Laura Sisson, Investment Manager

Thought leadership

What can a scale up learn from England’s Lionesses?

Sunday 31st July was an incredible day. Not just a lifelong football fan, but a keen proponent of women’s football, I found myself in the stands of Wembley with over 87,000 others when the final whistle was blown and England were declared the winners of the Euros, filled with a sense of pure jubilation that I’ll never forget.

After the comedown and returning to work on Monday, I spent much of the morning reflecting on some of the challenges the Lionesses had faced to reach the pinnacle of the night before, both individually and as a team. The more I considered it, the more I recognised many of the parallels between their journey and that of many of the scale up businesses whose growth we at YFM look to support.

It’s crucial to be nimble, responding to the tackles that come your way, but also to remember some of the fundamentals that can help lead to success:

1. Prepare a thorough strategic plan: having been part of the Netherlands team that saw success in the Euros of 2017, coach Serena Wiegman had a clear view of what it would take to turn a strong-performing squad like England into tournament winners. This meant implementing the building blocks from the first day of training that would go on to provide the team with the know-how, endurance and infrastructure (physios, dieticians, sport psychologists…) they needed. The same is true for scale ups: understand the steps not just to get yourself there, but to consistently deliver marginal gains in a sustainable manner along the way.

2. Understand the competition, but focus on the things you can control: the Lionesses’ journey through the Euros’ group stages was in many ways akin to a young business’ ability to surpass some of its competitors simply by having a superior product, approaching a particular problem with an alternative and more effective solution. The quarter finals and beyond, though, were a real turning point, with England up against some of the best teams in the world in Spain, Sweden and ultimately Germany, the latter having never before lost a Euros tournament. Each was known for a different strength: an unbreakable defensive line, quality in tight passing, a ruthless eye for a shot at the goal. The Lionesses held firm on the valuable aspects of their own strategy a and scale ups would do well to apply the same thinking in selling to their customers: know what the competition is doing, but focus on what makes you and your product different, rather than pitching yourself as a one up on someone else or shifting your strategy in direct response to theirs.

3. Work as a team, but know your role: I would liken Beth Mead to a CRO, the key face for many fans/customers with an ability to consistently deliver the big wins, supported by the likes of Alessia Russo, Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly in converting key opportunities. By contrast, Millie Bright was something of a CFO, playing from the back line with a clear view across the game, acting as a guide for overall play while stepping in at crucial moments to keep things in shape. And then there’s Leah Williamson, the CEO figure as the Lionesses’ captain, who, with a strategic vision front of mind, empowered each of her team to deliver in their respective roles. The best teams are those where individuals have the ability and autonomy to leverage their own strengths, but with an eye to achieving a common goal.

4. Your brand is as important as the numbers: having closely followed the Lionesses since the London Olympics 10 years ago, it is safe to say their profile has since come on leaps and bounds, with former players like Alex Scott and Farah Williams now regular mainstays in football commentary. Collectively, the years of investment into raising awareness of the women’s game invited the British public to feel personally invested in the team’s success too. Even at the height they have now reached, that message stays strong, with Ella Toone asking Euros fans to stick with them for the Women’s Super League season due to start again next month. A scale up’s customers are much like the Lionesses’ fans, and need to be there on that journey: initial awareness and recognition of your brand is key, but customer loyalty and long term support is even more important in maintaining momentum towards success.

5. And of course, remember that not everything goes to plan: as many a football supporter knows well, setting out with the best devised plan does not always directly translate into success. Whether a crucial goal or customer win from the opposition, an injury or resignation from a key player, or it simply transpiring that the path you set out on isn’t the one that’s going to get you where you want to be, it is important for teams, whether on the pitch or in the boardroom, to be able to respond to the hurdles they face. This is something that we at YFM are real supporters of, much in the same way as Serena Wiegman watching on from the sidelines: don’t react in a knee jerk fashion, remember the purpose you set out to achieve and remain committed to it, even when that means taking a different path to the linear one you might have envisaged. And find the right partner to help you achieve that.

I look forward to continuing my support of England’s women’s team in the years to come, and perhaps even hearing a football reference or two in my next board meeting!

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