No board, no worries: The secret advantages of small businesses


John Chambers, Managing Partner at IE

John Chambers, Managing Partner at IE

Small Business

By John Chambers

Small businesses are currently in a unique position over large corporates. During the last decades of the 20th century and even the noughties, it felt almost impossible to compete against large corporates.

The bigger the company, the deeper the pockets and the greater the brand presence. Their scale and capabilities meant they did not need to consider many of the challenges small businesses face on a day to day basis.

But today, among the limitations are opportunities that can be used to your advantage. Take, for example, short-term rental giant Airbnb, which started out as simply two friends renting out a room, before growing in ways that the likes of the Hilton simply could not emulate. Their success lay in the ability to recognise the edge they had over large corporates. When you too recognise your edge, you’ll be able to capitalise on market opportunities and position yourself as a serious competitor.

Setting and structure

One of the biggest advantages that small businesses have over corporates is setting and structure. Any major – or minor – decision requires board approval, so moving quickly is not possible for large corporates. Without a board to report to, you can test, iterate and pivot as much as you need and your budget allows, in ways that large corporates cannot.

What may have worked for a customer three years ago may not work for them now. When something disrupts the industry, you’re in the position to adapt quickly to your customer needs, even if it means bringing in new products and services.

Funding and value model

Most corporates are bound to quarterly reporting rhythms and as such can often focus too much energy on optimising the profit engine of the company, taking away from any activity otherwise. Conversely, the focus of start-ups is more on processes rather than monetary outcomes with the understanding that it can take at least ten years from inception to reach profitability.

Large corporates have a tendency to kill new ideas fast as they’re more likely to throw money behind tried and true processes to drive the profitability of the company, instead of putting risky capital behind unproven innovations. These risks small businesses are willing to take allow them to develop and create new services and products that serve ever-evolving consumer demands. This is made evident by Canva’s approach when it entered the marketplace. Instead of directly going up against the likes of Adobe and Microsoft, it grew the value of the design marketplace and the opportunity within it by creating a completely new service, appealing to a different customer group.

John Chambers, Managing Partner at IE

John Chambers (middle), Managing Partner at IE

No legacy business

Your business likely exists because other companies are not serving a customer problem effectively so, without a strong reputation to protect, you can act relatively aggressively. Some businesses fail to adapt their business to the growing market because they have a strong relationship with a previous one. As an iconic brand at its peak in the early 2000s, Blockbuster was the place to rent movies. However, it was unable to transition to a digital model and became in direct competition with Netflix, ultimately filing for bankruptcy in 2010.

It is important to understand your opportunities with your customer and where you fit in the competitor landscape and then act accordingly. You can grow and test quickly, whether it is coming into the market with a better service or product or adapting your service or product to suit the growing market.

Laser focus on the customer

The size of small businesses often means they can be much closer on a personal level to the end customer. This means businesses decisions are often guided by personal experiences, enabling them to more easily identify and hone-in on a customer problem that needs solving.

Customers pay for a relationship with the brand, with over 50% of consumers saying the overall enjoyment of their experience is important in their decision to buy a product or servicei and ultimately, small businesses are driven by a customer problem and have the advantage of intimate two-way communication. Allow for the level of communication and care to have an impact on the development of future services so you can maintain that relationship with your clients and attract new ones.

Recognising these advantages can see you win out over your corporate competitors and help you grow.

You can read more about overcoming challenges of small businesses here.


John Chambers is a managing partner at IE, a digital products and experiences company, with unique expertise in scaling innovation. Prior to his position at IE, John held a number of leadership roles across Mobile, Broadband and Product Innovation divisions at Telstra, responsible for spearheading the development of key initiatives like Telstra Smart Home and Smart Cities.

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