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Three lessons retailers can learn from start-ups – and one we can learn from you

By Stuart Marks, serial entrepreneur and Chairman of L Marks

I like to believe that being an entrepreneur is who you are, not what you do. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, starting with a car cleaning round when I was thirteen and then setting up my first business in 1991. I’ll continue to do what I love by building businesses through L Marks and my investments into startups.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some very successful retailers and I’m always impressed by some of the incredible ideas that spring from our discussions: new technologies, new products, new initiatives, and the ambition is unlimited. Even as a powerhouse of people, customers, opportunities and – most often – cash, many of these ideas never get out of the obligatory six months scoping or research exercises they’re worked through.

Being an entrepreneur is about developing the skills, talent – and luck – to see an idea through to a saleable product, and so I believe so there are a few lessons any retailer can learn from the startup community.

Three lessons

1. Love what you do

Building a new business is one of the greatest tests of mental and physical stamina anyone can put themselves through. You need to draw on patience, diligence, bravery and confidence to see it through to success. But nothing will stop you in your tracks quicker than not being passionate about what you’re doing or how you’re doing it.

Working in an established business doesn’t mean you’re not passionate about what you do, but perhaps you could look more at how to leverage their teams interests to accelerate their own capabilities. Got someone who’s fascinated by AI? Or mad about the future with VR? Great! Give them a forum through which they can explore this love internally with like-minded people and get them talking about how this new technology or business approach could be changing retail tomorrow.

2. Talent is everything

Venture capitalists often say they bet on the jockey, not the horse. When you launch a business in its early-stage, your team, not your idea, is probably the most important asset you have. A business that’s already off the ground has the advantage of diverse and talented individuals who can help support and grow new initiatives, and many organisations are giving ambitious individuals new powers through intrapreneur-style opportunities. This is not a new phenomenon. Gmail for instance was built by an employee as part of Google’s famous “20% time” policy.

3. Embrace rapid testing

If you have limited financial resources when you’re setting up a business, you think really hard about how you spend that money. For instance, at the early-stage, there are still many questions to resolve including “do people actually want what I have to offer?” If you can prove that interest exists by spending £30 on ads and assessing click-through, you’ll do that, and try multiple ads for different messaging, before investing in a website that launches what you do.

It becomes easy to spend lots of time, resource and money in assessing and de-risking your investments when you’re more established. As a business with a proven model, you’ll also have very large monthly commitments to uphold, so taking the decision to spend even a little on testing an idea can feel like a big ask. However, as any entrepreneur will tell you, you can gain great insight into whether a product is worth pursuing by just getting stuck in and making small steps to prove your thinking. There are lots of terms for this type of development, but whether you’re building a minimum viable product, a minimum valuable product or a minimum loveable product doesn’t matter – find what you need to validate and get testing and iterating.

I’m proud to be supporting intu in the launch of their new startup support programme, intu Accelerate. intu is a company who have embraced the benefits of both sides: retail startups used to be defined by ‘digital’ and ‘physical’, but today we are starting to see the emergence of trends like ‘phygital’, where physical products are enhanced by digital technology.

I founded L Marks in 2014, the same year that the estimated turnover of UK digital tech industries reached £161bn. Digital businesses are touching all aspects of our lives, and it’s fantastic to see companies like intu opening their doors to learn from and share insight with the entrepreneurs that are fueling this disruption. This brings me on to what I think entrepreneurs can learn from retailers...

Self disrupt

Retailers today are learning to adapt to increasing digitalisation and all the new channels of communication that comes with this. There are many retailers not only working with this disruption but also leading the charge, and showing consumers how to expect more from shopping and leisure experiences.

The lesson to listen to your environment and adapt quickly is one that we can both embrace. It’s easy when you’re working on anything to focus in on what you know, and listen to the items that reinforce your view. Creating spaces that enable you to review how your position is changing is essential to success – whether that’s operating in retail as a global force, or starting out with your first startup venture. With intu Accelerate, startups will be given that safe space to gain practical insights to build and pivot their businesses towards success.


Stuart Marks is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold four businesses over the past 25 years. They have spanned several sectors including CRM, location-based services and digital media. Every company applied innovation in order to challenge existing business models. Stuart has worked with a diverse and international customer-base including Sainsbury’s, British Airways, Unilever, Vodafone, BMW and various Government agencies across the world. Most recently, Stuart has established L Marks to help bridge the gap between startups and corporates in various sectors.

intu Accelerate

Helping start-ups flourish

We're calling all start-ups with a passion for innovation and creativity to help shape the future of our industry

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Helping businesses flourish

We understand that shopping is changing and through intu Accelerate we can use our expertise and experience to offer start-ups the opportunity to be a part of the evolution with us.

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