James Tetherton, Senior Partner at GRAPH Strategy, reflects on five years of growing his business and shares his learnings
GRAPH is a boutique strategy consulting firm, serving clients that include fast-growing businesses, major corporations and private equity firms.
Since our inception in 2017, our teams, based in London and Washington DC, have worked with hundreds of clients – helping them to examine their current offering, analyse existing and potential markets and create development plans to drive growth.
In your experience, what are the key ingredients of a successful business?
Success comes down to understanding and nailing the fundamentals of a business plan. It involves operating in a flourishing market, recruiting and retaining the best talent, planning for growth from the offset and, above all, demonstrating agility and adaptability throughout the business journey.
So, what should management teams consider first?
Find every opportunity to play in markets and segments that are growing – it makes everything else easier!
You can spend a long time refining your proposition, but if your market isn’t growing, you’re going to lose out in the long run. In my experience, the best management teams are constantly scouring for new opportunities, for imbalances in supply and demand, such as people searching for alternatives.
Business leaders shouldn’t feel like they are constrained – if you’re in a restricted space, find a way to pivot, whether it’s by redefining your offering, expanding internationally, or something else entirely.
An investor once told me that he has a simple rule: if a business isn’t doing well, it’s either the market or the management team – fire whichever one isn’t working. If your market is wrong, fire the market. Before GRAPH, I worked in the corporate consulting space – it was congested and not very open to new entrants. We realised that consulting to the private equity community wasn’t so impenetrable, and it was fast-growing, so we pivoted. We moved to where the market opportunity was.
Assuming you’re in a good market, how do you maximise your success?
The key is to always have two things in your mind.
Firstly, know your customer. What is your Ideal Customer Profile? What are their wants and what problems do they need solving? And secondly, how do I address those wants and solve those problems better than anyone else? Is everything I am spending time and money on providing more value to the customer, or are some things not making a difference? Answer these questions specifically, not generically.
Proctor and Gamble were famously successful for many years because they made decisions based on two simple questions. Firstly, where do we play? What are the big, fast-growing markets? And secondly, how do we win within those markets? They knew who their customer was, and realised in order to win, they needed to maximise awareness. They would roll out mass advertising campaigns, and fund it by cutting unnecessary excess from elsewhere in the business. As a result, they were concise internally, and well-known externally. Every penny they would save in manufacturing they would then be put into advertising and this virtuous circle drove their success.
What are your views on the ‘war for talent’?
Firstly, in terms of access to talent, it feels like businesses are now more supply-side constrained than ever before. Five years ago, access to talent wasn’t really a big question for an investor – now in almost every project we do, the question of talent acquisition comes up. Can the business hire enough people to meet its growth ambitions? Can it retain those people, particularly in the most critical roles? We found this to be a radical shift, particularly in the last five years.
Secondly, there has been a significant generational shift in the workforce – millennials are now the largest cohort. There is now much more mobility – millennials no longer sign up to companies long term, the way that previous generations did. So, the first thing to focus on is the quality of the platform you’re creating for them. As a business, are you building somewhere they can grow, develop, and learn skills? It’s important to create a launchpad for your employees; if your company isn’t a launchpad, people won’t want to work for you.
The other big change is people want purpose in their work. There is a broad definition of what purpose is; it doesn’t mean everyone has to be a charity. It focuses more on that people want a sense of ‘why am I in this tribe?’. ESG is a central part of answering that question for employees. Companies that win are those that actually make ESG a central part of what they do. You actually have to live these things – we’ve passed through the phase of ESG being a tick-box, we now have to make it substantive and real. You can’t win the ‘war for talent’ just with a big chequebook – you have to think about purpose as well.
What have you learnt from GRAPH’s growth journey over the last five years?
We were on a great growth journey when COVID happened. If you had asked me at GRAPH’s outset to list the things that might go wrong, a global pandemic would not have been top of my list – in fact it wouldn’t have made the top 100!
No matter what you do, something will happen that you didn’t expect at all. It’s page 1 of military strategy: no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. It’s the same with companies, and with people in their career. The pace of change is accelerating rapidly on so many fronts – just look at British politics!
But, when we went through COVID, we knew that the strength of our team was going to be critical – it was the only differentiator we had in the market. We found ways to retain people, didn’t furlough anyone, and kept working. As a result, we came out of the pandemic really strong, whereas those who mothballed everything and furloughed everyone damaged their brand and weren’t able to respond to customer needs when demand did eventually come back.
Who knows what is going to happen next in the world – we live in a time of inflation, war, and looming recession. For businesses, it all ties back to the fundamentals: if you know where your market is and what your customer wants, you’ll have a framework for decision making that is well-placed to ride out even the roughest of storms.