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What Startups Can Learn From The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics

Posted on Aug 01, 2012 by  |

By Dug Campbell

(Photo via Department for Culture, Media & Sport under 2.0 Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

I couldn’t let a global sporting event as significant as the Olympic Games take place in this country without doing my best to jump on the sporting bandwagon. This is, of course, not yet a recognised sport. But given the amount that has been written about the XXX Olympiad so far, I remain fully confident of its inclusion by the time that Rio 2016 rolls around. 

The general view appears to have been that the Opening Ceremony was an overwhelming success. I certainly can’t remember the last time that I watched such an explosion of creativity played out before a mainstream audience on such a grand scale. 

Living in Edinburgh this may perhaps be hard to believe but I maintain that there are limits even to what can be achieved on the Royal Mile during the Fringe. I suspect that the appearance of theChild Catcher, thirty flying nannies and a 40-footVoldemort on the cobbled streets of his home city during August would be more likely to be rewarded with an invitation to discuss the matter with the local authorities than the ringing applause that greeted their appearance on Friday night. And I dread to think how much paperwork the Council must currently be wrestling with in order to establish a safe drop zone down the hill at Holyrood Palace in preparation for further visits by our monarch.

I believe Dizzee Rascal put it best when called up onto the stage to perform. Bonkers indeed. 

It was hardly a production based on the principles of the lean startup model was it? It was a one-shot, all-or-nothing play from Danny Boyle - not for him the creation of a minimum viable product, seeking feedback from his target audience, iterating the proposition and adjusting the plan as he went along. It was all or nothing on the night for 7,500 performers at an estimated cost of £27 million.

But, as a one-off project, it created the impact that others can only dream of when seeking publicity. Even ignoring the fact that it was always going to be a newsworthy event, it was clearly crafted to make a huge impact. From much of the conversation in my Twitter feed during the event and afterwards in the more traditional press, it’s clear that the creativity within sections of the entertainment business (in which modern sport sits, however uncomfortably) continues to operate with levels of creativity that is very different in many cases to the business world.

The big promotional splash does however remain a dream of many new businesses - the high profile launch that grabs the attention of the largest crowd possible. And yet it remains well beyond the capabilities of most startups to have access to the funds required for such an extravaganza. It might have been different back in the days of the dot.com boom (and subsequent bust) when part of the problem was thatcompanies such as Boo.com viewed such ostentatious self-promotional behaviour as simply a milestone along the route to success. However, as we all know now, treating yourself to concorde flights and failing to produce something that actually works will only take you so far, even in those crazy days when a viable revenue stream was temporarily viewed as an optional extra.

Clearly lessons have been learned although there remains much discussion about whether or not we are currently in a bubble, particularly in the Valley where stories continue to filter through, such as the $41 million funding of Color before it had secured a single user

The modern world remains noisier than it has ever been. This makes it both more important than ever for a business to raise its profile but also, somewhat counter-intuitively, easier - provided that you focus on your niche, however narrow that might be, with laser-like focus. As a cash-strapped business, in this connected world, it is critical that you locate your community of delighted users, however small it might be at the start. Do everything possible to help your self-appointed ambassadors to build the publicity that the business needs. If you can’t do this, you may need to revert to the pot of gold with which to pay for the fireworks (and Paul McCartney).

No one is naive enough to think that the famous performers (as opposed to the‘normal’ volunteers) didn’t sign up to perform without being fully aware of the potential uplift in sales caused by performing in front of a global audience. But I can’t help but think that the fact that they performed for free (ignoring the token £1 required to make a contract binding under English Law - 100p more than they’d have got in Scotland, it should be said) had at least something to do with the brand equity of the Olympics.

Described as “the greatest show on earth”, those of you who are currently building “the greatest product/service on earth” within a particular niche should think seriously about how to leverage similar opportunities. With little spare money for promotion, you will find few who are better qualified to sing your praises than those who have already found it valuable enough to recommend to others.

I suspect we would have been looking at a different ceremony if Andrew Carnegie had been given artistic licence as opposed to Danny Boyle. But of course we live in a very different world now. The Games had a single opportunity to create a perfect performance whereas business is about sustainability over the longer run and, in that respect, more like a marathon. Focus on listening to the response from your customers, good and - most importantly - bad. After all, it’s rare that you’ll be able to build the business you want - success requires you to build the business that produces what customers are willing to pay for.

By the last firework of the Opening Ceremony, few people were left in any doubt about what can be achieved by engaging a community of like-minded individuals effectively around a common goal. Within your own team or out in the wider business world, that is one of the most important lessons that any startup can learn. 

@dugcampbell

0131 226 8200

douglas.campbell@mbmcommercial.co.uk

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