Mentoring: a timely Academic review

Aside

Mentoring: a timely Academic review of its role in Accelerators Among the articles in the recently published book entitled ‘Accelerators’, the section on Mentors (much of it drawn from the extensive network of Accelerators in Israel) explores mentorship as ‘one of the building blocks of accelerators’ education programmes’. But coaching and mentoring remain underexplored and undervalued in the business world.

Perhaps its most helpful contribution is about typical problems with which mentors can help:

  • over-optimism and naivety about market barriers and the business model;
  • commercialisation of the product, and the targeting of its market;
  • marketing and dealing with global markets;
  • lack of managerial experience; and
  • difficulties in scaling up.

It is lack of experience more than lack of knowledge that is at the heart of many of these problems; and failures are an important part of experience – that mentors need to support and turn to good effect. (Very recent research by MIT suggests that successful entrepreneurs tend to be in the forties.)

Four regular topics identified were:

Setting up strategy and establishing priorities What is the market/the market fit for this kind of product/the best market to go for.

Revealing marketing opportunities Identifying unique benefits; how they would be used; and where they can be marketed to best effect, and against the competition.

Structuring organisational processes Advising on team membership and team building, including inter-cultural conflicts.

Expanding ventures’ social capital Occasionally connecting to other relevant startups/networks.

(Surprisingly there is no mention of product design or development, nor of manufacture.)

Mentoring is addressed in this book mostly through anecdotes, and largely in terms of mentors’ invariably extensive background experience, their perceived objectives, and their motivations. However it draws on too small a range of accelerators to include some facets of mentoring (like establishing a fit and developing relationships, and some important developments, like the way in which the need for specific kinds of help changes as businesses evolve).

Mentoring is described as ‘altruistic, educational, updating, stimulating and possibly offering investment opportunities’ and as sometimes a bridge to other contributors in the eco-system.

‘They [mentors] ask questions that force entrepreneurs to think strategically and more objectively, to intensify processes and shake entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone.’

‘The challenge is to match mentors to mentees according to the stage of development, their needs and personal fit.’ There is, however, nothing here about the various approaches to establishing good fits – many of them based on variants of speed-dating. (Startupbootcamp has used a talented mentor manager, both for finding specialist mentors and for changing mentors according to teams’ changing needs.)

Mentors, a contributor suggests, meet weekly or bi-weekly, but they develop their understanding and relationship progressively and in parallel with the development of the business.

One contributor asserts that having more than one mentor leads to confusion; but Steve Blank of I-Corps, the accelerator widely adopted in the world of science in the US, identifies five different aspects of development where mentors with specific backgrounds and experience are needed, often in succession to one another, namely: conceptualisation, strategy, product development, marketing and funding.

There is an unspoken presumption that mentors somehow know best how to play their role, though Startupbootcamp has from time to time brought mentors together and provided an opportunity for them to learn from one another’s experience in the role.

‘Accelerators’, edited by Mike Wright and Israel Dori, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.

John Whatmore, November, 2018

Advertisements

Costa’s Chatty Cafe scheme

Aside

Costa’s Chatty Café scheme: a ‘water cooler’ for business nurseries

Learning from each other’s experience plays a big part in Incubators and Accelerators, so I am often surprised that some of them have no cafeteria-type space for encouraging participants to meet and hob-nob with one another; and others make poor use of such spaces.

Costa (of coffee fame) has just launched its Chatty Café Scheme, which provides Chatter and Natter tables, designed to encourage people to sit [together] and chat with one another over a coffee (the idea inspired by their sociability).

London’s 18th Century Coffee Houses were both more numerous and chattier that those of to-day – specialised as they were by field, trade or topic – for information, transactions or just gossip.

Y Combinator and Watershed in Bristol both have their participants meet regularly for a meal, at which each person has to talk about their progress, problems and plans; and you can then button-hole someone with a similar issue and pick their brains.

The offices of Uden Films in London were designed with cafe facilities at both ends of every corridor, where everyone could both make and drink their coffee.

 Where Accelerators and Incubators do provide cafeterias, their tables are usually arranged for people who want a quick coffee, perhaps with their colleagues, rather than for making acquaintances. Using Costa’s innovation could encourage more hob-nobbing.

Nottingham university’s incubator provided a complete kitchen/diner (with long table and benches), where participants could both prepare and eat or drink together, prolonging the time they spent there and thus their opportunity to hob-nob.  It was no accident that the Incubator’s manager was a delightful and chatty matron, and probably a good cook too! (Where providing board games might work in a Costa, juicy business updates might be more attractive to entrepreneurs.)

‘Free coffee’ mornings and ‘free beer’ evenings bring people together, but they depend upon chance in a way that purposed groups do not.  Action learning-type groups like those of Vistage (for comparable executives in business) and the Belgian Plato programme (for CEOs of comparable small businesses) offer a similar model. These provide opportunities for participants to talk briefly about their progress, problems and plans, and for others in the small groups to offer ideas from their own experience – an approach that has been adopted at Daresbury’s Innovation Centre.

Speed-dating is often used to help entrepreneurs to identify mentors who seem likely to be able to help them. Several new websites have addressed the issue of how better to enable people with reciprocal interests to get together: Bumble Bizz is ‘designed for networking and mentoring’; Mastodon calls itself ‘a decentralised social network’; and Nextdoor is ‘a private social network for your neighbourhood community’.

In a good conversation, you never know what you might get out of it! Costa’s innovation could lead to whole new tranches of support for young businesses in Incubators and Accelerators.

If you are doing something similar, would you let me know how it is going?

John Whatmore (john.whatmore@btinternet.com) 

October, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0
false

18 pt
18 pt
0
0

false
false
false

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}

 

Few business nurseries focus on learning; but some do

Aside

WORKING IN STARTUPS Founding a business attracts a lot of young people who have little or no business experience; but only a few business development programmes put much emphasis on learning – Village Capital, EntrepreneurFirst and the Clore Foundation among them.

 Becoming a company founder, some suggest, is to-day a more popular career than any other, but it is fraught with failure. Brent Hoberman has depicted it as like throwing yourself off a cliff and learning to build an aeroplane on the way down. While some succeed (YCombinator seems to attract heavy-weight innovators), many fail; (in the UK just under half new businesses apparently fail within three years), and many of those who start businesses simply become self-employed (or are out of work.) We desperately need to identify, select and train – for the various skills that are needed.

In 2016, Village Capital in New York launched a development programme for young people aimed at filling the gap between their education and the need for them to become employable in today’s venture-oriented world. It involved companies that would receive ‘training on business model development, customer hypothesis testing, financial modelling, partnership and customer development, and investor engagement. Entrepreneurs also have one-on-one time with mentors, industry experts, investors, top business leaders and potential customers’.

EntrepreneurFirst, an Accelerator for graduates to found new businesses, has become expert in putting people together who form effective teams, as has Village Capital in New York. EntrepreneurFirst achieves this by forcing its recruits to examine compatability in relation to purpose, in the very early stages of a startup.

The Clore Foundation, originally about leadership in the arts, runs a variety of leadership development programmes – for people in social enterprise. They are all part time; in groups; online as well as residential; a mixture of reflection – with coaching, and instruction; and all of them about working together to tackle their various current leadership challenges.

John Whatmore, June 2018

 

 

The stark tale of a startup; its dramatic ups and downs

Aside

THE STARK TALE OF A STARTUP – ITS DRAMATIC UPS AND DOWNS With intangibles now possibly the largest part of our economy, it is bad news to find seed-funding tied by fixated criteria and subject to protracted delays. This project shows that support is quite as valuable as funding; and support alone can make the difference.

 A new and radically different approach to production suggested itself to two experienced and talented people who worked in one segment of this multi-skilled field. They had come to feel that the ways in which material was produced in a related segment could be better served by adopting an approach that would transfer from a third segment.

The segment in question, they felt, though successful to its dedicated customers, was somewhat stylised, and stuck in its mould; and its output is exceptionally expensive.

They had developed a clear concept of how to demonstrate that a new way was possible; they had assembled experts who would take part in the demonstration, they had located where it would take place; knew how long it would take; and how much it would cost.

After looking for some long time for seed funding from one public body that would have added considerable credibility to their project (it had encouraged them to make an application), they eventually came to appreciate that its criteria required something more proven, with immediately widespread side public benefits, as well as post-completion benefits; and they had to abandon that line of approach.

There proved to be no public body either in this field or in any related field that would put up the necessary seed funding; and other organisations in this field had their own incubators.

So they turned to people who were passionate about this field (‘friends and family’); but they first had to enable them to contribute in the form which they required, and attract their interest – in settings that appealed to them.

Finally after eleven months of hard labour, they were able to embark on the ‘real work’ – two months of creating a demonstration that their approach was feasible; and it was very well received by its customers and by the Press.

 

If this was in industry, it had all the elements of a project that would attract grants from Innovate UK – as a pathfinder project. But it is in the Arts, – where every project is in the nature of an innovation; and this is in a specialised sector.

 

Instead of working mainly with established opera productions, one of which is dustied off, recast, and presented in an established opera venue with a new director and conductor, the plan was to take an existing opera and in six weeks, to develop a new production before putting it on stage – in the way that most theatre is produced; and – this was a twist – not in an established venue, but in an intimate setting. They sought ‘to create an exquisite world-class production in an intimate space’.

The idea was conceived by two friends who had often worked together in writing music for shows and directing plays. They hit upon an existing opera – The Rake’s Progress – whose libretto was by W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman and music by Stravinsky, which happened also to be set in the eighteenth century, an opera that one of them (an actor and director, who had produced eighteenth century theatre) had previously worked on in a project at the National Theatre’s Studio. And they knew world-class performers who would be interested in this. ‘We had a fit; but no money!’

They contacted key singers and set and costume designers (one person just led them on to another) all of whom they had worked with before; and decided to have a go.

With 12 months to go, they registered a company, and 4 months later (crucially) booked the theatre (Wilton’s) – on the basis of sharing the takings; ‘and all our key contacts then started to turn down other work. And we revised the budget – cutting a third off it – making savings on performers, sets and costumes, but not on the orchestra.’

They then made an application for funds to the Arts Council – ‘a monstrous process’. Encouraged there to apply for a big sum, it emerged later that they might only hope for £15k and that there were many boxes that they could not tick: they were a new company; they had no community outreach nor benefits to offer; their work offered no legacy etc, etc. And they got the thumbs down.

 

In March (ie 6 months before opening day), they sought to register as a charity. But approval was delayed – the Charity Commission was overloaded; they didn’t hear and didn’t hear, despite continually trying to communicate with them; and only at the end of August did they get approval (ie only 3 months before opening day). Though that felt quite scary; it gave them enormous commitment.

They realised that they had to raise the funds themselves; and started by employing a fund-raiser, but ‘he was hopeless’ and after a month they gave him up; and everyone said: do it yourselves.

‘Opera fans tend to be boundlessly enthusiastic and sometimes quite rich; so we were looking for donations from their trusts or charities. We ran a series of fund-raising events – in the likes of small museums (the Soane Museum, the Handel Museum), at which we offered enticing performances, drink and commentary. They were all about networking; grinding work – most of it negative, that got you down.

‘On the advice of an expert fund-raiser (though for another opera company, and too grand for us) who helped us with how to go about it and how to approach people, we did briefly employ a marketing person and a PR person.

‘Our best donor gave us £20k with no strings; and another supporter offered his house for an event and a small donation, because he believed in us even though he had doubts about whether we could do it.

‘And four months before rehearsals started, we lost one singer – who was too busy getting divorced, and the month before rehearsals started, another, who had to go and look after his ailing father.

 

‘If we hadn’t booked the theatre, there were moments when we would have rethought the whole project – usually when a possible donor turned out to be a dead end. Unless we got there, it was a dramatic failure – we were naïve enough that we knew we would never pull out; we would do something somehow! The product itself was never in doubt; but the business stuff was so difficult and so new to us. But once we had decided, we were very upbeat and it was exciting.

‘We reached the first day of rehearsals (in October 2017) with great pride; and then our work started – to create our vision.’

The six performances were completely sold out and were very well reviewed (with four stars) in the Times and the Guardian, and accorded Pick of the Week. They have achieved their objective: they have proved that opera can be performed to high standards, in less grandiose settings and through different creative channels – which ought to cause the Arts Council to reconsider its approach to the production of opera.

What would they have liked that would have made made it easier for them? Two things: first, someone who could have helped them with strategy – what to do and how to do it; and second, more fillips to their flagging confidence that Arts Council approval would have given them.

So what’s next, people ask.

 

John Whatmore, January 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

No institutional support for startups and scaleups

Aside

No institutional support for startups and scaleups

The CEO of the Art Fund complains that there is no support system for one of the oldest of functions – museum curators; neither is there in the newest of fields – the world of entrepreneurialism. The Clore Foundation runs a stack of programmes for leaders in social enterprise, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has commissioned a programme for leaders in the Arts, but programmes for leaders in other fields of enterprise are rare.

Learning is essentially on-the-job; but there is no extensive form of support for on-the-job learning. There are several recent action-learning type programmes, such those run by UCL/RBS, the Judge Institute, Vistage (originally US); and Belgium’s Plato programmes provide another example. Steve Blank’s I-Corps programme helps scientists to identify and pursue opportunities for commerialisation. And there are a number of online programmes including Digital Business Academy and Dreamstake, and MIT’s new U.Lab.

There is virtually no networking/pooling of experience: Nesta initiated a twice yearly pan-European conference called Accelerator Assembly, which has since been taken over by Salamanca University. The Association for Managers of Innovation has existed in the US for a number of years, but there is no such networking function or organization in the UK.

There is no strong overall supporting institution: Praxis/Unico is focused on universities; UKSPA is focused mainly on the development of Science Parks; and UK Business Incubator died several years ago. The Scaleup Institute is in its nature focused on scaleups – on identifying routes to success together with leading examples.

Research remains uncoordinated. The Enterprise Research Centre at Aston University has developed a scoreboard and carried out research into the factors that support local enterprise, as have other organisations. The Scaleup Institute commissioned a major research project on Scaleups jointly at Judge Cambridge and Said Oxford; and Nesta has a very general and long-term research project about the effectiveness of support for startups, but does not focus on best practice. There is no large-scale university programme dedicated to research and especially to the development of enterprise and early stage business.

What is needed is an organisation that could lead or seed programmes for potential leaders of innovation across different fields (- the CBI, Nesta or ESRC?) – in industry, in science, in public services, in education, in health services, or whose first initiative was unsuccessful?

John Whatmore, January 2018

 

 

The Future of Work is arriving

Aside

The Future of Work is arriving All sorts of programmes are in the wind designed to facilitate startups and scaleups in particular.

PwC and Swiftscale have just completed a 12 week accelerator programme entitled The Future of Work – for a number of startups with the potential to transform the workplace through scalable innovation.

The 12 week programme took 12 B2B start-ups and supported their growth through a combination of executive mentoring, corporate introductions and a business development curriculum, including masterclasses from sales and marketing experts, extensive corporate introductions and guidance from industry specialists at PwC, and sponsors Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Sage, along with a carefully curated group of executive mentors. They were enabled to pitch their progress and showcase their products to an audience of enterprise executives, investors, entrepreneurs and community influencers.

The businesses include:

  • a programme for managing extended workforce networks,
  • a cloud-based digital coaching programme,
  • another for improving feed-back and boosting performance,
  • a programme that provides support for business relocation,
  • a data-base of business talent – consultants etc
  • an out-sourced data-base analytics service,
  • a programme for simplifying the calculations in business planning,
  • a programme for promoting security in authentication and verification, and
  • a programme for asset management – protection, broader use, monetisation etc.

Google Campus is proud to find itself using a startup from its own cohorts, that manages audience interaction – Google uses it for its own Demo Days.

Touchpaper is a not-for-profit backed by eight major players including Cap Gemini, Nesta, Tech City and the Digital Catapult, on a mission to make it easier for startups and corporates to work together – by fostering an environment that promotes collaboration, innovation and value creation between the parties, and where business processes deliver appropriate relationships, and revenue and results. It provides an instant tool-kit whose guides help you to navigate strategy, communication and buy-in, engagement and decision making, legal and procurement.

John Whatmore, 2017

A purposed accelerator – in public services

Aside

Making use of external expertise to deliver innovations in public services. Innovationeers in the public sector have not shared the same raw enthusiasm for startups and scaleups as the private sector: they have come much later to the game.

I wrote last about Village Capital in New York, whose modus operandi is upside down, in that it starts with the identification of major issues and only then builds teams and finds resources to tackle those issues. In the UK, CivTech’s young programme is now doing likewise.

CivTech’s mission is simple: it is to support innovation in the public sector by creating an environment in which issues can be identified and new products and services developed – thus contributing to more effective and efficient public services.

Its second programme, just launching, aims to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to ‘solve a challenge, build a product, develop a relationship and build a business with public sector benefits’, by engaging with a major public sector organisation.

This year’s programme has identified nine challenges provided by their public sector sponsors, of which seven will be tackled by the seven teams that have been selected for the programme. These include:

  • how to create a better booking system for outpatient appointments
  • how better to understand citizen data
  • how to provide better [internet] access to public services.

Applicants could be existing companies with relevant material, graduates, a digital team or just someone with insight or a good idea.

 Three potential solutions to each sponsor’s challenge go through to a 3-week Exploration Stage – to develop their idea further, to engage with the CivTech team and the Challenge Sponsor, to participate in some workshops, and then to make a final pitch – for which each team receives £3,000.

The CivTech Accelerator that follows is three months long (for which teams are required to relocate to Edinburgh) – of innovation, experiment, development and production; with workshops, talks and mentors; of team and business building; of product building; of developing real and lasting relationships with public sector organisations – for which each team will receive £17,000 (CivTech takes no equity nor IP).

The CivTech team provides specific advice about its approach to service design, product development, government standards and system integration needs.

 Sponsors are expected to set aside £106k for each challenge, of which £27k goes to the solution provider (as above), and the remaining £81k is for ongoing development of the solution. The Challenge Sponsor receives an in-perpetuity royalty free licence to enable the successful participant to further develop and test their work with a view to its exploitation in the sponsor’s services.

The website inviting applications is couched in very full and clear, and charmingly optimistic terms, though the exploitability of the proposals is uncertain.

Of the nine teams that had participated in Round 1, two had worked with the NHS and were confident of new business; two had worked with Transport Scotland, one with sales already and both with more to follow; and two of the nine reported that they were still working on future business. New businesses, a new platform, a new product and a new client were among the mentions in their final reports.

The small team that has conceived and evolved this programme sits in the Digital Directorate of the Scottish Government, which has not only backed and endorsed the programme but has recently doubled the amount of money behind it. And this work has attracted widespread interest.

John Whatmore, November 2017

For more see https://civtech.atlassian.net