Big projects can also spell big opportunities for small business – Stephen Cook

TRAINS and Boats and Planes is an old song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David more than 50 years ago. It could be the title of a theme song in South Australia now as we think about the big projects kicking off in this state.

The question, though, is how small firms can join in big projects.

The SA economy is dominated by relatively small businesses: estimates are that 98 per cent of businesses in this state employ fewer than 19 people. Only 0.1 per cent of all businesses have more than 200 people. Small businesses employ about a third of the workforce, so success matters.

Experience accumulated around the world, which is reviewed in our research at the University of Adelaide and supplemented by our interaction with leaders in this field, points to the following six factors for success.

  1. Focus on strengths

There is always excitement about the next big things, be they frigates, submarines, tanks or fighters. Or more recently rockets to outer space. This is fine. But for business the key is not to think about being part of the submarine project or the frigate project or the space project specifically. The key is to really know your own strength, what is your major asset and what value adding do you offer. The successful small firm says ‘I am really good at X, Y or Z’, not ‘I am in the submarine supply chain’. This could be a method or an approach to a problem, or capability to take a brief and build a new thing in a new way. You will join the submarine supply when you are clear about what you are good at.

  1. Take a long view

No pot of gold here around the corner! This is a long-haul world. These are big projects, they take a-long time to deliver so a long term view is critical. That means, though, there should be a series of milestones in the shorter to mid-term. Some good project planning and systems thinking is vital here. You might have the technical tools, but business success means having the project management capability as well.

  1. Think global

The projects are big but not endless. There are only so many boats and planes to be built. The extra value from being clear about what you are good at means that you can be competitive in other markets too. The global markets for defence materials are massive. In which segment do you fit and where are the markets in which you would be competitive? These are likely to be in our region, and the business missions organised by the SA Government to South-East Asia are a great way to get going in ASEAN. International competitiveness is also key to long-term growth – this is far more productive than bleating to governments for subsidies or hiding behind local procurement rules.

  1. Manage your networks

Big projects have lots of players and being part of the team is critical, to get a place in the chain and also to keep in touch with what is going on. People skills also matter here. Getting out and about and connected is a key element of success. This is called “building your social capital”. Even if it’s not immediately a lot of fun, it’s a “must do”.

  1. Make a mentor

Related to networking is the value in having a group of folks to be your sounding board or a key person to be a business mentor. The university’s new ThincLab is offering opportunities to build in this support. Check out the website there. ThincLab also offers rapid prototyping servicesthat could be a key to success in this sector.

  1. Find a research partner

The defence sector is more likely than not to involve some degree of advanced technology. You might have the core of that but there is always more that can be done. Establishing research partnership gives you access to ideas, people and equipment that otherwise may not be available. The best place to start is the local university. They are all open for business in this way. My university, for example, has a Director of Defence and Security, easily found on the website.


This article originally appeared in The Advertiser


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