Getting instant help from fellow startups

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Getting instant help from fellow startups The School for Social Entrepreneurs recently brought together a couple of cohorts of startups, each for half-a-day, to reflect together on the health of their business and on its future – with the help of a simple ‘game’.

 

I have just come across an intriguing approach to opening up discussions about startups’ problems and opportunities – with a touch of magic that gets beyond defences and is revelatory.

The test version of this process looked like a board game, but it simply provided hooks that encouraged the leaders of these startups to elaborate and then discuss the current state of their startup, and their thoughts about its future needs – in a reflective and highly supportive atmosphere. It met with rave feed-back (1).

In turn each participant was first asked to consider the current state of their business. They were invited to place a number of white counters on which were inscribed different but very common aspects of businesses (such as ‘Objectives’, ‘Talent management’, ‘Team spirit’) onto a board in one of seven interlocking spaces (a Venn diagram – of Customers, Employees and Strategy), and then to attach words to their actions and talk briefly about their reasons for so doing.

Each cohort was of around half-a-dozen startups; and the others round the room, who were on the same journey but with both similar and different backgrounds and experience, were then asked to help elucidate those issues and their future plans.

Next, the first exercise was repeated but placing the counters so as to illustrate where they would like their business to be in the future, then explain their reasons and elicit comments from other members of the group, as before.

Then they were asked to place red or green counters on top of key white counters (the green to indicate existing strengths for achieving one’s goal; and red to highlight those problems or weaknesses that must be resolved to achieve that goal); and finally each person identified the actions they would take to deal with the key issue confronting them; and was encouraged to state when they would do so.

In this particular event, most of the white counters tended to be placed in the ‘Customers’ section of the board, and most of the discussion was about finding customers and about customer wants and needs, but different circumstances elicit very different variations to these discussions.

Touching a counter seems somehow to turn its story magically into subjective reality; and the whole process enabled participants to get valuable input from fellow travelers in quick time.

Many are the recent support programmes that have been based on peer-to-peer group meetings: RBS’s Growth Builder, the Judge Institute Scaleup programme, the US-originated Vistage programme, the Belgian Plato programme and the very concept of the Accelerator.

They herald a great opportunity for sessions like this in co-working spaces and incubators, where they can provide not only valuable help from fellow travelers, but also links that will encourage them to meet again and continue to exchange valuable experience.

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(1) SSB the authors of this programme can be contacted through me. SSB would be interested to run a trial in an incubator – if you are interested please contact me at john.whatmore@btinternet.com

See also: Support programmes for young ventures in incubators New support programmes for scaleups are of a design that could easily be replicated in incubators and their ilk, and could help generate big steps in growth. Oct 2016 http://wp.me/p3beJts-gB

 John Whatmore, June 2017

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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

 

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.

 

Big bets on big ideas

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Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists ‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

Support for leadership and growth – in charities

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Leadership and Growth in SMEs

‘ella forums’ is a leadership development programme designed to inspire growth in social enterprises, in which Chief Executives come together for monthly sessions, where they hear the latest thinking from guest speakers, share best practice, and receive coaching from experts.

Where ‘Scaleup UK’, the recent Barclays Report on ‘Growing businesses, growing our economy’ focuses on the will and ambition to grow, it can be argued that that comes down to leadership. ella forums is a leadership development programme for social enterprises and their growth.

Members from the same area come together in groups of 10-12, for a monthly meeting, (to which they commit for 12 months). The meetings are designed to give each individual the tools and support they need to help their organisation develop and grow. The approach is based on learning from experts and from each other, combined with more personal one-on-one support from a coach.

The session is run in two parts. In the first part, an expert talks about their field and how it is relevant to the member’s issues. In the second part, the group discusses in a confidential and non-judgmental setting any issues participants may be facing, to help them resolve problems.

Participants also receive coaching from someone with the right skills and knowledge to address issues and support progress (selected by the group’s chair).

There are monthly evaluations as well as an annual Social Value Report by which the impact of the programme can be evaluated.

‘ella forums’ was set up in 2013 as a Community Interest Company (CIC) – a limited company for community benefit. In June 2014, a partnership was announced, unique in the social sector – with GrowthAccelerator, the service backed by the government and private enterprise and designed to help SMEs to grow, but the government terminated its support for that entire programme in 2016.

ella has been growing and now has fifteen groups in various locations across the country and expects to add ten more in the coming year. Following a 6-month pilot, the Lloyds Bank Foundation recently announced plans to open groups in partnership with ella for beneficiary charities across the country, of which there are expected to be an additional ten.

ella has also set up groups of different kinds: one group for emerging leaders; one group with both charity leaders and corporate leaders; and one is planned specifically for start-up and pre start-up organizations.

ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) runs similar CEO Forums for members – to network, gain peer support and hear from specialist speakers on the issues that affect them (such as leadership, governance, personal effectiveness, leading through change and managing the workforce). The forums are round table meetings with a limited number of places available, but these forums do not have regular memberships.

See also: The latest support programmes for SMEs http://wp.me/p3beJt-gB

John Whatmore, November, 2016