Case study: Crispy Wallet

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Case Study: Crispy Wallet - Inside of a start-up organization

Team members: Martin Dimmler, Tobias Friedrich, Tobias Lensker, Thrasyvoulos Loukas, Eleni Thalassinou

Introduction

In a time when crises thrive in society, economies worldwide are faced with the challenge to create institutional functions and structures in order to manage through times of uncertainty and insecurity. As we know, national economies depend to a great extent on small and medium-sized companies, which represent the vast majority of enterprises in most countries. Therefore, SMEs are structures on which the economy focuses and tries to facilitate in a variety of ways. Additionally, entrepreneurship and creation of small companies by young entrepreneurs is being promoted in many European countries. Particularly in the Netherlands, one example of such activity is the International Business, Entrepreneurship and SME Management Master’s program at the Maastricht University. Under the aid of this specific program many companies were formed by aspiring students and possibly members of the future international business world. One of these companies is the promising start-up company of focus, Crispy Wallet. In the following pages we will try to describe and understand the creation and functioning of Crispy Wallet. We will focus on the processes a start-up company goes through in relation to the adaptive cycle of resilience model as well as the collaborative networks theory.

The Case Study

Goals

The case presented here focuses on a young company, founded in 2011, operating in the retail sales sector. The primary goal for conducting this case study was to better understand manifestations of phenomena described in terms of the adaptive cycle of resilience model (Abcouwer & Parson, 2007) in their natural setting. According to the adaptive cycle of resilience and the implementation of this theory on the business world, organizations go through different phases and are challenged to respond to obstacles, opportunities and crises in order to maintain their prosperity. In addition, the notion of collaborative networks and their contribution to more organized cooperation and coordination between various and different kinds of organizations, presents us with a number of interesting settings and theories. Ultimately, we found endearing the idea of examining the concepts of the adaptive cycle and collaborative networks in a new company.

Research Design

The qualitative research methods that we used to approach this specific case follow the descriptive case study paradigm. Among the different types of case studies (Yin, 2003; Baxter & Jack, 2008), this method best fits the situation, as the main goal is to examine a phenomenon in its natural setting and focus on contemporary events (Benbasat et al., 1987). The description and exploration of a particular case can help illuminate complexities and issues occurring in real-life examples, where collection and analysis of a variety of data, from different viewpoints are key in understanding practical expressions of theoretical concepts and models. The case study research strategy is appropriate for this specific matter - exploration and understanding of complexities, innovation and virtual character of a potentially start-up company within a dynamic environment. Additionally, the criteria described by Benbasat et al. (1987) for case study appropriateness are fulfilled; interest in studying a phenomenon in its natural setting, focus on contemporary events, absence of necessity to control subjects and events and existence of underlying theoretical basis to support the findings. The research method that was used for data collection was a semi-structured interview. This gave us the opportunity to cover a variety of interesting and crucial subjects as well as the freedom to deviate from the plan of the interview according to the informants’ responses. This way, the interviewees were able to express themselves in a free and clear way, as their own perceptions and interpretations of the matter dictated. Most of the questions were previously designed, in contrast to the answers, which were not pre-coded, providing the interviewees with the possibility to respond using their own words and context as stimulus. The interview were recorded and then transcribed, in order to assure avoidance of misinterpretations on behalf of the interviewers. The interviewees were asked questions concerned with the creation processes of the company, the organizational structure and allocation of responsibilities, the competitive environment of the company as well as its “virtual” character. In addition, the interviewees elaborated on the phases of the adaptive cycle and their perception of the company’s position, and finally on the functioning of the Master’s program of the University of Maastricht the founders followed, as a collaborative network.

Research Scope

The scope of this case study is to examine and understand the circumstances under which a company is created within a collaborative network and the way this setting affects the organization and its activity. We also focus on the virtual character of this specific company, which will be further elaborated on, and the way it poses obstacles and difficulties or enhances and strengthens the collaboration between the different parts. Emphasis is also given on the relationships between the managers of the company and the way they support the flexibility and agility of the organization. We also focus on the competitive and dynamic environment and the practices used to overcome the challenges it involves.

Introducing Crispy Wallet

The team

The team of Crispy Wallet was founded during the introduction days of the International Business, Entrepreneurship and SME Management Master’s program at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, part of which was the formation and operation of a company. The first day was dedicated to the formation of teams. All students were gathering to get to know each other on a personal and professional basis. In order to facilitate a vivid communication the university organized speed dates where students had to present themselves and their entrepreneurial ideas within a few minutes. According to the interviewees, all conversations were more based on getting to know each other on a personal basis rather than on the proposed business ideas. At the end of the day a team of six students was formed and represented the first constellation of minds behind the business Crispy Wallet. Today the team of Crispy Wallet consists of four members from which three are of the founders. After the Master’s program was finished, three original members left because of personal and professional reasons. The new member, David, joined the team to add his knowledge and experience in marketing to the company. Right now the team consists of Jan, Heri, Marvin and David. The team members have different areas of responsibility; this will be explained in the section “organizational structure”.

The idea

To come up with an idea with a team of six people was a rather complicated procedure. As already discussed, the team was formed on the basis of various speed dates during which the students were only able to get to know each other very shortly. Right after that, the business idea had to be found and first steps had to be made. According to Crispy Wallet, it was very complicated to reach an agreement since all members came from different backgrounds and therefore had different visions, expectations and understandings of what the company was going to be. After many different brainstorming sessions, the team already worked on one idea they initially planned to realize. However, one member came up with the idea of a paper wallet. The team felt so confident about that product that they knocked the initial plan on the head and went with what is now known as Crispy Wallet.

Organizational structure

Crispy Wallet already went through several changes since its foundation. Since the establishment of a company was a requirement by the Master’s program, the team had to start out with 6 team members. The company was supposed to survive at least one year. After the first year, three members left and after a while a new member joined. All these changes and requirements had an impact on the structure of the organization. After the idea was born, the structure and organization of the company was formed in the process. Since the team only consisted of six members at that time, the hierarchy was flat and therefore communication was very direct and informal. The members of Crispy Wallet had various academic backgrounds. Therefore by working together, synergies were created. Due to the small team size, the team members had overlapping roles and responsibilities and needed to be generalists. In order to find the right specializations for each member, the company established the rule to exchange responsibilities with each other on a monthly basis. The plan was to give each member an idea of the work of the other and also to find his or her field of interest. However, this procedure caused more chaos and inefficiency than when the roles would constantly be more or less the same and one would know who to contact and who is accountable. Therefore, the initiative was cancelled and after a while different roles and responsibilities emerged naturally. These roles were not only based on educational background but also on soft skills. Heri, for instance, has a good way to communicate and bargain with people. Therefore, he became production manager where he was responsible for finding business partners for the production of the wallets. According to the interview, it was a natural process that Jan became CEO of the company. Because he was pursuing a double degree Master in entrepreneurship and strategy, he was able to put his theoretical strategic knowledge into practice. Moreover, Jan always had a personal interest in design. Therefore, he also became responsible for the design and structure of the website of Crispy Wallet – a very important aspect of their business because it’s, for the time being, the only sales channel the company can offer. Marvin finished his Bachelor in International Business with the specialization in finance and pursued an internship in the banking industry afterwards. Especially in the foundation of a company his expertise was highly important for the establishment of a healthy financial basis. David, who holds a Master in strategic marketing, completed Crispy Wallet by bringing in his expertise. Nevertheless, the day-to-day business demands many other responsibilities form the team members. Therefore, each member needs to be able to understand each other’s work and eventually asks from everybody to be a generalist. On the long run however, the company plans to proceed with the specialization of roles in order to derive the maximum value in each area. Decision-making in the company is done on a democratic basis. Each member has equal voting rights. Finally, it needs to be noted that all team members are pursuing other professional activities next to working on Crispy Wallet because the company does not possess the means to support all members financially. Therefore, Crispy Wallet is managed from geographically different places through the assistance of computer-aided applications. The next section will elaborate on this issue

Virtuality of the organization

Since the Master’s program is finished, Crispy Wallet operates on a virtual basis; they currently do not own an office and the team is geographically dispersed. They have various devices and channels to communicate with each other. Obviously it was obligatory to at least own a computer. The fact that each member owns a smartphone facilitates regular communication to a large degree. In terms of the software, Crispy Wallet mostly uses traditional e-mails, Skype and Facebook to communicate and Dropbox as well as tools from Google to exchange and manage data. The team schedules obligatory Skype-meetings on a weekly basis in order to catch up on strategic and operational activities. Even though they cultivate a daily communication, these scheduled meetings help to wrap up and hence get a clear overview of everybody’s activities. When asked about the experience to work collaboratively in a virtual manner, the overall evaluation is rather negative. They argue that the communication through computer-aided application lowers productivity because it is not as spontaneous and direct as working in a single place. Seeing each other and being able to spontaneously react and for example sketch an idea on a board increases idea generation and nurtures an active discussion. If something cannot be explained just through words and needs to be explained with the help of a graphical illustration, the process to do that and show it to the other members takes a long time. Crispy Wallet argues that in order to manage a serious business operation it is absolutely necessary to be able to meet in real life on a regular basis. Therefore, they plan to get an office in the near future. When reflecting on Crispy Wallet’s way to operate virtually, it should be noted that the company misses out on many computer-aided applications that specifically suit their needs. Through the use of other productivity-enhancing applications on the market, Crispy Wallet could resolve some of the mentioned problems to a large degree. This issue reveals a general aspect that is very important to successfully operate in a collaborative network: expertise in knowledge management and information technology. With the help of an information technology manager, Crispy Wallet could create great value in terms of productivity and efficiency.

The competitive environment

SWOT analysis

SWOT analysis

Strength

First, Crispy Wallet consists of a young and very dynamic team. All members possess different but complementary academic backgrounds. From the beginning, there was a clear tendency which member would be responsible for what area of the business. Eventually the missing marketing expertise has been brought into the business with the employment of David. Second, Crispy Wallet enjoys the first mover advantage in the European market. Right now their competitors, namely Paperwallet and Mighty Wallet, operate solely in the USA.

Weaknesses

One of the weaknesses of Crispy Wallet is that it does not possess an office at the moment. Since the Master’s program has finished, the team split up to pursue other professional opportunities besides taking care of the start-up. This issue makes them dependent on computer-aided technology and goes in line with the second weakness: the missing expertise in information management. As discussed, Crispy Wallet does not make use of other supporting technologies on the market. There are many platforms and applications that are specifically focused on collaborative networks. By missing out on that opportunity, they loose a lot of value in terms of productivity and efficiency. Finally, the third and most important weakness is related to the time the members devote to the business. Since Crispy Wallet is not yet able to provide its members with sufficient financial means, each of them had to pursue other professional opportunities such as internships and full-time jobs. Obviously, the business could grow faster if more time would be devoted to the operation.

Opportunities

The biggest opportunity is the possible realization of mass customization. Not even the competitors overseas have realized this opportunity. Since Crispy Wallet won the LIOF! Competition for start-ups, the company now possesses the financial means to realize this goal. They even confirmed during the interview that they are currently working on the implementation.

Threats

As for the threats, of major concern is the fact that the paper wallet can easily be copied. There is no patent on the product and the folding can easily be reconstructed by taking the wallet apart. Second, Crispy Wallet needs to be aware of the competition from overseas. Since these businesses are established, they most likely possess a stronger financial basis and could attack Crispy Wallet in marketing expenditures. The product can be distinguished based on designs and the strength of the brand. Materials and overall product are the same. A competitor who spends large amount on the marketing of the product most likely has a stronger advantage.

The collaborative network

The founders of the company, as already mentioned, began with the creation of the company as students of the International Business, Entrepreneurship and SME Management Master’s program at the Maastricht University. The Master’s program and the University of Maastricht played the role of facilitator in the process of the creation of the company. As part of their studies, the students came up with the idea and utilized a variety of services, provided by the university, in order to realize their goals. This specific program provides the students with the opportunity to cooperate with each other in order to create their own business and gain experience in entrepreneurship and management. Experienced experts – accountants, business coaches and legal support – are available to the students in the process of building their own business. The program operates as a nest, bringing together young aspiring entrepreneurs and experienced professionals in an attempt to strengthen entrepreneurship and innovation in the next generation of managers. Considering the definition of the concepts of collaboration and collaborative network as described by Camarinha-Matos and Afsarmanesh (2008, 53 & 57), this specific Master’s program can be argued that it functions as a collaborative network. A collaborative network consists of:

a variety of entities (e.g. organizations and people) that are largely autonomous, geographically distributed, and heterogeneous in terms of their operating environment, culture, social capital and goals, but that collaborate to better achieve common or compatible goals, and whose interactions are supported by computer network.

The Master’s program accordingly consists of a variety of students and professionals that are autonomous, share common goals and interests and come together in a joint venture in order to exploit new and promising ideas and to promote entrepreneurship not only locally but across the country’s boarders as well. In the case of Crispy Wallet, individuals with different scientific and social backgrounds came together with the purpose to realize their idea for a business. Moving further into the taxonomy, similarities can be found between the Master’s program and concepts such as the professional virtual community and the virtual enterprise (Camarinha-Matos & Afsarmanesh, 2005, 2008). Ultimately, this Master’s program of the Maastricht University operates as the center through which different professionals get in contact and cooperate, or collaborate, in order to fulfill a common goal. In addition, the process through which the students contacted each other at the beginning, trying to find partners that would complement each other in realizing an idea for a business, resembles the processes through which virtual organizations or a professional virtual communities come together. Finding the right partners from the start, as well as in due course, is key in establishing a promising working environment. Although the interviewees characterized the speed-dating event, that was held the first day of the Master’s program, as confusing and chaotic, they still managed to create a strong team.

Crispy Wallet and the adaptive cycle of resilience

In the following paragraphs we are going to discuss the organization’s life cycle in the context of the adaptive cycle of resilience model until today and how it may develop in the near future. We asked the interview partners about related events they have encountered and will now try to map them to the phases of the model as they are described by Abcouwer & Parson (2007).

New combinations

After briefly introducing the model of the adaptive cycle of resilience to the interviewees, they pointed out that Crispy Wallet is a very young company and still in the process of forming a naturally matured organization. Like explained in the previous chapter, they founded the company after coming together as a team for an integral project of their Master’s program. The main challenge in this phase was to collect and evaluate possible ideas and available professional skills and streamline them into a feasible and promising start up. We believe that the existence of various possible new ideas and the necessity of narrowing them down to one, qualify as the “new combinations” phase of the model. They described it as rather difficult to bundle the accumulated inputs and ideas and pointed out the importance of extensive discussions on what to leave out and what to pursue which is essentially one of the key challenges in this phase.

Entrepreneurship & equilibrium

While the interviewees claim that they are satisfied with their current situation and that business is going well, it is hard to determine whether they achieved what we define as the equilibrium phase. This phase is characterized by a state of overall clarity and transparency of cause and effect relationships where most of the energy is put into more standardization and raising efficiency, resulting in the cutting of costs. It is then also typical for an organization to develop a dominant way of thinking which causes the emergence of a standard answer or approach, especially when dealing with problems (Abcouwer & Parson, 2011). Now on the one hand, Crispy Wallet has managed to develop a standardized product. They know how to produce, advertise, sell and distribute it. Recently the main focus was indeed on how to become more efficient in those areas in order to drive up sales and increase their margin. Unfortunately it was not possible for us to get a closer look at their financial data and situation, but according to their own statements, they have reached their break-even point quite fast and they declared their sales to have increased more or less constantly. On the other hand, they are trying out new things and seek to improve on single disciplines, for example when it comes to advertising their product. As they see themselves, they are still rather flexible in their way of dealing with issues and unsolved challenges. They have no rigid belief or approach on how to handle the self-confessed dynamic of their organization, which would usually be found in mature organizations in the equilibrium phase (Abcouwer & Parson, 2011).

Crisis

The next and last phase in the model of the adaptive cycle of resilience is the crisis. A crisis in this model is characterized as a major disturbing influence on the equilibrium that appeared rather unexpectedly (Abcouwer & Parson, 2011). Given this definition, the Crispy Wallet organization has yet to face a real crisis situation. However, when the organization, after its one-year existence, lost three associates (that was 50% of the personnel at that time), there was of course a certain negative impact on the business of the company. The workload that was formerly divided upon six people had to be reallocated to only three remaining persons. While they experienced a natural imbalance in the workload already before and therefore found the shift of workload to be rather unproblematic, they also had to deal with the outflow of knowledge in the form of their marketing expert. This ultimately resulted in the acquisition of a new marketing professional. In the end, this event did not have a problematic impact on the business performance but put the organization under a timely limited stress. Remarkably, in their opinion the diminished head count turned out to be beneficial, because decisions get trough more easily and more efficient and the manpower they now have is sufficient for the current state of the business. Thus one can say they managed to use this crisis-like event as an opportunity. The reason why we do not classify incidence as a crisis, is because it did not happen unexpected and because the impact was not strong enough. They knew long before about the people leaving since it was the end of the Master’s program in which context the company was founded and the remaining three persons knew about the other plans of their former colleagues.

Outlook

As for the most recent developments in the past days and the future, we see their company going through the phases of new combinations and entrepreneurship again. On the 15th of December 2012, Crispy Wallet won the first price of a Dutch television start-up contest, which was rewarded with a paycheck over 50,000 EUR. With this amount being very high, relative to the company’s equity, a lot of new opportunities arose that were connected with important strategic choices. Particularly the widening of their product portfolio as well as the introduction of a disruptive technology that has not been used before – customizable paper wallets – should be mentioned here. The interesting aspect of this development is that Crispy Wallet, in our opinion, went or still is going through the phase of new combinations and consequently through the phase of entrepreneurship again, without going through a crisis first. As explained, the loss of half their personnel did not meet all the characteristics of a crisis and also had no causal relation to the new strategic decisions made. The adoption of the mentioned disruptive technology thus was not triggered by a crisis but rather by a logical step in order to further establish their brand on the market and generate more revenue by targeting another set of customers. According to the theory, this is unlikely to happen. We explain this through the existence of multiple management styles among the associates who technically all have the same power. Therefore they had the managerial skills needed to maintain their current equilibrium but also the ones necessary to foresee technical innovations and strategic action to be taken. Of course the small size of the company and the limited number of stakeholders play a role too.

Conclusion

Over the course of this paper we have tried to put the findings of the conducted case study into the context of the lecture Virtual Organizations in a Dynamic Context. This has given us insights into various topics. How a start-up organization facilitates a virtual collaboration between geographically separated parties, the establishment of a Master’s program as a collaborative network and our main goal, the applicability of the adaptive cycle of resilience model for our researched start up. The analysis of the organizational structure revealed strengths and weaknesses. We learned how important a dynamic structure and a general flexibility for a starting company, especially in the new combinations and entrepreneurship phase is. We came to the conclusion that this is also highly beneficial when working together virtually and geographically distributed. A main challenge for Crispy Wallet was that due to other obligations none of the associates was able to give a fulltime working commitment to the company and the availability of the workforce was at times quite dissimilar. Hence being flexible was necessary to balance the workload accordingly and to get their work done. On the other hand they didn’t exhaust the potential of specialized information technology that could have enriched their virtual working environment. We also want to support the idea of a Master’s program as a collaborative network. The infrastructure and support that was established by the university is stimulating the emergence of new and innovative businesses. Here, we believe that the concentration of various different backgrounds, both personal and academic, plays a very important role for the innovative power of this environment. As for the application of the adaptive cycle of resilience model, we’d like to conclude that the general concept of it was nicely applicable to the researched case. The design and alignment of its phases were well in line with the events and the development Crispy Wallet went through. However, we saw and described the possibility to actually skip a phase of the model, the crisis. A crisis in general sure is not inevitable, but it is also not a necessary precondition for a change or specifically the phase of new combinations in the model. While the process of moving from the equilibrium to new combinations and entrepreneurship without facing a crisis seems logical in some cases (e.g. when preventive action is taken), the model itself seems to suggest a fixed, circular process with no shortcuts or jumps (Abcouwer & Parson, 2012).

References

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