Getting down to business: entrepreneurship in tough times

by Jennie Flint

Here at Cambridge Enterprise, the enthusiasm of researchers thinking of starting new businesses is as strong as ever. Although COVID-19 has wounded the economy, this is a time of rapid global change, leading to new and exciting opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.

If you are seriously thinking of starting a business after the arrival of Covid-19, here are our top tips…

1. Build value in your idea without racking up costs

Starting a business involves a multitude of activities, and not all of them have to cost money. Customer feedback is one of the most valuable assets. In a world that is embracing the video call, unpredictable workloads can give people unexpected free time. Capitalise on this by talking to as many people as possible. Go to online events, sign up for programmes like Ignite and Impulse, and network. Think about how you can use resources like LinkedIn and Twitter. Even if you can’t find a warm contact with someone you want to talk to, pick up the phone or send an email. You’d be surprised who is willing to talk!

2. Search for sources of “free money”

Although traditional sources of investment are clamping down on spending at the moment, there are still sources of no-strings-attached money out there. Admittedly, the competition may be fiercer than usual, but use the insights you’ve gained from all that networking to give your business plan an edge. Apply to business plan competitions, and keep a keen eye out for grant applications and fellowships that you may be eligible for. Are there any open accelerators or incubators that fit your business? Also, is anybody willing to pay you for what you have right now? You’ll never know unless you ask.

3. Remember that the power is in the plan

If you’re hoping to attract angel and venture capital investment in today’s challenging economic environment, investors will be scrutinising your business plan closely, especially the financials. Make sure you know who you are going to sell to and when. Be realistic about how long the investment will last, and then ask for more money than that. Ideally you should be looking at a 24-month runway. Having a Plan B that spells out which steps can be modified never hurts. When you hit unexpected obstacles, the process of having planned well in the first place will help guide you to a new path.

4. Develop an IP strategy

Intellectual property (IP) can be key to raising venture capital investment. It can also be costly. Patents are some of the most expensive assets a business owns in its early days. Spin-outs also often find that five years down the line, their patents were filed on IP they’re now no longer using. IP such as know-how and copyright in software is free to own and can dramatically increase the value of a business. Come up with a clear IP strategy and prioritise. Make absolutely sure the patents you choose to file are the ones vital to your business. At the same time think about how you can build intellectual property assets  in software and know-how.

5. Focus on flexibility and creativity

New businesses often need to pivot. In uncertain times, pivoting quickly and effectively will be essential to your business’s survival. Uncertainty offers new opportunities, so think creatively to make sure you capitalise on these moments when they arise. Remember that a business that is using 100% of its resource 100% of the time is also slow to change direction. Having space that will allow you to change direction quickly is critical.

If you’re ready to start your journey as an entrepreneur, sign up and join in the Grand Finale of Cambridge Enterprise’s Postdoc Business Plan Competition on 12 November. It will be both instructive and inspiring. Then get in touch with Cambridge Enterprise to see how we can help.

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