Raising the Mentoring Game

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Raising the mentoring game

Stops and starts have marked the very slow progress of mentoring in the UK. As the ultimate beneficiaries of mentoring, funders of new businesses should be leading the way.

The big question is (and was) why hasn’t mentoring taken off in the UK. Its best known successes include Richard Branson (said to have four mentors). the Princes Trust, and in Accelerators. Two levers were touted at the recent Annual Conference of the Association of Business Mentors (‘ABM’), both winners of the ABM’s Award for Commitment to Mentoring, but both embryonic.

Two initiatives

National Mentors Day’s third incarnation, masterminded by the redoubtable Chelsey Baker, will take place in October 2017, as a seriously bigger, more widespread, much more inclusive and hopefully more impactful day. And Janette Pallas, now at the University of Warwick Science Park, received this year’s award for her pioneering work in creating ecosystems of support in incubators and their ilk – a way forward being strongly encouraged in two recent regional meetings by the Scaleup Institute.

Non-progress

It is now several years (2011 to be precise) since the government made a commitment to put 10,000 mentors in place; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s Growth Builder programme, started in   2012, but alas for some strange reason withdrawn in 2016. Mentoring is an integral element of recent scaleup programmes, such as the Judge Institute’s and the RBS/UCL programme, but the mentoring scene is necessarily local and its institutions fragmented.

                                                   Funders should take the lead

It would be good to see funders take the initiative (eg VCs and Angel Funds) and along with innovation centres and development programmes (where mentoring is usually mandated) work in partnership with sources of mentors like the ABM (eg running joint workshops). The likes of the ABM could encourage mentoring by appointing ambassadors, and running more awards schemes or prizes. What is needed is a campaign of the extent of the Public Understanding of Science.

John Whatmore, March 2017

 

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Speed as the new essential

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Speed as the new essential David Giraourd, former President of Google Enterprise Apps and CEO of startup Upstart argues that speed is the key competitive advantage of to-day [and not just in Accelerators].

His top points are:

* Think first of all about the importance and the timing of each decision.

* Next about the inputs and perspectives of your team that you need.

* Make sure that all plans come with assigned completion dates.

* Prioritise mission critical items.

* Make sure that people are not waiting for one another, and can work in parallel.

* Firm up on doubtful assumptions eg legal or regulatory.

* Confront uncertain lines of authority eg CEO vs Founders vs Managers.

 * Use your competition as your incentive.

* Help the members of your team to help you: what inspires them. And tell them why your objective is so vital.

 I’ve long believed that speed is the ultimate weapon in business. All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win.

Speed is a defining characteristic — if not the defining characteristic — of the leader in virtually every industry you look at. In tech, speed is seen primarily as an asset in product development. Many people would agree that speed and agility are how you win when it comes to product.

What they fail to grasp is that speed matters to the rest of the business too — not just product. Google is fast. General Motors is slow. Startups are fast. Big companies are slow.

The building blocks of speed are in making decisions and executing on decisions. 

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. The process of making and remaking decisions wastes an insane amount of time at companies. When a decision is made is much more important than what decision is made.

You should consistently begin every decision-making process by considering how much time and effort that decision is worth, who needs to have input, and when you’ll have an answer. Some decisions are more complicated or critical than others: more information might be essential; some decisions can’t be easily reversed or would be too damaging if you choose poorly. Most importantly, some decisions don’t need to be made immediately to maintain downstream velocity.

Eric Schmidt at Google knew he stalled a lot of things, but Eric made sure that decisions were made on a specific timeframe — a realistic one — but a firm one. The art of good decision making requires that you gather input and perspective from your team, and then push toward a final decision in a way that makes it clear that all voices were heard. You don’t want consensus to hold you hostage — but input from others will help you get to the right decision faster, and with buy-in from the team.

There’s an art to knowing when to end debate and make a decision. We intuitively want the team to come to the right decision on their own. But people are enormously relieved when they hear that you’re grabbing the baton and accepting responsibility for a decision.

Executing decisions A lot of people spend a whole lot of time refining their productivity systems and to-do lists. But within the context of a team and a business, executing a plan as quickly as possible is an entirely different concept.

Many plans and action items come out of meetings without being assigned due dates. Even when dates are assigned, they’re often based on half-baked intuition about how long the task should take. Completion dates and times follow a tribal notion of the sun setting and rising, and too often “tomorrow” is the default answer. For items on your critical path, it’s always useful to challenge the due date. All it takes is asking the simplest question: “Why can’t this be done sooner?”

Just as important as assigning a deadline, you need to tease out any dependencies around an action item. Mission critical items should be tackled head-on by your team in order to accelerate all downstream activities. Things that can wait till later need to wait.

A big part of this is making sure people aren’t waiting on one another to take next steps. The untrained mind has a weird way of defaulting to serial activities — i.e. I’ll do this after you do that after X, Y, Z happens. You want people working in parallel instead.

Projects can be so complicated that it can seem you have to go back over the thinking so much that everything else grinds to a halt too. For example, our business at Upstart has to comply with a lot of regulations. There’s not a lot we can do until we know we’ll have legal approval, so we used to spend a lot of time dancing around whether something was going to be legal or not. Then we thought, why don’t we just get a brain dump from our lawyers saying, “Do this, this and this and not this, and you’ll be fine.” Having that type of simple understanding of the problem drastically reduced the cognitive overhead of every decision we made.

If you can assess, pull out and stomp on the complicating pieces of the puzzle, everyone’s life gets easier. The one I see the most — and this includes at Google too — is that people hem and haw over what the founder or CEO will think every step of the way. Just get their input first. Don’t get your work reversed later on. What a founder might think is classic cognitive overhead.

Talking about your competition is a good way to add urgency. At Upstart, we constantly say that while we’re working hard on this one thing, our competitors are probably working just as hard on something we don’t even know about. So we have to be vigilant. A lot of people say you should ignore competition, but by acknowledging it, you’re incentivizing yourself to set the pace in your market.

When we were launching Google Apps, we were coming out against Microsoft Office, which had this dominant, monopolistic ownership of the business. We thought about what we could do differently and better, and the simplicity of our pricing was part of it — I think we decided that in a half hour. We just wanted to be able to tell people, “We may not be free, but we’ll be the simplest decision you ever made.”

Once you’ve made a decision, you’ll need to convince others that you’re right and get them to prioritize what you need from them over the other things on their plate. You need to understand this person, what their job is, how their success is measured, what they care about, what all of their other priorities are, etc. Then ask: “How can you help them get what they want while helping you get what you want?”

I’ve seen this done by appealing to people’s pride. Maybe you tell them that you used to work with a competitor who was quite speedy so that they have incentive to go even faster. I’ve also seen this done by appealing to human decency and being honest. You might say something like, “Hey we’re really betting heavily on this, and we really need you guys to deliver.”

Whichever route you choose, you want to back up your argument with logic. You should gently seek to understand what’s happening. I tend to ask a lot of questions like: “Can you help me understand why something would take so long? Is there any way we can help or make it go faster?”

To keep things moving along at Upstart, I ask a lot of hard questions very quickly, and most of them are time related. I know that we execute well and are generally working on the right things at the right time, but I will always challenge why something takes a certain amount of time. Are we working as smartly as we can?

Too many people believe that speed is the enemy of quality. To an extent they’re right — you can’t force innovation and sometimes genius needs time and freedom to bloom. But in my experience, that’s the rare case. There’s not always a stark tradeoff between something done fast and done well. Don’t let you or your organization use that as a false shield or excuse to lose momentum. The moment you do, you lose your competitive advantage.

 

A Venture Capital company runs its own Acccelerator

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Venture capital company runs its own accelerator

Activate Capital is running an accelerator programme in Ealing, London over a six week period – it’s ‘digital startup studio’. It includes strategy and planning, product design, advice on company structure as well as pitch coaching for future funding rounds.

It aims to focus on the needs of individual startups, with specific topics addressed each morning and afternoon in a structured programme, tutored by the eight principals of Venture Capital business (founded in 2016).

Startups contribute up to 5% of their equity; and once the programme has finished, successful applicants have the opportunity to gain access to seed investment of £100K, to optimise product development and secure future finance.

Activate Capital claims to have invested in three companies last year. Their concern is that the average success rate in Accelerators is one in ten and they are seeking to ensure that all of those that go on their programme succeed. “We are committed to working hand-in-hand with start-ups to ensure that they get the advice, insights and support that they need.”

John Whatmore, March 2017

 

 

A venture capital company that knows its onions – because it grows them

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Sovereign Capital runs its own academies – in the music industry

I’ve just come across an unusual set-up in the innovation eco-system: a venture capital company that runs its own academies for startups; but would you believe this: one of them is for song writers! It is as though a VC in Bioscience had set up its own entrepreneur school for potential CEOs in synthetic biology.

But why not? Song writing and bioscience used to be callings which had their own very specific origins, but both of which now demand business nous.

What is being taught? Isn’t songwriting something “you’ve either got…or you haven’t”; “they just come to you”, said one successful writer. But the pedagogues at the Institute of Contemporary Music say that popular musicians hide the fact that they have had to study their craft; that there are elements of songcraft (just as there are in creative writing) that can be taught – like where to put in a middle eight or a key change; and individuals can be introduced to writer’s works that speak to their own work. ‘We provide tools and a regime of learning and development – about production, performance and business.’ (See the video ft.com/rockschool.)

Importantly, students are helped to develop their brand and to monetise it – for example by making contacts. When they are ready, they get introduced to potential managers, publishers and labels. There are lots of panels, with guests from the industry – talking about digital marketing, how to analyse data, the demo-graphics of your potential fan base, and of course contracts; and there are regular Master Classes.

“We used social media to find out where people were listening to us, and where our potential market might be going”, said one band that had just organised a tour.

If programmes like this, which provide aspiring musicians with a variety of routes to using their talents in the music industry, are more common than they used to be, the presence of a venture capital group is a great deal less so. Sovereign Capital, ‘the largest and leading provider of contemporary modern music education in the UK and Europe’ (which inter alia owns the British and Irish Modern Music Institute with its branch in Fulham,) is described as a big player in this sector with some notable and much trumpeted success stories to its credit.

The recent Barclays Scaleup Report emphasised the importance of expertise in venture funding. There can be few better ways of developing that expertise than in having an organisation whose essence is the development and commercialisation of talent.

John Whatmore, March 2017