Managing start-ups: valuable lessons from the ‘dot-com’ era


Although most analyses of the ‘dot-com boom’ focus on the commercial and technological aspects of that period, valuable lessons were also learned about how best to manage start-ups. This is the view of Steve Wade, a Cambridge change management consultant, who project managed the creation of a number of major on-line brands during that period.

One of the fallacies of the early dot-com era was that, because they were trying to be innovative and create new business models, start-ups needed to reject what were often seen as the stifling management approaches of the ‘old’ economy.  Over time, however, this gave way to a realisation that the ‘baby had been thrown out with the bath water’!  More aspects of recognised management best practice started to return, albeit in a more stripped down style suited to the dynamism of the times.  This was often at the request of investors or parent companies.

Although the economic mood and the size of the budgets may have changed since then, these lessons are still pertinent today.  There are key areas where adopting specific management practices will help new or growing businesses.

Business Planning

Although the value of a good underlying idea is self-evident, the way in which the business plan is structured is often neglected yet can have a major bearing on its likelihood of success.  There are techniques for developing a business plan to help:

  • Make it more realistic.
  • Avoid wasted time and money in the early stages of a business – by focusing effort on things in the right order and at the appropriate time.
  • Ensure that all aspects of the business operation are built to work in a scalable and integrated way as growth starts to happen.
  • Provide a framework for making informed decisions when changes are necessary, eg where commercial and technical ‘trade-offs’ are required.


Business founders and investors place a lot of emphasis on this area yet can still put the ‘wrong’ management team in place.  There are some typical pitfalls to avoid so that the ‘Leadership Team’ has the right blend of expertise, and is organised in ways, that will:

  • Facilitate the kind of business plan described above and keep focused on it once it’s agreed.
  • Manage the creative tension between the sometimes competing commercial and technical agendas and keep them working together in the right balance.
  • Ensure the adoption of styles and approaches that are appropriate to managing the development of a business.

Project Management

Even though the early stages of a business are effectively ‘mini-projects’, project management as a discipline is often over-looked.  The use of appropriate project management approaches can add value and better manage risk by enabling Leadership Teams to:

  • Maintain focus and keep activities on track during the early phases of business development.
  • Remain ‘fleet of foot’ and able to react to events yet still be in control – ie manage without resorting to unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Understand and react to the volatility of a rapidly changing external environment while keeping the essence of the business plan still very much visible.

Please contact Steve on 07931 373132 or email for more information and advice on how to put these ideas into practice.

Steve Wade is a Cambridge-based freelance project and programmer manager with over 25 years’ experience of helping make change happen in a wide range of public and private sector organisations.


Steve Wade is a freelance Programme & Project Manager

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