How Supply Chain Management Can Make or Break a High-Growth Company

June 18, 2019

Here’s why Supply Chain Management is a startup founder’s secret weapon.

More and more startups are looking to Supply Chain Management to boost their productivity as they scale. Procurement – the effective purchasing of raw materials, back-office goods and professional services – as well as Logistics – the orchestration of the movement of those goods – might not seem to be as important as sales, marketing, R&D or finance at first blush. But failure to account for these factors can be a major bottleneck to growth, and many a startup has failed because of Supply Chain issues.

Supply Chain Management is an important factor for fast-growing hardware manufacturing companies, whether they’re producing goods overseas or at home. But it’s important in food manufacturing, consumer goods, Pharma, and Cannabis as well, as well as any industry with direct B2B sales. In fact, we recently brought on a new Cannabis client who’s scaling up a strategic sourcing operation in all of their Procurement, so that all their spend is captured and accounted for as they grow, rather than after. Rather than taming out-of-control spend later, they’re maximizing profitability by being strategic about the company-wide spend now, by hiring a team of Procurement category managers.

The most successful startups grow quickly by relentlessly focusing on the consumer – giving them a better product, or a better customer experience – but customer service is dead on arrival without an effective Supply Chain. Any growing company needs people to forecast demand, produce or source the goods to meet that demand, and ship it quickly and reliably to consumers, while only holding as much inventory as absolutely necessary.

As a founder or senior leader in a growing company, you might think that you have the expertise to “figure it out” on the fly, because how hard can it be? But trust us, if you don’t have Supply Chain experience, you can’t. Developing a product line and business model is hard. Getting it funded is harder. But as a founder, you don’t know true pain until you’ve been saddled with massive inventory because you failed to plan, or until you’ve seen an entire shipment waiting at port for customs clearance three weeks before your launch because you don’t have someone on staff who has the experience to get the paperwork in order before you need to.

Avoid failure.

That’s how Supply Chain has always advocated for itself, and you may have even heard about these considerations before. Get your Supply Chain in order, and you might avoid pain, but you’ll also experience innovation and opportunities to improve your customer experience in ways you never thought were possible. It can also reinforce your core company values and mission, and pass it on to customers in ways you haven’t considered.

As Dave Evans recently talked about in Bloomberg, setting strong values early is the key to sustainable growth at a startup. Most entrepreneurs get that. But what they don’t always get is the importance of making sure that these values extend into your Supply Chain. Founders need Supply Chain experts who can forge close relationships with suppliers, and find manufacturing partners who can provide opportunities to improve the brand.

Too many founders treat Supply Chain like a transactional necessity: “okay, where are we going to source product from fastest and cheapest?” But Evans talks about how founders can actually use Supply Chain Management as an opportunity to improve and build their brand. He uses the example of Everlane, which has built a successful fashion brand out of radical supplier transparency – making it plain to customers exactly where their products come from, and breaking down all the costs associated with bringing it to market.

So where do you start?

Different areas matter more for different industries, and different levels of maturity. A seed-stage startup might need to set an overall direction for logistics and distribution (i.e. what sort of 3rd party logistics solution will you look to leverage?), whereas a scaling business might be able to leverage strong Procurement to extract additional value from supplier relationships – as with the Cannabis company we mentioned above.

Do you want your Supply Chain to be fast, cheap, or flexible? Skilled supply chain professionals can usually help you excel at two of those. The best in the business can get you all three. But if you don’t have any of that expertise, you’ll get zero.

Areas that startups need:

  • Logistics and Distribution Strategy
  • Demand Planning
  • Production Planning
  • Lead Time Management
  • Inventory Planning
  • Supplier Relationship Management
  • Strategic Sourcing/Shared Services Procurement (growth stage)

Today’s top Supply Chain Management professionals can bring all these considerations to bear. One other thing to consider: manpower expenses are one of the highest costs in scaling a business, and you don’t want to take on extra full-time staff if you don’t have to. So one thing companies will do is hire a seasoned expert who has developed and implemented Supply Chain strategies at scaling companies before on a contract basis – say 6 or 12 months – to implement the process and strategy, and then move on to another contract. You will likely have to pay a bit more per-hour, but it can be a tremendously flexible and high-value option, especially because some of the best in the business are now working on contracts for growing companies.

Any way you go about it, failing to plan a Supply Chain can quickly sink a growing company – and developing one that excels will make a growing company soar.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Having Supply Chain Management professionals in the room is some of the best business planning possible. That’s why they’re a founder’s secret weapon.


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