Why is it that some businesses thrive while others fall by the wayside? A new study by our Lord Ashcroft International Business School has identified the common traits of high-growth companies, from bolt manufacturers to online estate agents.
“If you look at the companies we have in our region, a county like Essex is a real hive for innovation,” says Dr Sandra Selmanovic, Deputy Head of our Department of Economics and International Business, and Principal Lecturer in International Business.
“There are so many success stories here – but what can we learn from them?” This was the question Essex County Council was looking to answer when it commissioned ARU to conduct a three-year research project into small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the region: “The idea was to create a blueprint of what a successful and dynamic company looks like,” says Sandra. “We also wanted to identify any gaps in support, and to see how we could help plug these with adapted existing business programmes, or by creating new ones.”
Strong SMEs are often seen as the bedrock of a healthy economy. According to a recent study by Hampshire Trust Bank, SMEs will provide 27% of the total business contribution to the UK economy by 2020 – at £217 billion, this would be an 11% increase on the £196 billion contributed in 2015. In an era of economic uncertainty, the ability of the UK’s SMEs to adapt and grow will go a long way to defining Britain’s commercial resilience post Brexit.
With the stakes higher than ever, the study seems particularly prescient.
How was the research conducted? To begin with, a team of ARU academics assessed more than 200 applications to take part in the project. From this sample, a group of 50 Essex-based SMEs which had experienced recent high growth due to innovation was chosen – the Innovation 50 – to take part in in-depth face-to-face interviews with ARU academics. Diverse and dynamic, the companies included an online estate agent, the UK’s only kite-powered wind energy business and even a zoo.
“There are certain established ways to measure innovation, but we were really keen not to take anything for granted,” says Sandra. “For example, we’ve been looking into the concept of ‘additionality’ – asking what would have happened if the businesses hadn’t received any innovation support. That’s a very tangible way of trying to isolate the difference that support programmes have made to individual businesses.”
Having now completed the interview phase, initial findings have already highlighted some of the common features across the sample: these include fostering a high customer focus, for example, or involving staff in ideas generation and strategy.
“Now we’ve moved into the really interesting part where we are digging deep into all the qualitative data gathered from the interviews,” says Sandra. The conclusions of this analysis, along with details of the killer success factors and recommendations, will be shared in a report to be published in January 2018. A series of case studies is also being prepared on some of the most interesting business stories uncovered through the project.
Anglia Ruskin was winner of the 2014 Entrepreneurial University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards, and Innovation 50 is an example of ARU’s highly practical approach to research and knowledge transfer. In particular, we have developed an internationally recognised reputation for working in collaboration with businesses, whether they are private, public or not-for-profit, to deliver near-market solutions.
While some universities concentrate on longer-term value propositions, such as developing cures for cancer or uncovering the origins of the universe, our strength has been to focus on solving practical and current problems.
ARU’s range of support to business is by necessity broad and varied. We help organisations to test and launch products, expand overseas, source talented individuals, develop partnerships, secure funding and improve performance. These and other services reflect both the breadth and depth of our academic expertise and our desire to help organisations of all sizes and disciplines.
Although the project is not yet completed, the commercial value of ARU’s involvement with the Innovation 50 is already being felt. “Since we started, several companies we interviewed have now established Knowledge Transfer Partnerships with ARU aimed at using our university’s expertise in different fields to help them achieve further growth,” says Sandra.
One such company is Excalibur Screwbolts, which manufactures a multi-application range of bolts that can be secured to materials such as concrete, brick, timber and steel in a better way than traditional fasteners. Having developed and marketed a successful anti-corrosion bolt to the rail sector, Excalibur Screwbolts recently engaged ARU to explore how the process of certification could facilitate the entry of this disruptive technology across other markets.
Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, this knowledge exchange programme known as KEEP+ will involve a recent ARU graduate becoming embedded in the company under guidance from an ARU academic expert.
“As well as working with individual businesses, we’re very much looking at the bigger picture,” says Sandra. “With Essex County Council, we want to ensure that the business support programmes we have in place are fit for purpose, and if they’re not, to make them better. Even though we haven’t completed our final analysis, it’s been fascinating already to see the diversity and innovation at work here. It’s a really great way of helping the wider world to realise just how good Essex businesses are.”
Key characteristics of high growth innovative SMEs