Archive for February, 2010

New contemporary Nottingham University building opens

February 25, 2010

We’ve got another new  building at the Nottingham University Business School campus. Its called the GRACE building and is focused on Global Navigation Satellite Systems and application development. This one only cost $6m:

Nottingham University GRACE building

I really like the frontage of this modern building. From all the weird and wonderful modern University buildings I’ve blogged about this is my favourite.  Like the Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth building much of the frontage is glass which allows natural light to enter  the inside. Here’s a link to the building design and the GRACE research centre.

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Startup Opportunity Identification 2.0

February 18, 2010

The difficulty with customers is that they don’t really know what they want until they see it! This creates a nightmare for any startup or corporation trying to build a new product – What do you make that people really want and are willing to pay for?

To find the answer startups have to commit to an idea and  move quickly, and cheaply  through to a Minimal Viable Product .  You are looking for a ‘must have” product. This  requires continual iteration around customer needs. The ultimate test is  getting customers to profitably pay for your solution i.e. a higher lifetime value of a customer to the cost of customer acquisition.

We’ve had three product ideas in our startup before we found the one we’re working on now. Creating a new startup product moves through three successive stages starting with ideas development and finishing in a successful product/market fit.  Currently our startup is trying to get to product/market fit.

Last  week I gave talks to MSc and  MBA Entrepreneurship students on identifying entrepreneurial opportunities (above deck) based on these three stages:

  1. Ideas development – We spent a  very long  time researching and looking for the killer idea. We were trying to find the perfect opportunitya gap in the market between existing suppliers in a new growth market. We went round and round in circles looking for the perfect opportunity. In the end we ditched our first real idea because the customer ROI was weak in the economic downturn. We then,  much more rapidly, came up with lots of new  ideas and committed to one – external website monitoring. Unfortunately research takes time and as a startup without revenues you don’t have time. You have to commit to an idea even if it’s not perfect –  NOTE: there will always be competition!
  2. Product development & release – Without perfect knowledge on customer needs and competition you have to make many product  assumptions. Right from the  start  we were testing our assumptions with potential customers at network events, in meetings, online and during our Alpha/Beta. It’s not easy to get real answers without a shiny product to sell.  A prototype helps. You have  to rely on your gut instinct. During  this feedback we switched our app from internal systems monitoring to external web monitoring. We found potential customers more receptive to this offering. This early engagement process also helped us to develop our sales messages, sales funnel and  go-to market strategies.
  3. Market/product fit –  If you’ve made it this far the really hard work starts.  You’re now looking to make your product a ‘must have’. The challenge is its very hard to be heard by potential customers. You’ need to get the product in their hands! Only then can they make a true judgment on its value. They’ll also compare your product to  substitutes and alternatives in the market. You therefore need to differentiate and deliver a much better product to get them to change! The sales message and product needs constant refining until you have a measured product/market fit. Only the can you pull the sales trigger.

As startup founders we think we know what customers want and the problem they want solving the most. Unfortunately we’re probably wrong. We then  waste huge amounts of time building a product around that  perceived need. It’s hard for many founders to admit their ideas, product and dreams are incorrect. The ideas which formed the startup were based upon a assumptions.

You have to know when to quit an idea, re-form it or find a new idea as assumptions are tested.  Flickr (started as on-line games), Youtube (Hot or Not) and Blogger (project management) are all great examples of product ideas which iterated to a different final product. As startups we don’t have the comfort of time and must move rapidly through an idea, production and iteration. Unfortunately non of this guarantees success but it sure helps!

3 great entrepreneurial talks to watch

February 11, 2010

They are not new but they are all a must watch if you’ve not seen them before: Steve Jobs has an amazing life story to tell which he delivers incredibly well; Guy Kawasaki brings a side-splitting comedy performance, but also insightful message, with his “The Art of the Start” talk; and Richard Branson is very cool on TED.

Valuing an MBA in a startup

February 3, 2010

Over the last week there’s been alot of talk questioning the value of having an MBA in a startup – Giff Constable, Rob Chogo, Jon Steinberg, and Charlie O’Donnell (All stateside and non of whom I know). I’ve an MBA in entrepreneurship, 20 years tech business development experience and now a startup. In my experience an MBA does not teach anything you don’t  already know or can work out for yourself. However it does say something about you as a person. Unfortunately this counts for squat in a startup.   As in sales and in a startup you are only as good as your last months or quarters sales.

“Reach for the sky!”

Why do an MBA?

From my experience meeting other MBA’s Jon Steinberg summarizes  really well why people undertake the MBA:

  1. Value in building a network
  2. Credential – certain employers require an MBA for certain jobs
  3. Need a break from work
  4. Career change

For me it was about adversity, learning and change. Adversity has been shown to be the number one  driving force for successful entrepreneurs. I don’t have a first degree and dropped out of  college. I’d been stuck on an educational ledge ever since. Some of my close family and friends strongly advised me against doing the MBA, particularly in entrepreneurship. Yet it was one of the best years of my life. I loved every MBA minute!

Experience v’s an MBA

During my tech career I’ve built significant profitable customer bases three times from scratch. It ‘s been an amazing experience with great highs and the occasional low.  In my last employment I grew a remote managed services business unit  into a highly profitable multimillion dollar Global business winning customers like Richard Branson’s V2 Records. Building customer bases from nothing is not easy. I’ve found building a company even harder.

There is much an MBA does not teach you. It does not show you the many practical skills needed in business. In particular skills like sales, marketing a small business, attracting resources – the list goes on..  There are  so many skills needed  to run a startup.  Given the choice real small business experience wins hands down over an MBA in a startup. However sometimes we forget that an MBA is an academic qualification. I’ve found that my MBA  has brought value to our startup.

We like difficult challenging times

Some of us perversely put ourselves into difficult and challenging positions where the odds are not good. It’s often not a comfortable place to be. However we keep going back there! The MBA is deliberately tough. It was challenging for me not having the educational experience and understanding from a first degree. The first semester was the hardest. Its like a bootcamp. They give you too much work. It was an especially hard as my mother was diagnosed and died of cancer during the first semester – all part of life and doing an MBA!

Does an MBA bring value to a startup?

After so many years at the practical coal face of business development the MBA has definitely helped me see things differently. I now look at decisions more objectively. It has brought a greater understanding of internal business structures and holistic competitive markets. Was it worth the $10,000’s of dollars it cost? Plus all the living costs and lost savings –  probably not. Would I make that decision again to do it – defiantly!

An old serial entrepreneur friend of my said that ‘a startup is an MBA of life.’ And he is so right. Nothing can prepare you for a startup. It is unlike anything I have ever done. It messes with your mind and body. We all know you didn’t need an MBA to start as business. So why do it? For me is it’s about exciting new adventures where you push yourself to the limit and learn new tricks. This could be doing an MBA, starting a new challenging job or having a startup. Keep learning and pushing your own boundaries. Life is boring otherwise. And why have a boring life! You only have one of them 😉

Yeah I know I’ve got an MBA, so I’m bound to be a bit bias. However on balance I highly recommend an MBA for those that have something to prove and love challenges. If your heading to startup ville and not moving up the career ladder in the same company an MBA will probably set you back. It will cost you lots of money and if your doing it to change career will put you back years. But these are  good things. They keep you fresh and hungry. It’s the learning and personal growth that really matters.