Posts Tagged ‘Startup opportunities’

My Startup lessons learnt

March 1, 2011

After three years, burning through a pile of cash and God knows how many work hours, here is my startup story from:  (1) Finding an idea and sticking to it, (2) Getting a commercial product out the door (3) And  then iterate/pivot to a product-market-fit (a must have product).

This video was recorded during a ‘Opportunity recognition’ lecture at Nottingham University and kindly filmed by my good friends at Skeleton Productions. These video’s are nicely divided into six easily digestible sections. If you only watch one, see PART3 – ‘Finding the perfect new business idea..’

PART 1 – About Nick Barker, Opportunity recognition and a quiz on famous tech startups that pivoted

PART 2 – Overview the three Opportunity recognition and development challenges. About Aware Monitoring

PART3 – Finding the perfect new business idea, lack of time and search for customer value proposition

PART4 – Building out a product, funding and pivoting the service

PART 5 – Competitor differentiation, lean startups and getting to product-market-fit

PART 6 – Continuous process of iterating and pivoting a product. Learn more about Nick Barker

Startingup JFDI!!

December 21, 2010

This month I gave a talk to Nottingham Uni / Nottingham Trent Uni undergrads at Thirsty Thursday. The idea of the event is to ‘Inspire students to run their own businesses.’ I talked about our Aware Monitoring journey from finding the idea to commercialising the service. My underlying message was clear and loud – JFDI (Just Freakin’ Do It!!). But why be so abrupt..?

My JFDI pitch!

If you have an idea or a passion to do something – JFDI. Stop talking! Stop thinking!! Start doing – now!! NOW!! One of the easiest things to do in the world, is to procrastinate. A decision, even if proves to be a bad one, is still a direction. It can be learned from.

My thinking is, if these students really want to do something – they should do it now.  They shouldn’t wait until they have even more excuses in life not to do it. One of my close family members urged me to start my own business when I was 19 years old but I said no. At the time it was the right decision. I did what was right for me and I was not being led by others.

In Bronnie Ware’s wonderful and touching post ‘Regrets of the Dying‘ she talks about people not fulling their dreams:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way.”

If you really desire to have a startup or change something significant in your life, do it now. I take my hat to people like 23-year-old Joel Gascoigne, who gave a talk at our Nott Tuesday meetup group last week, for doing just this. He is now on his second startup project Buffer, a Twitter scheduling app. Joel is living his dream with passion, learning and persistence. He’s just getting on with it – JFDI!!

Me & Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge

November 24, 2010

Last week I attended  Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge (SVC2C). The event brings together Silicon Valley, UK/European entrepreneurs and Cambridge University students to meet, lean and collaborate. I sat in on many of the talks over the three-day Cambridge conference. It was a very informative and enjoyable event with some great networking. My highlights were objectively knowing ‘When is it right to abandon your startup efforts’ panel, remembering your grand Vision after The ‘Keynote Speeches’ and meeting other founders at the Company Showcase.

 

 

Gut feel plus test and measure

The Panel described as ‘When is it right to abandon your current Effort? What scorecard should you use and how should you track progress? Monitoring, measuring and monitising…’ – this caught my eye because its one of the most difficult challenges for startup founders – Knowing when to quit!

Reid Hoffmann,  co-founder of LinkedIn and SVC2C co-chair, reminded us of the need to ‘Fail fast’. That way founders have time to start over again. However the challenge is we fall in Love and become obsessed with our startup. It becomes part of us.

Julie Hanna, Kiva Chair, talked about the need to be simultaneously both passionate and dispassionately objective. Use data to guide you. Of course this is difficult in the very early days with only limited data and a concept. At the beginning ‘Think it through crisply’ Reid said. Jose Ferreira, ‘iterate what you are doing right and wrong everyday’. Ultimately you’re trying to find a value proposition that is saving more money than you are charging. Only then are you onto a winner!

Make a difference

Each of the panelist in The ‘Keynote Speeches’ talked about where they saw their companies successful innovations making a difference in the future.  Mark Littlewood gives a full writeup of all the Keynote talks here. This got me thinking about my own startup and the Vision Simon, my co-founder, and I had when we first started Aware Monitoring. It’s so easy in a busy startup to loose sight of the ‘Wood, because of the trees’.

All the panelist had grand visions of helping to solve educational, health and green energy challenges.  It’s so important to bring real value to others and the world with your startup efforts. Even it they are small! Solve real problems your customers have, bring true value and they will love you for it!

People make a startup

I met some old friends (Martin and Richard from Psonar, Andrew Walkingshaw from Timetric) and new ones (John Snyder from Grapeshot, Adam Kingdon from i2O Water)  at the Saturday morning Company Showcase. It’s aways very helpful to share ideas, challenges and experiences with other startup/company founders. Even in these days of Social Networking, face-to-face networking is as important as it’s always been, thus Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge. Also, well done to Groupspaces for winning the SVC2C competition.

 

When summing up the event Reid said something that stuck in my mind, ‘A startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling the airplane on the way down!’. It’s so true – you have to build your product quickly under pressures before the startup crashes and burns. It’s definitely a rush!!

SVC2C is an excellent event for learning and sharing ideas.  Sherry Coutu, Reid Hoffmann and all the other organisers did a wonderful job of bringing people together.

Startups: Keep it secret, keep it safe..

September 21, 2010

I hear this from entrepeneurs all the time: “I’m keeping my startup idea secret”.   In my opinion and that of others, don’t! Talk about your idea to almost anyone who will listen.  Everyone! Investors, entrepreneurs, friends, ex-coworkers, etc. In fact, anyone! Why? Because the more people you talk too, the more you will learn.

In Eric Karjaluoto classic post Why your web startup will fail’, Eric says: ‘No one is looking at you. No one is listening to you. Even if you create a portable fountain-of-youth, your startup’s biggest challenge will be to get anyone to pay attention. Really–it’s that hard.’ You therefore have to talk to lots of people and there’s a ton of benefits when you listen to their responses:

  1. Evolution – Others will give the idea refinement and improvement suggestions.
  2. Make better – By taking to people you will discover flaws and hopefully correct them.
  3. Learn – You’ll understand a lot more about the sector and industry you’re aiming at.
  4. Competitors – You will learn about competitive products that exist or are being built.
  5. Find needs – You will gauge people’s excitement level for the product and for various features.
  6. Practice – You’ll refine your all important sales and investor pitch.
  7. Bad idea – You might even discover your idea is a bad idea and save yourself a world of pain.

Despite the clear benefits there’s always the counter argument: “but someone will steal my idea”. In reality there are, at most, a handful of people in the world who might actually drop everything and copy your idea. Unfortunately, most people will think your idea suck’s.  However his does not mean your idea is stupid. Entrepreneurship is about seeing needs that other don’t always understand immediately. So, who’s going to copy you..?

  1. The big company employee – They or their company will steal your idea. Not likely! Their employers normally have a product in the market and its hard to change direction, particularly for big companies. They are personally in a big company because its safe. Are they really going to leave their fat paycheck for the unknown.. I doubt it!
  2. Other entrepreneurs – Most founders, who are going to build something, are already working on their project and are highly unlikely to drop everything to copy you.  Even if they are in the idea generation phase, high integrity entrepreneurs are unlikely to copy your idea.
  3. VC’s –  They will either like your idea or not. If they like it and like you enough, you’ll get funded.  VC’s prefer to fund an existing teams than taking an idea and building a team.  The team owns it! The one risk is if they have entrepreneurs workingon a similar project.  But most VCs will disclose this first and let you decide.

The handful of people in the world who might copy your idea are entrepreneurs just starting up with a very similar idea.  Don’t worry competition is good and their will always be smart founders out there with similar ideas. Remember ideas are cheap and execution is everything. Also remember, an idea changes as it grows.

Finally, the conversation moves onto the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) – I’ll tell you if you sign an NDA”. Unfortunately this blows everything:

  1. Shows inexperience – Few experienced entrepreneurs or VCs will sign them.  Asking them to is widely considered a sign of inexperience.
  2. Consequences – There value is not clear unless you are a big company. Are you really going to spend years suing someone who signed an NDA and broke it?
  3. Time – As a startup you don’t have much time. Don’t waste it writing unnecessary documents.

Ideas grow and branch off in unexpected ways when they’re given the light of day. Don’t keep them secret to protect them. Talk to everyone who will listen and you’ll probably learn a thing or two 😉

Innovation sucks!!

June 17, 2010

Innovation is extremely alluring to companies and startups. It offers so much potential. However innovation  takes mountains of time. You just can’t come up with a Facebook, Dyson or Ford in 5 minutes!! It’s simply not a light bulb moment. It can take 1000’s of  attempts. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 1000 ways that won’t work”Thomas A Edison. Innovation is a gradual internal company and external market process.  This makes innovation very frustrating for the entrepreneur because the one thing they have in short supply is time! Innovation is awesome but it also sucks!!

Innovation has to build-up momentum and be developed over several or many iterations. This evolution of ideas can be within the same team, company or marketplace. It can even be ideas shared between different markets or countries. That’s the great thing about our modern economy, its survival of the fittest ideas. The key to unlock innovation is for the idea to be at the right time and in the right place.

I’m sorry, but time and time again I hear startups saving we are the next Facebook, Twitter, etc. In reality you need to know where are you in the innovation cycle – that ranges from innovation to commoditisation. Geoff Moore ‘Crossing the chasm’ is always a good book to read on this subject. The position in this innovation cycle dictates your actions, growth and timescales.

The challenge with innovation is that it takes eduction, thus the need for time. The educating of potential customers is difficult because people don’t really like change and risk. Companies, especially big ones, definitely don’t like change and risk. Education costs an awful lot of money whether with mass market consumer items or niche corporate b2b products. The marketing message needs repeating over and over and over again. First mover advantage is great but second mover can be better. Just look at Google (2nd to market) and Yahoo (1st to market) and who came of on top.

The trick is to get into a market niche on an upward curve, get running with the pack (competition) and then gradually innovate. As always it is easier to say than do!! Apple is a great example. The success they enjoy today with the iPhone popularity goes way back to 1993 with the failure of the Apple Newton. Apples’ iTunes which is intrinsically linked to the iPod and therefore the iPhone originally benefited from the downfall of Napster. These innovations have been brewing for many years and between many competitors.

The great thing about innovation is that it has unlimited possibilities. It’s brings the combination of creativity and exciting growth potential. Innovation is awesome but it takes time, money, careful listening to the market and mountains of persistence. One hit innovation wonders are rare and not the norm. All of this can be frustrating for startups because no one is in a rush except the startup and the one things startups are most short of is time.

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!

Learning to fail: Startups aren’t really trying unless their failing

July 21, 2009

Your startup baby will fail at some point. Failure is natural. Its just like when you took your first steps. Failure is an inherent/systemic part of learning. The moment a baby tries to walk they will fall but they always get back up to try again. Will  you and your startup try again after  failing? Startup failures can be small or catastrophic. The thing is to overcome failures quickly. Lessons must be learnt. Otherwise the same failures will be repeated again and again. Failure will then become permanent.

learning-to-walk

Taking our first steps

Learning to fail from a startups first steps:

  1. Step 1 – Fail to trySome startups have  heaps of ideas but don’t actually implement a single one. Fear of failure may hold them back or they run out of enthusiasm as the reality of the challenge kicks in. Be prepared to fail.
  2. Step 2 – Fail & learn – Startups fail all the time. Small failures can be an unused feature or a poor marketing campaign.  Constant  small failures are an extremely important business lesson. Use them. An old friend calls it “the MBA of life”. We have to learn to be entrepreneur’s and innovate through failure.
  3. Step 3 – Learn & change – We are all at different levels of personal development. The important thing is to Know thyself. See your strengths and weaknesses. Learn to compensate weaknesses with others and let them bring out your strengths. VC’s and Angels look for well balanced teams for good reason.
  4. Step 4 -Try again – If a startup is not getting customer traction re-align the service or product around customers real needs. If the startup won’t or can’t change, quit and move on. Startups often fail to engage customer needs.
  5. Step 5 – Keep learning & trying –  Even when you have a successful startup pulling revenues ,  managing cash flow and  enjoying profits you have to  continue to  fail.  Any startup or mature business has to stay ahead of their competition. Successful Amazon boss Jeff Bezos still fails trying.

You and your startup aren’t really trying unless your failing. Failure does not mean taking all or nothing chances. Put yourself in a position where your experimenting with smaller manageable losses and keep trying. Churchill said: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”


Related posts:

I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize it would be this hard.

Elevator Pitch 2.0: Are you Listening & Learning?

May 15, 2009

I took part in another pitch competition this week and didn’t win, yet again.  However I learnt alot more than the previous pitch. The first pitch was to a camera in a booth. Unfortunately I received no feedback from the judges. How can I improve if I don’t get feedback! This weeks two minute Nott Tuesday pitch competition was to a live panel (Mike Butcher The Editor, Doug Ashby The Entrepreneur and Duncan James The Lawyer). They gave me some excellent feedback during a three minute Q&A to learn from.

Nott Tuesday Pitch Q&A Photo

Aware Monitoring looking more  like Rappers (photo by Nick Walker)

Here’s a link to all Nick Walkers’s event photographs. The pitchers at the event were (in presenting order):

  1. Simon Oxley and I from Aware Monitoring with our Website monitoring and Web infrastructure monitoring service. Click here for our pitch slide deck on Slideshare.
  2. Darren Ramowski from golfshake.com, who’s a really nice bloke,  gave a very relaxed pitch about his great golf website. The judges loved Golfshake and its international potential. Time for Darren to learn how to go Global now!
  3. Next up was Kamran Hussein from Buyers4Cars with an innovative startup that allows car buyers rather than sellers to advertise their vehicles.
  4. Tadhg Kelly from Simple Lifeforms have just released their first social game and I’m sure they will go very big with this game or one of the next games they’ve line-up.
  5. Last, but no means least was Nik Le Page who pitched an idea on online profile management. Nik won an extra award because he was a last minute and enthusiastic entrant.

I’d like to have come first in both pitch contests, who wouldn’t. However there is probably more to gain from not winning. Sore looser you may think. But learning often means putting yourself in a difficult situation where you will be challenged and probably won’t succeed. We have to go out of our comfort zones to learn. It’s the hard lessons that often have the most impact.

Pitching is a vital skill for any startup. As founders we need the ability to effectively pitch to everyone: investors; journalists; customers; partners; co-workers; etc. Therefore we’ve got to work hard on our pitching skills. For more tips on pitching listen to Tim Berry (Angel/Entrepreneur) and his seasoned advice.

All situations in life can be learnt from whether we win or loose a business pitch, customer deal, sports competition or our new product is a failure. Only by listening and learning from the challenges we can improve. The business coach Brad Sugars said something that stuck in my mind – “work on yourself as much as you work on your business.”

Growing as an individual is about Lifelong Learning“the pursuit of knowledge is not confined to childhood or the classroom, but takes place throughout life and in a range of situations”. So what have I learnt from my Pitch 2.0 feedback? I’ve understood the importance of being relaxed, spending more time on what the product is, our forward strategy and the investor greed inducement.  Until the next pitch! Which is going to be real soon with a National Pitch competition. I’m a sucker for punishment 😉

Surfs-up startups: Where to be on the innovation wave?

April 15, 2009

A friend recently reminded me of Gartner’s Hype cycle. It got me thinking which part of the curve should  a Tech startup aim play in?

gartner-hype-cycle-july-2008Gartner 2008 Hype Cycle

Note Gartner  predominately focuses on the Enterprise business market. Although their right on the money in the consumer space with Microblogging i.e. Twitter’s rise to fame during the past year. The Gartner graph reminds me of  Geoffrey A. Moore‘s great startup book Cross in the Chasm and Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle graph. If your a tech startup and haven’t read it – read it now!

moores-chasmtechnology-adoption-lifecycleGeoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm adapted Technology
 Adoption Lifecycle graph

I think startups should try to take advantage of Gartners ‘Visability’ curve growth.  PR opportunities can be maximised with everyone listening/talking about what’s new/what’s hot. However funds may run dry if a startup is completely reliant on the hype growth and doesn’t reach a healthy exit before the wave crests. Ideally, startups also need to be selling beyond Moore’s “Chasm” into the ‘Late Adaptors/Early & Late Majority’ which is where the higher revenues lie. All this is easier said than done.

Where’s your startup on the wave?

3 ways to spot Startup opportunities

February 20, 2009

Our story thus far..

I left employment back in 07 to do an MBA in Entrepreneurship with the UK’s Top Entrepreneurial University. I loved every MBA minute. When I finished I convinced one of my best friends, Simon Oxley, to leave his well paid corporate job with all its benefits to start a business. We really did ‘burn our ships’ as we did not know what we were going to startup in. We left ourselves no choice, no retreat!.

tn-burning_ships

However, we did have alot of experience in the Tech industry and knew we wanted to sell b2b.  We looked around and could see Web2.0 was moving into companies with Enterprise 2.0.

To get involved with this emerging trend we built and launched an Enterprise 2.0 informational website. The website proved to be great experience but did not and was not going to make us money.We decided we wanted to develop software but we needed to work out what we were going to build. Reflecting back I think we spent too much time figuring out what to do. It seems that this is a common problem for startups. We now know what we are going to do with our Aware Monitoring service.

Spotting Startup opportunities

My MBA and on the job learning experiences have taught me many things on what,  how and where to find startup opportunities:

  1. Using prior knowledge – Market experience is a wonderful thing. It brings deep understanding of customer problems; insider knowledge of the competitive landscape; awareness of market changes and there impact’s. This knowledge can be harnessed to identify new and emerging opportunities in a given marketplace.  Warning: care needs to be taken that the opportunity is a ‘gap in the market’ and there is in fact a  ‘market in this gap’. Many market gaps are unfilled because they are a unprofitable. There is also no such thing as the ‘perfect opportunity’ and competition is inevitable.
  2. See opportunities in Change – Change brings opportunity as I discussed with my ‘5 career alternatives for start-up founders during the recession’ post. This change can be driven by technology, demographics or government policies. The famous academic Joseph Schumpeter refers to technological change as ‘Creative Distruction’. However to realise the opportunity these changes bring, startup founders must have the ability to turn a idea into reality. ‘Talk is cheap’ as they say.
  3. Social networks – Even when you’ve found that world changing opportunity that’s only the beginning. An opportunity needs to be tested with friends, soft prospects and real target customers. It must be sold. Because there is no such a thing as the perfect opportunity openness to  new ideas must be maintained. New improved sub opportunities may present themselves as the initial opportunity unfolds. An idea changes as you talk to your social networks and attempt to sell to real life, paying customers.

Our  opportunity search..

By September 08 we had refined all our ideas into four final opportunities. I still think these are good opportunities with great potential and will share them with you. Please prove me right and turn these into a real business. The challenge is not just in knowing where an opportunity lies but in the implementation. Paul Graham of Y combinator lists a ton of opportunities saying ‘imaginative people will take them in directions we didn’t anticipate. .’

  1. Tagging software for unstructured data i.e. photo’s, files, etc (problem: information overload)
  2. Climate change website/portal/Social network (Change: behaviour change forced by the world’s increasing temperature)
  3. Virtual conference platform (Change: forced decrease in travel because of climate change)
  4. Preventative web systems  monitoring (Change: more reliance on web systems)

We’ve taken the 4th option with Aware Monitoring.  We’ve also speeded our pace up. It’s been a neck breaking last four months: we’ve committed to an opportunity; wrote and presented a business plan,; built a prototype; started full development; found a product name (with matching URL); got a logo and now this week we have a Launch page. It starting to feel real and the SaaS market is showing signs of blooming in the down turn 🙂