From start-up to scale-up: Tokyoesque and business growth programmes

Imagine for a moment that you are skilled at connecting. And one day, you connect one person to some information they need, via another person – and you make a profit out of it, without intending to. Then, you see that more people need this. And more. And it comes, if not easily, without much strategy. That’s how Tokyoesque was founded, as a connection hub. A collection of needs that collide on each other.

I believe the same can be said for most businesses regardless of what they do. You do something, and whatever it is, you realise it can be done by more people than just you. So you bring them in to help you do it. And it keeps happening. Somehow, you grow. And business becomes steadier. And you go from £500 every now and then to £5,000. And then, in the case of most businesses that join the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Programme, you grow to a minimum of £20,000 per month.

By the time you’ve got to this level, if you don’t have a strategy in place, it is readily apparent that that may be what is holding you back from growing even more. And that’s why I began a journey last year that took me through a variety of business support programmes: Hatch Enterprise Female Founder Accelerator; London & Partners Business Growth Programme; and finally, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Programme. All were instrumental to building confidence and community as a business founder whilst practically guiding us in strategy.

In a sense, this final programme with Goldman Sachs, which I ‘graduated’ from in December with two other cohorts in a grand hall at the University of Oxford, has been the first summit of my business development learnings. The idea is that this is the beginning of a journey propelling my cultural insights agency, Tokyoesque, from start-up to scale-up, working hard but not necessarily ineffectively.

Could you believe that before this programme, we did not have any marketing in place? I had never considered using PR, digital or lead generation agencies. I also did not have a sales department – something we are still navigating. Risk is inherent in every business, but I (and many others in my cohort) had fallen into the trap of only spending what we earn. This makes sense to an extent, but not for those with growth aspirations. Business owners should take calculated risks, which Goldman Sachs reminded us and gave us the confidence to do.

A lot of this confidence came from the expert and professional delivery of the programme, facilitated by a team of UK business schools. Knowing that there was real expertise underlying the advice we were given, and in particular knowing that it had been researched and tested to an extent we couldn’t have done ourselves, gave us real impetus to use what we’d learnt and helped the programmes stand out for us in a crowded marketplace of ideas and advice.

The SMEs comprising the programme are varied, but I categorise them into two broad groups:

  1. younger businesses that have just begun to hit their stride; and
  2. long-established businesses.

Both want to grow, but the people running them tend to be split into two groups:

  1. the younger directors (not always from the younger businesses); and
  2. the older directors, most of whom have been in their businesses for many years.

I was one of the younger representatives in our cohort, and some of the older directors claimed they were intimidated by the youngsters. Yet we were in turn intimidated by them. This dynamic underpins the entire programme. Both groups continuously learn from and support each other to improve. It has been said before, but as business owners, to be thrown together with others who understand the journey you are going through is priceless.

2018 was my year of business development for Tokyoesque. 2019 has been about taking that strategy and executing it. Not easy. And not quick. But what Goldman Sachs provided us was the ability to look at our problems and decide reasonably and decisively on the appropriate course of action. It gave us, in short, a level of confidence that is surprisingly difficult to gain by ‘just’ running a business.

What I have found is that one needs to sit and think, critically, about business, both alone and with others. I realised that I can look at other SMEs and come up with advice that isn’t half bad. What does this say? Not that I’m any genius. Rather, it means that when we step back and look critically at our options, it isn’t really that difficult to take a measured, decisive course of action.

The key, of course, is to mix this with lots of measured testing. My philosophy has become one of trial and error, quickly. And at the same time, patience. It takes time to reap change, which is what we are all trying to do when we decide to grow our businesses.

So, whilst Tokyoesque was founded as a connection hub, it has become more than that. It is a business embodying the core values of being global, curious and aware. We are a cultural insights agency with a mission to promote globalisation. Whilst our focus is on Japan, our niche has become fine-tuned to market readiness and impact specifically for communications and marketing. I am easily able to explain how Tokyoesque can enable a successful marketing and communications strategy in Japan through market research. I also do not try to answer to everyone’s needs – actually, we’ve learned to say no. For that, I pass them on to partners, something else I never considered until I put together my own strategy.

All of these are things I have gained from my year of business development and reflection. Regardless of how long you have been with your business, I see that doing this kind of thinking on your business is invaluable. I recommend it to everyone – whether you are only starting your journey or believe you’re at the tail-end. Because the truth is, you’re probably not. It’s an endless road, and that’s a good thing!

Natalie Meyer, Founder & CEO, Tokyoesque

 

There are a wealth of development programmes available to small businesses in the UK, pitched at every business size, need, and budget. As well as flagship programmes like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, university business schools offer a range of shorter courses, partnerships, and training opportunities for small businesses in their area. To find out more take a look at our map of Small Business Charter Award-holding schools.