Growing up and staying small

Originally founded in 2009 as a web application development company, Singapore-based Savant Degrees has evolved into a thriving digital innovation studio working with a broad client base from large multinational firms to small, nimble start-ups.

Today, Savant helps clients generate executable ideas, co-create tangible concepts, and coach innovation through to implementation.

“If digital presence is key to a business,” says Zi Huan Wee (Zwee), CEO and Founder of Savant Degrees, “whether the business is entirely online like an e-commerce portal, or whether digital is simply a key strategic channel like a retail bank leveraging an ATM network, Savant guides our clients through the process of new product innovation using a proprietary incubation acceleration toolkit called the Savant Method.

The Savant Method, he says, is a collection of consulting tools that guides clients in a structured way through strategy, design, prototyping, build, and the ongoing management of a product.

Ultimately we need to grow in order to continue to engage our top talent. If our growth stops, so will their engagement

Zi Huan Wee
CEO and Founder, Savant Degrees

“We’re driven by the knowledge that most new product innovation fails not because of time, cost and quality, but because what is built is rarely what was wanted. Like a good building architect, we help ensure high fidelity from vision to build-out.”

His business is at a very interesting point in its lifecycle – one that thousands of small business owners around the region are facing as well. Specifically, having successfully grown from a start-up to a stable small business, how do they make the jump again to mid-sized business?

“To begin with, it was important to acknowledge that continual growth was desirable for us,” says Zwee.

“In fact many companies like us must constantly grow or they will quickly become irrelevant. These days, even big, powerful firms can disappear in a couple of quarters if they stay still too long.”

Staying relevant

He acknowledges that for other businesses sometimes growth is not relevant to their strategy or stage in lifecycle.

“In fact, sometimes shrinking can better support strategy,” Zwee says. “So we had to make sure first that growth was right for us, right now.”

After some analysis, the Savant team realised quickly that in order for their business to thrive, they need to grow in size, scope and geographic coverage. This is true because clients demand it, employees require it, and competition is always just behind.

“I wanted to grow first for my clients,” says Zwee.

Clients need Savant to have the capabilities to support them wherever, however, and whenever they do business.  Small businesses like Savant must grow in scope and coverage if they are to stay relevant with a client portfolio that is, at the same time, expanding.

According to Zwee, clients want simpler interactions with vendors, and that means vertical integration as well as building horizontal competencies across more domains.

That means Savant needs to be able to face off to a client and credibly claim that they can provide a “whole” solution including upstream strategic consulting and downstream technical build-out.

Sometimes this means strategic partnerships. Other times it means bringing new capabilities in-house, such as large-scale project management, a capability Savant is investing in heavily.

But it’s not just about clients: Savant employees also require growth.  While Savant has taken care to invest in a proprietary set of tools and processes that encode intuition and experience into the firm’s DNA, Savant is, at its core, a services business based on the continued excellence of talented people, like many other Asian SMEs.

Engaging talent

As a small firm, it is critical to find ways to motivate and engage talented staff in order to retain them.

ThinkAloud7“Engagement is more than money,” says Zwee. “Anyone on our team could easily double their salary by jumping ship. But they don’t because they love our culture and working environment and because they know we are invested in driving their careers through expansion.

“As we grow, we create opportunities for all of our employees through deepening their own skills, helping them to grow into management and leadership roles, or even acting as our entrepreneurial ambassadors in our offshoot businesses such as our office in Jakarta or our offshoot units Savant Platforms and Savant Labs. Ultimately we need to grow in order to continue to engage our top talent.  If our growth stops, so will their engagement.”

So, given the need to grow, how to go about doing it?

Savant took an unusual and inspired approach that fits well with the entrepreneurial drive of its employees.  Specifically, Zwee is giving team members the opportunity to partner with the Savant Holding company and become “founders” of their own areas of the business outside of Singapore or outside of the core business.

For example, Zwee has already spun off Savant Platforms, which provides data centre services to large businesses, and Savant Labs, which partners with entrepreneurs as a form of outsourced Chief Technology Officer, claiming some of its fees in the form of equity investments.

Savant has also set up shop in Jakarta and has plans to open in China by the end of the year.

Common culture

“Ultimately our business model works well when the core team for any business unit is about 35-50 people,” says Zwee. “Too much bigger and the entrepreneurial spirit is sapped by the weight of a big, formal structure.  What I’d like to see are 15-20 independent studios, all linked by a common culture, equity structure, and network of people.”

As David Packard argues in, The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, growth is not valuable for its own sake, but is valuable as a means to achieve competitive advantage and attract the best resources.

In other words, growth, in and of itself, is not necessarily good.  The need and mechanisms for growth must be carefully considered, and Savant Degrees has done a great job evaluating the need for growth and embedding growth into their overall corporate strategy.

Beyond a growth plan firmly based in corporate strategy, Savant has also done well to mitigate some of the common disadvantages of growth through their hive-like approach.

As pointed out in the seminal book Strategies for Success in Asia, NUS Business School Professors Andrew Delios and Kulwant Singh outline three critical risks of growth, including 1) diseconomies of scale (too big to be nimble), 2) organisational cost (too much fat in the cost base), and 3) reduced responsiveness (too focused on management to focus on clients).

Savant’s approach of building entrepreneurs and aggressively pushing them out into new markets helps Savant grow big and stay small simultaneously.

  • Author Profile

    Eric Tachibana is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School where he teaches Intrapreneurship and Entrepreneurship. He is also founding director of a regional private equity fund and COO for the Chief Technology Office function at a large global bank.

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