Walking away from the dream…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting this blog reminded me of a quote I once saw. It read, ‘On the way to my dream, I got lost and found a better one’. One of the questions one grapples with at certain points in the life of your startup struggle, is “what are the signs that you should walk away, take what you have learnt and look for another dream as this one no one wants to pay money for?” This is a question that few entrepreneurs even want to contemplate particularly if their heart and soul is invested in this particular solution.   Having struggled with this myself I can only offer the following signs that you might need to move on.

The most obvious is of course that after talking to your clients, offering free trials and marketing like crazy they simply do not want to pay for your great idea and the financials all support this. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they simply don’t understand how great this product or service is and that they will eventually come around. By all means try to pivot or find another target market but if the answer remains the same, you know what to do.

The next sign is that you have a team, mostly partners who simply do not seem to gel as a team. Even if you are successful you need to ask yourself if you would want to be in business with these people. If the answer is no, move on.

Something that entrepreneurs seldom think of and it only hits them when they are squarely in the middle of building their startup is the toll that it could be taking on their family. Working 24/7, being totally consumed by your startup is not healthy for family life. What does it help to be successful and have lost your family in the process?

If you are having the same conversation with your friends about where your business is at, year in and year out, it might be a sign that your business is not moving forward in any significant way. It might be time to reevaluate where you are and where you are going.

Something that can often disguise business problems is having enough money. If you are funding yourself or have access to enough funding, you are not forced to look at the real realities of your business, be careful that you are not funding an unworkable solution.

The best way to ensure that you truly are moving in the direction you want to is to create regular go/no go decision points. At these regular intervals take a long hard look at if clients will pay for your solution, your business partners are right for you, your family is still supporting you and if when asked by your friends you can truly say that you have made progress towards your dream. You might even ask someone whose judgment you trust and who is more objective than you to go through it all with you and give his or her opinion.

Fortunately, the most important tool that the entrepreneur has is their gut feeling and if your gut is saying this is not working don’t ignore it. Take what you have learnt to use as a foundation for your next venture but please don’t just keep going. Know when you are lost and start working on your next dream.

That little thing called the client…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABusiness is simply an energy exchange. Previously in human history, we would have an excess of some or other product, for example, chickens. What we wanted was a lamb so we would exchange our chickens for someone’s lamb. In this process we would have to give more than 1 chicken for a lamb because it took more energy to raise one lamb than it did to raise one chicken. This was called the bartering system. Business is no different today, the only difference being we have created a universal expression of the value of our chickens or lambs called money. Thus the principles remain the same. We have a product or service we want to exchange for money, which allows us to purchase something we want such as a car or house or simply a good life. For all of this to work, we need people who want what we have, at the price we are willing to part with it, so that we are able to get what we want. Of course here is where that pesky little thing called a client comes in. For, an energy exchange to work there has to be a solution to a problem (supply) and clients willing to pay for the solution (demand). Demand means clients.

In our startup journey we got so caught up with our idea and product, thinking that it is the next great thing, and that people would be knocking down our door for it. Boy, were we disappointed when that did not happen. So what went wrong? Well, here are a few of my ideas with regard to that.

Given that we had people in our team experienced in our market we thought we understood what the client wanted, so we kept building features and never asked enough clients if we were solving a problem that they would pay money for. If you hear the words, ‘I know what the clients want’, from anyone in the team except the person talking to the clients, you should firmly put that team member straight as this type of talk is the death knell of your startup. In truth we did not have anyone in our team who had the gift of the gab and was willing to go out there and just talk to customers. So, when we did get some feedback from our target market we jumped on it and built the requested feature. Because we did not talk to enough of our target market we were unable to determine what were their real priorities and problems. All of this used valuable resources with nothing to show for it.

Secondly, we simply did not understand the numbers. After talking to a few people who loved the idea of our product but did not buy, we got despondent but if we understood anything about marketing we, would have known, that we need to get many more people, to know about our solution to their problem before we can make a sale. Here I would recommend doing your homework to really understand your market and where they like to get their information. Understanding how to create demand through the many options available to us today is priceless. A better idea is to get someone in the team who has experience in marketing and sales.

Thirdly, we made the classic error of letting clients use the software initially without paying; we soon found that people who get something for free do not value it. Here I would recommend a 30-day free trial, after that clients need to pay. This will quickly give you an idea of if there is enough value in your product to create a sustainable business. A 30-day free trial, allows the client to try your solution, risk free, particularly as you are the new kid on the block and have no credibility as yet in the market place. One gets so desperate to get someone to use your product that you lose perspective on the objective, the objective is to validate that you can make money and have a sustainable market. This is the difference between a startup and an established business. In an established business it is all about sales to cover the costs, make a profit and grow the business. In a startup sales are a validation mechanism that indicates if you have the right solution for the right market.

Fourthly, if you want to create a low touch online business you need to make the access to and setting up of your product very, very simple for your client, otherwise your profits are eroded by support costs. Important to note is what might seem simple for you to set up might not be simple for your client, so here is another aspect that should be validated.

One always hears people say that clients are the lifeblood of the business, but until you have created a startup the real importance of clients is simply an intellectual exercise. Finding them, getting into their heads and staying in their heads should be an all-consuming activity, if you really want to be successful.

The profession called business…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“You don’t always need to do what you like, but you must like what you do”. This little bit of wisdom comes from Seth Godin and on reflection it confirms an insight that I had a few weeks ago as I grapple with the ins and outs of my startup.

The insight was about business being a profession and to have a wildly successful business, you have to be proficient in the art and science of business. Now that might seem obvious, but is it? Well, for me, not so much, I have always seen a business as an amalgamation of other professions such as marketing, law, accounting, human resources, etc., when in fact business is a profession on its own, it is a way of looking at all aspects of your business making decisions that will make the business more profitable and grow to its potential. So, what is a business? A definition that I found useful is an organisation or economic system, where goods and services are exchanged for one another or for money. Learning how to make decisions, take risks and solve problems in the most profitable and effective way is what the profession of business is all about.

Yes, of course you need skills in the other professions, but that is not the focus. People spend many years refining and honing their skills in a particular profession, like marketing or accounting, so what makes us think that we can have a successful business without spending the same amount of time on the profession of business?

This is where the light bulb moment happened for me, as I have been grappling with this thing called passion and finding a problem to solve in my passion area, where what I should have been doing is finding a real problem to solve that people will pay money for and learn how to run a business around that. The problem with passion is that it comes with a load of emotion and we get tied into the product or service on an emotional level, which clouds our judgment with regard to making the right business decisions.

I know that for many people it started with a passion, but for many more it started with a problem and then using the profession of business to solve the problem in a way that creates success.

That leads me back to Seth’s words. “You don’t have to do what you like”, meaning, in my mind, you do not have to create a business in your passion area, but “you must like what you do”, meaning that if you do not like or understand the profession of business it will probably be harder for you to be successful.

So what does this mean for me? Well, I am currently working on a business idea that focuses on finding a problem people want solved and then learning how to build a successful business around it. I will be spending all my time accelerating my learning and understanding in the profession of business.

Once I have attained success, I will use my time and money to follow my passion.


I can’t pay you much, but please, work for me…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe most efficient use of human resources in the life of your business is probably during start-up, mostly because you have very little money and you have to get work done.  So, you get creative. Of course, there are always your friends and family, but if there is no help forthcoming from them then other avenues must be explored.  The first of these avenues is hunting for an additional partner who has the skills you seek and who is willing to give time and skill for shares.

The difficulty with this approach, we found, was that in the early stages the business has no defensible value as you have no clients on which you can base value projections or forecasts and thus the number of shares given in relation to time and skill becomes tricky to determine.  Here you simply need to agree the amount of shares and expected time and skills that is acceptable to all parties. Of course, if the new partner is willing to give time, skill and some money that is an even better option.

Another option, if you have a little money is to entice someone to work for you for a very low wage with the promise of employee shares in the future, when the business has become successful.  Believe it or not, there are people who are intrigued with start-ups and are willing to take that risk with you.  The trick is finding them.  We used the traditional recruiting tools, found lots of candidates who were eligible, fewer who were suitable and we almost employed one such person, but he just waited to receive our offer of employment to tell us that he was not really serious when he said he would work for that salary.  This forced us into a direction that should have been our first course of action and not a last resort.  But traditional thinking around human resource acquisition and management got in our way.

Outsourcing is the answer, if you can suspend your judgment and traditional ways of thinking.  One quickly realises that not everyone has to work for you as an employee and in a start-up you would prefer they do not as there is a lot of uncertainty.

With outsourcing, particularly to low cost locations, you are able to get high quality resources at very competitive pricing thus your dollar goes further and you are able to get more done on your maxed out credit card or the remortgage of your home.  The key to outsourcing is to use a reputable outsource provider (Odesk, Elance, etc).  Choose 3 to 5 candidates and then devise some small deliverables to test the skills of each of them.

Ensure that your brief is clear and detailed.  From the questions that they ask as they are completing the deliverable, you get a sense of their capability, skill and suitability to work with you. Language, in many cases, is a challenge, but luckily in the technology area where we required work there was a common understanding of the important terms.

As far as possible, protect your IP when giving outsourced providers access to your solution.  There are ways to do that, particularly with regard to technology solutions. Once you are comfortable with a few of the candidates’ skills, then you can give them larger pieces of work to do.  Having 2 or even 3 additional resources on call allows you to parallel process work thus getting to the market quicker or simply having available resources if another is unable or falls ill.

Managing outsourced work is very different from doing it yourself or having people in the office doing the work that you supervise.  It requires a completely different skill set.  Here the focus is on giving an accurate and detailed brief, being available for questions and knowing how to work with virtual teams.  It also means having a skill that is able to create a framework and allow different people to fill in the detail in a way that might not be how you would usually do it and then bringing it all together in a workable solution.

A complex technical solution requires at least two technical people to ensure continuity and to minimise the risk of having only one technical resource who might leave or simply get ill or exhausted.  We only had one technical co-founder and a complex technical solution with no back-up resources.  This took its toll on his family life and for 2 years he worked 7 days a week, this is not sustainable or worth the risk.

If you really cannot afford an additional technical resource then cut down on the solution functionality.  One of the big ‘Lean Start-up’ principles is to develop a minimal viable product (MVP), get it to the customers and see if they will buy it, before developing any further. Of course we made the classic error of going beyond an MVP that resulted in an exhausted technical co-founder and no sales.

If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a resource or two, ensure that they deliver according to agreement and expectation.  Also construct their work in a way that they feel a connection to your purpose, can grow and learn and give them as much autonomy as is possible, these are the most powerful performance motivators (reference Daniel Pienk).  If you do that, you are more likely to be successful in paying a lower wage and getting great people.  There are many excuses why people might not be delivering but with little money you do not have the luxury of entertaining those excuses and/or spending time on performance improvement plans.

Another classic error that we made was not keeping the resources to task.  Even though we felt the non-delivery was valid we should have either suspended the contract until we were ready for that skill to be utilised or a more radical idea could have been to sell the resource’s time to someone else for a period of time.  This inability to act cost us dearly.  When employing people in the beginning, it is preferable to employ them on a contract basis for short periods of time, say 6 months.  Unfortunately this makes recruiting people even harder.

Having little money and a requirement for different skills than you have in your founding team is one of the biggest challenges that start-ups face.  The answer to it all is getting sales as quickly as you can. That way you can start affording to acquire additional skill and are more likely to get investors that will give you access to money to employ people.

Am I leading or simply walking…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe title of this blog I take from John Maxwell, who says that if you think you are leading, check if anyone is following, if not, you are simply walking.  I have been pretty lucky throughout my life as taking the lead has never been difficult for me and people seemed to like to follow.  This has resulted in a lifelong passion for learning about and practicing good leadership. I have always believed that the trust that people place in you to lead comes with great responsibility.

But a startup is very different, particularly when all 3 people in the business are the owners, who should take the lead?  If you are lucky, two of the team might naturally defer to the other’s leadership.  What is important here is to clarify the leadership role with the other two and ensure that there is a common understanding and acceptance of the leadership role and the rest of the team members’ accountabilities. Once again, it is important to assign accountabilities according to each person’s strengths, and clearly understand where you might have a gap in the strength set. Luckily in a startup everything is being validated and nothing is fixed which leaves room for the leadership role to be rotated if there is no clear leader emerging. This approach allows the team to see each person’s leadership capability in action and then choose the best person for the role. In my experience joint leadership rarely works unless there is real clarity around who is accountable to lead in which area.  One of the difficult tasks for a leader is to have the difficult conversations with people who might not be meeting their deadlines or who are generally underperforming.  Joint leadership muddies the water around this responsibility. Unfortunately just because people own the business does not mean they are competent in the roles assigned to them, the tough conversation might come around quicker than you think.

In a startup more than in any other business stage the toughest leadership job is leading yourself.  You have no employees, only colleagues, different roles that are confusing, no or little money, more downs than ups and it is up to you to have mental toughness, stay positive, focused and encouraging everyone around you in the face of many challenges.  Here the only thing that works is strong supporters who believes in you and in what you do, and cutting yourself some slack now and again.

Startup being such an unpredictable and risky place for a business to be in, I found that I had to use my leadership intuition more than in any other leadership role I have been in.  I also found myself ignoring and doubting my intuition more than in any of the other roles I have had.  I can only attribute this to the fact that I was often making decisions with less robust information than I would normally have and the normal road markers were absent such as making a profit and having paying customers.  After often waiting too long to act on my intuition, I learnt the hard way that I could still trust that little voice that had successfully guided me in the past.

Leadership in a startup even becomes more complex when the same people are playing different leadership roles.  In our case we were all shareholders, directors and employees.  Generally shareholders are concerned with the growth of the investment and shortfalls of capital to make the business work.  The directors are focused on the business strategy and of course the employees have to execute on the day-to-day activities that will realise the strategy.  I found putting on these different hats was very difficult at times even though you would think that each of the roles were focused on the same outcome of making the business successful, I found it not to be so straightforward.  There were often decisions that we made as shareholders that we would not have made as directors and vice versa.  The only advice I can give here is that you need to have different meetings for the different roles and emphasise at each meeting what the focus of the role is at that meeting.

The key to successfully leading an organisation (and no less so than in a startup) is that the business can only grow as fast as the leader is growing.  It was my first startup and I very quickly realised that I had a lot to learn about the most successful methods to use and all those aspects that I was not so familiar with, such as how to structure the company, getting investors, etc., but more importantly, I needed to learn how to listen to the clients and be willing to learn from them to get to a profitable and sustainable market.  I found myself changing our strategy often as we received feedback from the clients and in any of my previous roles in established businesses this approach would have been frowned upon and frankly, I would have lost face as a leader, being accused of not being competent.  So allowing myself to lead in this way and not feel like a failure took a lot of self talk and convincing and I am still not sure I have personally bought into it.

The next time round I would clarify my leadership role and accountabilities much earlier in the journey, get a mentor to guide me through the whitewaters and have the tough conversations sooner.

As the leader it is your responsibility to know how to build a robust business, create and sell the vision, grow your skills appropriately, know your business numbers and the strengths and weaknesses of the group, filling the gaps quickly and efficiently.

The buck stops with you.

On being the chief cook and bottle washer…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you start out it really seems simple.  You have a great idea, progressed it to what you think is a minimum viable product and you just KNOW people will buy it.  But often they don’t.  That could be because you have not found people who will pay to get the problem solved or your price is not right or there are so many bugs in the software that they cannot use it or they simply cannot see the value in using your product versus that of your competitors.  Of course now we are moving into the realm of business development and more particularly, business building.

Hang on, but I thought that all I needed to do was have a great idea, build a product, sell a few and someone would buy it and my idea would be the next Google?

In our startup, we very quickly realised we needed to not only operate in the detail of our area of expertise, but we also needed to look up and take a helicopter view on things such as our vision, what type of company we wanted, and the practical issues of company registration, intellectual property protection, human resources and all that goes with employing people, costs, investors and so much more…

So were we capable of operating at both a detailed and high level to build this company, particularly as we were only three partners who needed to be management, leaders and employees?  Also, we had to understand all aspects of business.  Aspects which are often so complex that specialists are required to deal with them.

If I had to do it over I would focus on the following 5 steps:

  1. Firstly I would make sure that I had the right partners. Here you can refer to my previous post ‘People issues…Ignore at your peril’.
  2. Secondly, I would have got acquainted much quicker with what a business model is and how to build one.  Here I recommend the book ‘Business Model Generation written by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. This is a practical book that helps you understand what is required to build a sustainable and profitable business and what assumptions you need to validate with your customers.
  3. Successful entrepreneurs know that building a business is hard work and that despite what people might think there are methods that seem to be more successful than others.  I would have tried to understand much sooner in the journey what successful entrepreneurs were saying about what methods or steps work and where the focus should be. In this space the most influential proponents are Steve Blank (The Start-up Owners Manual: Step by step guide to building a great company) and Eric Ries (Lean Startup).  If you do not like discipline and method, then it is possible that getting your business to where you want it to go might be more painful for you than it needs be.  Get their books, read their blogs and follow their simple steps and accelerate your success.
  4. The next thing I would do is understand my own strengths and behavioural preferences and work with the team to really understand theirs.  Talk to successful people, search Google, YouTube, there are clues everywhere of what needs to be done and what type of strengths and behaviours are required to do it.  I would assess the team’s strengths and behaviours and see how it matches with what successful people say is required.  Here I would use a Neuroscience based tool called PRISM.  This tool encompasses the latest research on how the brain connects and is well priced and well within reach of a small budget (For more information leave me a comment and I will put you in touch with a practitioner). This tool enables you to build a benchmark of the types of behaviours and aptitudes that are required to build a business and then match each individual to the benchmark.  This would have given us a better understanding of our natural behavioural preferences and allowed us to identify where we had gaps and what it would mean to fill these gaps.
  5. Regardless of everything we did not know it is still important to have a plan and act on it every day.  Plans are like budgets, they very seldom turn out to be the reality, but it helps you focus and move forward.  As you are growing in the above aspects you can change your plan with the insights you have gained.

The answer to whether you are able to perform multiple roles in the business in my opinion is ‘YES’ as long as you are willing to grow and learn in the areas of business building, leadership and in the areas of the additional roles, for example Human Resources, Legal, Finance that may not be present in the team.  Being aware that when you are starting out in your business that you now have multiple roles to play is very valuable.  Lift your head out of the detail where you feel comfortable and critically look at your business. Knowing where you and your team lacks strength is even more valuable and will save you a lot of frustration, after all it is people who build a business and make things work.  Where there are gaps, outsource where possible or do the work to understand how to perform those roles effectively until you can hire someone more competent than you. But know that if what is required does not come naturally to you it is going to take energy and effort to do. You cannot ignore what needs to be done and hope you will be successful anyway.

Unfortunately until you are making money you own the restaurant, cook the food, serve the clients and wash the dishes, if you like it or not.

People issues…ignore at your peril!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn preparation to pitch to investors, I started out by looking at many pitch events on YouTube. What struck me was that in almost every case after a pitch, the investors would ask two questions:  “Tell us more about the team” and “how many customers do you have?”  When I eventually got to pitch myself, guess what were the two questions I was asked? If seasoned entrepreneurs and investors think those are the two most important questions, then there should be a clue there for a new entrepreneur like me.  In the next few posts I will be focusing on what I learnt about the importance of having the right partners and team.  In the startup context the shareholders/partners are also mostly the employees or execution team.  This really complicates matters and will be the subject of a future post.

In the beginning of your startup journey, you have this idea that you think is going to change the world.  You share it with your friends and family and very soon you know who is with you and who is not.  Often we choose our startup partners through friendships.  There is nothing wrong with that if you have also had business dealings with those friends and you know their strengths and weaknesses.  I cannot think of anything more rewarding than becoming successful with a group of like-minded and competent friends.

The challenge comes when your friendship is forged around other interests that have nothing to do with business and you don’t really know them in a business context.  These friends often accept you the way you are and don’t give you the tough feedback and guidance you should be getting.  It even gets more difficult when you are asked to take the lead in the partnership and you find out that one or all of your friends don’t really have the competence and strengths to take the business to where it needs to go.  But these loyal people may have given you the money to startup or even worse, although they have asked you to lead, the business, it may be their idea and you are there by invitation. Having a tough conversation with them could harm the friendship and thus you dance around the issues, which does not move the business forward in any significant way. As a matter of fact, it drains all the energy out of the partnership, leaving little else for the other tough emotional battles that need to be fought when starting up.

If you have some experience as a leader you might already at the outset have some intuition around the efficacy of the partnership, but in all the excitement of becoming the next Google or Facebook you simply ignore that and move on.

So what are the signs that your current partners might not be right for taking the idea to a profitable and sustainable business?

  1. Your partners are not teachable and willing to learn? In the startup phase of the business there is a lot of uncertainty.  You might have people on the team with previous business experience; this can be an advantage or hindrance depending on how willing they are to adapt that experience to new realities.  You might have people with no previous business experience, which does not matter if they put in the hard yards to learn from others and most importantly, learn from the customers.   A person’s ability to learn and use their experience in a flexible way affects the other team members’ view of their judgment.  People who say everything is easy and do not do their homework around the challenges at hand, the team find hard to trust to make the critical business decisions needed.
  1. Do all the partners agree to and understand the value contribution of each member?  Often in startups some partners are able to give money and others give time and skill in lieu of money.  The second scenario presumes that the person’s time and skill has a value in the marketplace that equates to money.  If some of the partners do not value ‘time’ as being equal to ‘money’ and you are using this as a value contributor to the business then this will most certainly lead to discontent among the partners.  Of course for a person to use time and skill as a value contributor they need to have some type of track record in the market place.
  1. Is one or all of your partners risk averse?  A startup is all about risk and taking risk.  Understanding the risk profile of the team is very important.  There are going to be times that big leaps of faith are going to have to be taken and if one of the partners are risk averse, then this leads to a lot of arguments and time wasted trying to put controls in place to mitigate risk. This often slows down the startup’s progress.  By no means am I advocating for irresponsible risk taking, but if people are only used to taking a few calculated risks in a stable business, then a startup is going to be intolerable for them.
  1. Do the current partners have all the skills required for a successful business?  In the early days of the startup the critical skills required are firstly, the visionary leader, who can clearly see where the business needs to go and is able to lead and motivate everyone towards this vision for the business.  Next is the technical skill required to put together a robust solution (if your startup includes a technical solution) and finally, the very important marketing & sales skills.  This is the person who loves going out and talking to potential customers, bringing back that information that shapes the solution into something that the customers will be willing to pay for.  Sometimes these skills can be combined in one or two people, but if not and you find you do not have all the necessary skills in the team, decide quickly how you will fill the skills gap as the success of your business depends on it.
  1. Do your partners do what they say they are going to do?  At a time when there are only a few people fulfilling many roles in the startup, you need the partners to commit to disciplined action.  If you find that partners cannot action what they have promised, then they are not the right people for your startup.

In my experience in established and startup businesses, the people issues are the things that make or break the organization.  Recruiting or finding the right partners at the outset will avoid a lot of frustration further on in the journey. It is often also the aspects that we pay the least attention to, especially in a startup as we are in love with the idea and the solution, leaving little place for anything else.  We mostly look at challenges from our own perspective but we should never forget to ask ourselves, are we the right person for the partnership.

My advice: Ignore the people issues at your peril!

Who stole my vision…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo you have an idea and you think: “the perfect solution”.  But why would you want to embark on solving this particular problem?  There are many different reasons, as many as there are people and even though you are excited to get to solve a problem that you believe needs solving, somewhere in your mind and heart there is a reason more compelling than making money or being rich.

Vision is all about seeing a clear future, articulating your dreams and hopes for the business.  It should remind you of what you want to build. With a clear and compelling vision many leaders have not only built huge companies, but also turned around failing ones.  So does it work the same for Startups?  The first challenge with a startup is that you don’t have a profitable and sustainable market, which means that you are still getting clear on exactly who your customer is, how it might change their lives and if they are willing to pay for it.  This makes visioning a little tricky.

Very early in our journey, the partners articulated a vision or “true north” as Steve Blank defines it. We found that going through a process of understanding each of the partners’ hopes and dreams and how they view the benefit to their lives if the business is successful was a powerful first step in getting team alignment and understanding of what drove each of us.  Through this process, we found synergies and could easily combine our thoughts into a company vision.  In a startup I would suggest that the visioning process is treated like a journey.  Use it to periodically have a discussion with each other around if the vision is going to be reached with what you know at this point in time about the problem, solution and customer, and whether the journey has changed in any way for any of the partners.

Your vision will be severely tested if you run out of money or have other challenges to face.

If I am honest, I was invited into this partnership and I really did not have a passion for the industry or product.  I could, however, connect with the fact that learning how to take a venture from idea to successful was where my passions lay so I connected emotionally with it being my learning school.  I also thought that a successful company would give me freedom to pursue what I am passionate about.   The question is: “would this be enough?” and looking back over the last few months I can honestly say it was not.

I now wonder, why not?  Having given it some thought, I think that although I was in agreement with our company vision and I felt some type of connection with it, it did not talk to my passion.  So I have come to the conclusion that there is probably something to be said for starting a business in your passion area.  If you can’t do that then having an overall vision of why you would like the company to succeed and then find your own passion connection in there is vital.  If you cannot do that, then you will find the tough times unbearable.  I also realized that vision comes to life in the people you are co-creating with and if the team does not come together in mind and spirit, the vision will not help you to keep going.

So if you are grappling with a vision for your startup, take the pressure off.  Focus on getting your solution validated with a few customers and then articulate your vision as your idea takes shape and as you develop an unshakeable belief in what you are doing.






Saying Yes..Is The Easy Part

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWow, what a buzz to get a call from a friend to come and help him in his startup. After spending 1 day with him and his partners, I knew I could help… or could I?  I quickly went about creating order, process and getting the right kind of conversation around what I thought were the issues.  After all, leading a team was my bread and butter. Within a week I was an investor and director and things were looking up for me in my newfound entrepreneurial career.  At our first alignment meeting I said to my partners that our business would only grow as fast as we can.  This has been more true than I could ever have imagined and I have watched our startup lapping at the heels of our own personal growth and development. If only I could learn faster then our startup could grow faster, but learning is like a seed that needs to be planted, watered, germinate and grow little by little.  Of course, there are ways to accelerate learning and one of the ways is sharing learnings as I am doing now with you. So not only am I hoping to share with you, but I hope that you will enrich the learning through sharing with me by leaving a comment.

So what are these aspects that one needs to learn and act on if you are to take your startup from an idea to a successful venture? Most of what I will be writing about will be hot off the press as my journey has only started and I continue to learn something new each day.

To start with, if you have come from an established organization, the first thing you need to understand is the difference between a startup and a company that has a profitable and sustainable market.

In a startup everything is up in the air and requires validation.  You are trying to understand the problem and you’re trying to find out if anyone will pay money to get it solved. Here we made the classic error of having early adopters who were not paying.  Ask for money – there is no other way to know if you have something that is seen to be of value.

In effect you are making it up, as you go, a big no-no in established companies. You and your partners are ‘IT’ when it comes to doing the work, figuring out the strategy and making the decisions.  You are the chief cook AND bottle washer, so to speak, who needs to know a bit about everything that has to do with a company.  Finances, human resources, legal, safety, shareholding, directorship, marketing and the list continues. Don’t stress, do some just-in-time learning, of course Google is great for this. Here it helps if everyone in the team is teachable – if not, some resentment could build up if team members are not learning to do the things they have never done before.

Flexibility is the name of the game. Plans only last a day, if you are lucky, then new information necessitates different activity.  Planning and budgeting go hand in hand in established companies and tend to not change for at least a year until the next budgeting period comes around. Given my project management background, I was insistent on a plan.  I quickly learnt that detailed plans were simply a waste of time, but high level deliverables with some time estimates are helpful as this enabled us to understand when what is going to be delivered and if the limited resources are able to complete it in that timeframe.  If you don’t have a complex technical solution, just keep planning simple. If you are not willing to change planned activities often, then a startup is not for you.

You mostly have no idea who your customers are, how you can reach them and the size of your market.  So you need to get creative and find your customer and talk to them. What a novel idea, in big companies only the marketing or business development teams ever need to talk to customers and if you were not one of them, then this is very new to you. I forced myself to talk to customers and that really helped us to refine our unique value proposition and improve our solution.  Here the best advice I can give is tap into your friends and their connections.  I was fortunate enough to have a really good friend who connected me with some real players in our industry.

You have an unwavering passion for what you believe the solution is and because of that you cannot imagine that there will be one person who cannot see the value of your solution and buy it instantly.  This often makes you deaf to real feedback from customers and finding a profitable and sustainable market. In established companies they already have a track record of sales and returning customers and a growing business has validated their solution, but not so for your solution. I know this is your baby but presume that your customers are not as keen on your offspring as you and be prepared to change the solution to solve the problem. Always remember that you are trying to develop a business and not simply save the world.

A startup is one of the few places where if a solution is given to customers in a less than perfect state, that is considered a good thing as this means less time and resources have been wasted. Resources, time and money that you don’t have. Quick release to customers of your solution even if it is only a mock-up allows you to have a conversation with the customer and figure out what the best solution is that they would be willing to pay for. Try doing this in an established company and it will not end well for you or your team.

Of course, all of the above signify an adapted or different skills set and the ability to learn quickly and, dare I say it, “fail quickly”.

In the next blog posts I will be talking about the startup’s true north, its vision, startup leadership, the team, the real cost of a startup, customers, the product and how to view growth.

In the meantime, can I encourage you to read the books and blogs of Eric Ries, Ash Mauye and Steve Blank as there is no reason for you to reinvent the wheel.  Simply build on what they have already learnt.

Please build on this learning by leaving a comment. I look forward to us continuing our start-up journey together…



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