1. Briefly, what is your entrepreneurial background?
From a Marketers perspective; having ploughed my ‘corporate furrow’ in medical lab sciences, through specialist electronics and engineering, I decided to tread my own path as I saw chronic major holes in management thinking.
During my time as Chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Technology Group it became clear to me that marketing, particularly, had a complete disconnect between what the market and customer needs or wants, and management thinking as to how to meet those requirements.
Commerce was going to change – forever – and professional marketing and business thinking was, and still is, caught up in ‘MadMen’ management traps that always put the company, not the market, first . So it was another path for me, and that took me to Waterford in Ireland to study post-graduate Enterprise Development and develop radical and progressive new thinking and processes for competitive advantage.
‘Mediocristan’ was not a place for me, nor for the way forward!
2. Where did the idea for the Institute come from?
From a longstanding belief that things could and should be better; I saw clearly that management thinking was missing the point – THE point – the customer.
It was all ‘paradigms’, change for the sake of change, and how skilfully companies could cajole the unsuspecting prospect, customer or consumer into buying. Everyone was stuck in ‘David Brent Land’ (the characature of office life and management thinking in the TV series ‘The Office’), or three letter acronyms and ‘next best thing’; and consultants, academics, authors, bloggers, and others simply saying to all that the next thing was the most important for the company or manager. Anything but the thing that matters most – the staff who provide the value and the true value that exists between them and the market (not shareholder value).
One size does not fit all, and neither – importantly- can ‘big corporate thinking from the latest Guru’ work for the broadest and most important business sector, the SMEs! And this latter point is wholly ignored by management thinking and the ‘digerati’ and management ‘chattering classes’!
With day to day issues like international competitiveness, the stranglehold of large corporates on markets, politics, and thinking, and now huge commercial and economic upheaval with the downturn since 2008 and ‘Brexit’, the SME needs a champion and deserves better. It doesn’t need the latest management fad, or a ‘six month scenario planning exercise’ but a short, focused and specific competitive advantage and edge. And this has to be an authentic and specific one – hence the creation of the Edinburgh Institute for Collaborative & Competitive Advantage; and the word ‘Collaborative’ is included as a conscious acknowledgement that the main collaboration is always overlooked – that with the market – with too much management attention given to ‘the competition’. (Side-note: did you know that on average, more money is spent by the SME on stationery than connecting and collaborating its customer?)
3. What does the Institute hope to achieve?
A healthy, competitive Scottish SME sector. Members of the Institute (they are members, not Clients, importantly), as rapidly and sustainably as possible, create and project their singular , best and most highly differentiated Competitive Advantage / USP that is authentic, and is owned only by the individual SME. A market of their own , based on their definition of ‘market’, using collaborative relationships, rather than ‘market or industry sectoral definitions’. Oh, and we also plan to help Scotland to a 2nd Scottish Enlightenment!
4. There are many courses and conferences for businesses, what makes the Institute stand out from the rest? I guess I’m asking what’s the competitive advantage?
The Institute’s competitive advantage is clear; we help the SME find, define and project its clear and unique singularly best competitive advantage. Rapidly. And we genuinely want them to be prosperous. Quickly and indelibly.
We change their way of thinking, to make their advantage clear and compelling, as well as specific to them. In terms of ‘thinking’, well, we have a whole list of tenets that we – and our members – must subscribe to, to succeed!
Importantly, at ANY time, there are only one or two major hurdles or limitations (usually in the market, not in the SME itself) preventing the SME from exploiting its potential advantage in the marketplace; any other ‘solution’, technology, gimmick, strategem or tactic is a sticky-plaster and will not work as well as finding those limitations and cracking them.
And this can be done for ANY SME with seriously profound improvements to profitability and value for the SME.
5. Speaking of which, how do you recognise competitive advantage in your business and then leverage it?
There are a number of terrific initial things you can do; but they require a fundamental change in the way you think and act :
- Your competitive advantage (the current one or the one you can or should have) is never what you think it is, or where
- Any limitation preventing you from succeeding lies in the way you connect with, and think about, the market and rarely elsewhere (your limitation or hurdle is not to be found within the usual-suspect excuses, e.g. lack of resources, tactics, funds, people, skills, and other inward-looking internal or external scapegoats!)
- Avoiding improper measurements – such as market share, margin, competitive pricing, etc – and seek your own metrics, defined with the market, that can lead to enlightened thinking
- Competitive advantage is not to be found where you think you are different; it is where you can make a fundamental difference; and nowadays, that advantage must also be compelling
- Your advantage must lie in providing a resolution to a major limitation or constraint within the market; otherwise it isn’t disruptive enough, nor really that unique, interesting or valuable! The late, great business thinker Eli Goldratt (big fan!) said that if you drop your price, you get a few hours or days advantage; if you change a feature or bell or whistle for your offer, you get a few weeks; if you change an industry chronic problem or limitation, that no-one but you can see, you can get a couple of year’s advantage. Aim high!
- Get rid of the ‘Competitive Reptilian Brain’ and exchange it for a ‘Collaborative Brain’. If you change (usually reduce) your price, you get a few days advantage; if you change a widget feature, a few weeks or months. Change a major industry norm, that is preventing your customer from being happier or more prosperous, then you have a few years of an advantage. Make it so.
What we aim to do for SMEs, is to realise their specific, powerful singular competitive advantage and compelling offer, based on the ultimate process – one that ‘changes the currency of connectivity’, thus developing your own market.
Now that is truly disruptive and remarkable.