the use of advanced technology, vertical integration and a team of passionate and talented experts.

TomTom assists in creating differentiators

“This focus has helped us to develop a market offering that includes dedicated and completely flexible inter-modal solutions, which is a big differentiator for us. TomTom Telematics plays a key role in our total productivity, helping us measure the performance of road transport across our supply chain.”

Deon believes that what you don’t measure you won’t know.

“TomTom provides updated fleet statistics that allow us to constantly benchmark our fleet against pre-defined route surveys and, in so doing, enables massive savings in fuel and total turnaround time.

Communicating via the WEBFLEET platform also helps us save time and creates a formal trail of correspondence with our drivers. I don’t believe it’s possible to successfully run a business like ours without a solution like this.”

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Sasfin Continues To Support SME Growth

Sasfin’s equity stake in fintech lender Payabill set to enhance SME growth.

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In another major step forward in supporting growth in SMEs, Sasfin today announced that it has acquired a strategic stake in fast-growing fintech lender Payabill.

Payabill, a 100% digital lending business, provides working capital and/or trade finance to small businesses. The collaboration between Sasfin and Payabill accelerates financing opportunities for customers.

Sasfin, South Africa’s leading business challenger bank, last year successfully launched its digital platform, B\\YOND, for SMEs.

“Sasfin has been investing in fintechs, building digital capabilities (such as B\\YOND) and working with third parties (such as XERO Accounting) for a number of years with the aim of adding value to our business and wealth clients. Payabill has made huge strides in giving businesses access to digital finance and we are thrilled to announce this investment,” says Sasfin CEO Michael Sassoon.

Payabill CEO Eli Michal launched the pioneering fintech start up in SA in 2017. Payabill settles suppliers directly for its clients and allows clients to select their own extended payment terms. “We are incredibly excited by the opportunity afforded to Payabill by having Sasfin as an equity and debt partner. Sasfin will provide access to new channels and much needed funding that enables us to support the growth of small business finance in South Africa,” says Michal.

Michal started the fintech as he “wanted to enhance access to finance for small businesses in South Africa. We all know that boosting small business creates jobs and enables growth. Traditional lenders have neglected this segment of the market due to the high costs associated with on-boarding and assessing these customers, as well as managing their credit risk. It made no sense to us that a retail consumer could get multiple forms of credit, almost instantly via electronic channels, but small businesses could not. They were being neglected. With this in mind, we set out to build a completely paperless, digital solution to address this market’s unique requirements.”

Currently, Payabill offers loans of up to R150 000 to businesses. The intention is that with the investment made by Sasfin, Payabill will be able to offer larger loans to SMEs in the near future.

The alignment of Payabill’s aims and Sasfin’s long-term focus on small business in SA made for an ideal partnership. “SMEs can now borrow digitally, via Payabill, and bank via B\\YOND from Sasfin – reducing admin and costs which often stifles small business growth. Both B\\YOND and Payabill are gaining meaningful traction in the SME market and there are a host of additional digital initiatives that we are working on to further help small businesses thrive,” says Sassoon.

“While Sasfin has always offered a trade and debtor finance solution, this was largely for more established businesses. The new offering speaks to smaller businesses that are passionate about growth, and our larger Trade and Debtor Finance offering will be there to support businesses that reach the next phase in their development,” says Sassoon.


Sasfin Holdings Limited (“Sasfin” or “the Group” or “the Company”) is a bank-controlling company listed in the “Financials: Investment Services” sector of the JSE Limited (“the JSE”).  Sasfin and its subsidiaries provide a wide range of complementary banking, financial and related services.

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Driving Your Business Growth Towards More Customers

Designed to help its customers get the most from their businesses through the right telematics solution, New WEBFLEET can help you reach your customers quicker, get more done, improve efficiencies, save costs and boost your revenues.

TomTom Telematics

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Europe’s highly regulated operating environment has made telematics ubiquitous in business. On the one hand, this means industries across the spectrum have become safer, more efficient and highly productive across the EU. On the other, it’s much harder to stand out from the crowd when everyone follows the same best practice standards.

“We don’t have those same stringent regulations in place,” says Justin Manson, Sales Director, Africa at TomTom Telematics. “Our clients have realised what a huge competitive advantage this actually offers them though.

“Locally, everyone understands the role that telematics plays in tracking what your drivers are doing right and wrong, and use it as a tool for encouraging good driving practices, but there’s so much more to this solution, and we’re making it our mission to help business owners really use it to their benefit.

“When deployed across the organisation to its full capabilities, a telematics system can radically improve productivity and workflow. Done correctly, a business can save up to 10% on its bottom line, and redeploy that cash into the company’s growth, thanks to drivers reaching customers quicker and getting more done. The right data also increases productivity and ensures better turnaround times.”

Thomas Schmidt, MD of TomTom Telematics, loves visiting South Africa for this very reason. “Because so many business owners aren’t using telematics to their full extent, there’s such a huge opportunity for us to assist businesses in their growth here,” he says. “We deliver a high-value stack of products that can change the way companies operate, and most importantly help them save money and make money. The challenge for us is educating our customers so that they understand what our solutions offer, and the incredible impact they can have on a business. We consistently improve these solutions based on customer feedback as well, making them very much from customers for customers.

Related: Why Your Fleet Management Plays a Pivotal Role In Your Business

“Anyone can buy a map for less than R100. Why invest in such expensive devices? The answer is because we’ve developed solutions that change lives. With the right data — and access to that data — you increase safety, simplify your business, drive efficiencies, increase your output and customer service, and ensure you are always productive and reliable — across the organisation. And that impact can be measured, and given a real ROI value.

“Imagine the impression companies that operate at that level make on their industries. They stand out from their competitors. There is so much room for growth in South Africa as we deploy these solutions.”

Game-changing solutions

As an organisation, TomTom Telematics is focused on continuous growth and innovation as well, constantly learning from market conditions, its customers and industry needs to improve its product offerings.

The result is the launch of New WEBFLEET in February 2018. “We’ve increased the value we offer our customers,” says Thomas. “We’ve collated data from hundreds of thousands of customers around the world who gave us their feedback through surveys, and New WEBFLEET is a window into easy-to-use, smart fleet management that is a game changer for companies.”

“TomTom Telematics is in the business of helping businesses,” agrees Justin. “Our goal is help our customers master their challenges. The right data at your fingertips will help you change the way you operate. That’s our goal. How much cash is being left on the table in an organisation because of inefficiencies?”

Introducing New Webfleet

The smartest way to manage your vehicles and mobile workforce

tomtom-telematicsTomTom Telematics’ state of the art Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) fleet management solution, with best-in-class user interface, is inspired by two decades of working together with customers to achieve more for better fleet management. New WEBFLEET is everything you need to manage your vehicles in the cloud, in real time. It allows you to monitor reports and dashboards, manage orders/workflow, and improve driving behaviour, safety and service, helping you save fuel and reduce costs.

Best-in-class user interface

  • A future-proof platform with a completely renewed interface, based on the latest HTML5 technology and driven by continuous innovation.
  • Simple and clean interface, with minimised clicks for faster working.
  • Intuitive functionality, means it is more accessible for greater impact across your business.
  • User rights management and state-of-the-art data handing ensures the highest level of data privacy and data security.
  • Fast access to the right information.

Related: Fleet Tools Will Help You Get More Done In Less Time

Map view

Know where your vehicles are and where they have been. Different map options such as Google, Google Street View or satellite map are enriched with traffic information, giving you a more detailed view on what’s happening on the roads. Toggle between different types of information on the map such as traffic, addresses and areas and create specific views, so you only see the information you need.

Dashboard

New WEBFLEET’s dashboard gives an overview of performance at a glance. Up to 27 KPIs can be used to track the performance of vehicles, individuals, benchmark teams or give a simple overview. This helps you to track real-time performance against your pre-defined KPIs.

Reporting

New WEBFLEET gives you instant access to the information that matters, meaning you can spot trends over time and use real-time information to make smarter and more informed decisions. You can instantly download or schedule reports to help you stay on top of everything — from fuel efficiency and legal compliance to quality of service.

Manage on the move

New WEBFLEET is optimised so you can manage your fleet on any device by entering WEBFLEET through a web browser or by downloading the WEBFLEET Mobile app on your smartphone.

Send routes direct to drivers

  • Plan accurate routes in New WEBFLEET by adjusting multiple variables such as location, time of departure/arrival, traffic and vehicle type.
  • Get a choice of alternative routes, as well as suggested fastest route with traffic.
  • Customise your route by simply adding new waypoints, or dragging and dropping existing waypoints on a route. Then choose from guided or forced route* options.
  • Send planned routes directly to a TomTom PRO driver terminal to keep your drivers on the right track.

Related: Time Is Money And It’s Time You Saved Both When Running Your Fleet

Personalised Map views*

  • Create your own saved map view to reach information you need fast.
  • Switch between vehicle groups or areas, without needing to adjust the map filters and zoom levels. n

Personalisation

Many ways to customise WEBFLEET to suit individual requirements from personalised views to adding information to make what you see more informative on one page.

Plan a route the way you want it

Use multiple variables (including waypoints) to give fastest or most efficient routes.

Access WEBFLEET

Across different device types, allowing you to always stay on top of business.

Simple, clean and easy to administer

Toggle between views to get the right information to focus on the task in hand. Get the right information to the right people at the right time, keep data secure and in the right hands.

Send routes to driver terminals

In real time, ensure drivers follow or avoid specific routes.

Visit telematics.tomtom.com/tellmemore and follow us on Twitter @TomTomWEBFLEET

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