Support that needs to be proactive

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Support that needs to be proactive Founders sometimes know little about the fields which they are aiming to enter – or about business. Those who manage any kind of co-working arena need to be able to link their young businesses with people whose experience and expertise meet their often fast-changing needs.

Brent Hoberman once described life in a startup as like throwing yourself off a cliff and learning how to build an airplane on the way down. ‘Every week a new issue about which you had never thought before’, said one founder. So how can young businesses be supported to help them identify and find solutions to problems they have never encountered before?

The Director of incubator Sussex Innovation Centre – an experienced expert in young businesses, makes himself available in the café every morning for an hour or so – for anyone to come and discuss a problem.

YCombinator, Watershed Bristol and Entrepreneur First all require their young businesses to meet weekly where a member of each team has to talk to other members of their cohort about their problems, their progress and their plans (notes are circulated afterwards at Watershed to the entire cohort).

The mentor manager of one recent cohort at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech accelerator made it his business to meet each team in the cohort once a week, and ask about progress and problems – each week with a different member of the team.

Wayra Lab, an accelerator (for scaleups) requires its young businesses to have regular monthly meetings with their shadow board, that includes two outside ‘directors’ – a schedule that is being adopted by most growth programmes – for their peer-to-peer meeting groups with advisers.

At BioHub, (last year’s Biotech Incubator of the Year) – home to 200 young businesses, the Incubator Manager aims to meet every team once a month; at the Tramperies, proximity to existing trade businesses makes access easy to experts on many topics. At Cockpit Arts’ incubator – home to 140 young businesses, many of them avail themselves of peer-to-peer ‘action learning’ meetings, regular discussions with the team of business coaches, and referral to specialist advisers. But I know of some incubators that do not have mentors with whom you might be put in touch.

The essence of informal meetings like these is that they are different to Board Meetings in that they are not so much about policies, organisation and management as about current obstacles and how to get over them (why is progress slow; what makes the product fail occasionally; who are the best customers for this product) issues that frequently occur in young businesses, and where appropriate experience and expertise can make a timely and vital contribution.

The problems for the accelarator or the incubator are how to stay abreast of each business’s current problems and how to bring the best help to bear onto each problem.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures simply asks weekly of each startup in his accelerator programmes:

  • What have you achieved last week
  • What will you achieve next week
  • What is stopping you, and
  • What have you learned.

Thibaut Rouquette, Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp could find someone with the necessary experience from among the large cohort of its mentors to whom he had close access; and if he could not find an appropriate expert, he would use Google to search recently held conferences in order to find the name of an expert, and then e-mail to ask him or her to have a conference call with the startup – from which other help might follow.

Priscila Bala of Octopus Ventures commends finding and nurturing relationships with individual advisory board members; but for startups and their ilk, it is someone in the accelerator or the incubator who has to provide the necessary nexus.

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

France’s new Incubator

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France opens a giant new Incubator Aiming to attract in the next month a thousand young ventures to its halls, France’s vast new incubator (a refurbished train depot in Paris called Station F), has just been opened by President Macron (‘preaching to the choir’ as one correspondent called his speech’). It provides all sorts of spaces for young businesses that ‘have a business prototype and a path to growth’, together with other related organisations.

Station F is the brainchild of a French billionaire from the tech startup world and his project manager, a lady with a serious background in a variety of startups – who has focused on health, finance, education, and even fashion. It is supported by France’s increasing efforts to become second only to the UK in startups in Europe; and it is backed by Facebook and Amazon.

Its young ventures still face likely problems – in attracting talent, and around French attitudes to risk. Questions hang over the incubator itself and its sheer size, and the extent of the necessary eco-system in Paris. And later in their life they face France’s tough labour laws.

In 2014 the French government started a sprawling programme to support tech, in which 13 cities were designated hi-tech hubs; and it supports the growth of French startups in dozens of foreign cities. The French government has created numerous investment vehicles and offers loans and grants to fund startups and accelerators on easy terms. France has created a special tax status for innovative new companies; and Macron has pledged to do more about exemption form wealth tax and liability to capital gains taxes. ‘While more venture capital is flowing into France, the levels still lag Britain, Germany and Israel’; but France’s angel network is only a quarter the size of the UK’s, reports the New York Times.

The rationale for housing startups in incubators is that they have great opportunities to learn from their fellow travelers, and increasingly so from those in the same field as themselves. Claimed to be the largest incubator in Europe (and more than four times the size of Imperial’s new incubator at its White City campus – just completed, which is likely to take months to fill; see link below), making Station F into an effective growth community will itself be an innovative task for those who run it (like ENTIQ – see below.)

What makes Silicon Valleys’ eco-system so effective is perhaps the intimacy of interactions between early stage ventures and those with related expertise and experience. In Accelerators (and in some UK incubators), mentor cohorts are large and their management is proactive. But they take time to set up and are difficult to manage effectively (see link below – BioHub).

Facebook set up an artificial intelligence hub in Paris several years ago to recruit talented engineers at France’s elite universities; and is now anchoring a programme in Station F called Startup Garage, which will mentor every six months 12 budding tech entrepreneurs in health, education and other fields. In exchange for coaching, Facebook will observe how the startups approach issues like privacy, and identify cutting-edge tech trends.

Despite the gross hype around the grand Station F, one French citizen is reported as commenting: ‘France can definitely become a startup nation: the potential is there’.

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See on my website: johnwhatmore.com:

 Imperial White City to house vastly more space for young businesses With four times more startups and scaleups than on its South Kensington site and on ten floors, managing collaboration among a wide spectrum of parties and across big spaces will be a new and hugely challenging task. May, 2017. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k0)

Making science deliver: BioHub – an outstanding new Incubator BioHub has been assiduously building programmes of support and development for research based businesses.  June, 2017 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k4)

 New support for startups and scaleups in East London ENTIQ’s new innovation centre in the old Olympic Park will be a great new signpost but the peloton needs more than that: a new network is needed to spur incubators and co-working spaces to develop support services like this one – for the growing number of young businesses. Sept, 2016. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-gu)

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Action Learning: I meet a programme leader

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Action Learning – I meet a programme leader

Regular group meetings feature in many recent development programmes for SMEs, so I asked an expert on Action Learning: what is it; what is its magic; how does it work; where does it take place; who manages it; and what are its credentials?

What is Action Learning?

It is an intimate process in which people who want to get things done come together to support and help each other:

  • to clarify individual’s goals;
  • to benefit from the ideas of others in determining how to tackle obstacles;
  • and commit each other to progress towards objectives.

It is for people who come together on their own authority, whose decisions have significant consequences, and who are committed to this kind of process.

(Prospective candidates need to understand what it will be like, to have met one another, and to commit to a number of days for its meetings.)

What is its essence?

It is a way of helping people who are inspired by working with others to resolve their problems, to make use of challenge and support in equal measure, and to do things differently. It aims to draw on the personal experience and insights of other people whose fields of interest/activity are similar but different, in order to help you in your way forward. (It is on a completely different plane to a board or committee meeting.)

“It empowers you to play at a higher level.”

What happens at meetings?

Getting in the right mood (‘How do you feel to-day?’ ‘What has happened in your world since we last met?’) is the launch point for the day; then everyone has a slice of time in which to air a big issue that is bugging them and elicit the thoughts and ideas about it from the others. (Members will have given thought in advance to how they want to use their slice of time, which will include talking about how things have gone since the previous meeting of the group.)

They share their current objectives – problems or opportunities – and invite help from the knowledge and experience of the others (‘ruthlessly, compassionate with one another’); and aim to clarify thoughts and to identify plans. (And at the end of the day, they reflect in the same frame of mind on the process.)

“Support from another planet!”

How does it work?

Groups meet regularly – every several weeks (people from different organisations commonly meet every four to six weeks) – often enough to maintain the unity and commitment of the group, but not so often as to interfere with people’s jobs. ‘It is like losing an arm if one person fails to turn up.’

Where do meetings take place?

They usually meet in a relaxing space, for a day at a time, and each time in a different location – often on the premises of different members of the group (or in locations that are of common interest to the members eg a research organisation or an innovative developer, with a tour during the day.)

How is the process managed?

Someone – sometimes a member of the group – handles the organisation, prepares and/or circulates material, arranges the day’s happenings, leads the process, and articulates the plans that members have concluded, as well as the group’s decisions.

What are its credentials?

Professor Reg Revans first formulated the process in the 1940s, drawing on his experience of scientific method, and put it to use in the Coal Board, where substantial increases on productivity were attributed to it; and it found applications later in the Health Service. It has only rarely featured in academic work on management.

Lately, Growth Builder programmes (like the Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme, and others) have made use of its techniques (which could also be beneficial in incubators) – especially in terms of drawing from other people’s experience, perhaps because collaboration is increasingly valued in a disruptive world.

John Whatmore, November, 2016