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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

A uniquely comprehensive development arena

Aside

A UNIQUELY COMPREHENSIVE DEVELOPMENT ARENA Quite unlike most startup or scaleup programmes such as Techstars or Startupbootcamp (which tend to be short term injections), the programmes at Goldsmiths Centre are unique in that they aim to cover comprehensively all the stages and aspects of development for people in its field. The startup world needs something of this sort. 

The essence of the Goldsmith Centre is the professional training of goldsmiths. While these people are charmingly depicted as bespectacled, white-haired, elderly craftspeople, the skills and talents of the next generation are clearly an important target.

This training takes the form of a ‘community that works and learns together’ – a community of trainees, working goldsmiths and other interested parties – to help them grow and thrive; funded substantially by the Goldsmiths Company, and overseen by a Board of Trustees.

The Centre which opened in 2012, runs for budding goldsmiths a progressive series of programmes that are aimed at developing their future – for what will mostly be small craft businesses. Here are six of them:

* a one week programme of intensive workshops, seminars and talks called ‘Getting Started’ – for recent graduates in precious metals, which introduces its 30 participants to the basics of business.

* a one-year programme called ‘Setting Out’, which is currently home to 8 young goldsmiths, carefully chosen (this year from 30 applicants), who take part in a curated programme that aims to equip them with business, creative and product development skills.

* a one-year Foundation Programme in which 10 young goldsmiths are attached to the Centre and enabled to use its excellent working facilities.

* an appenticeship scheme, under which some 40 young goldsmiths are attached to ‘Masters’ and meet regularly at the Centre for further training.

* a membership scheme called ‘Creative Links’ for people with aspiring or established businesses to attend events and make and meet contacts at the Centre and a special membership scheme for craftspeople requiring ad hoc access to benches, hotdesking or a meeting room.

* and the Centre houses some 80 resident makers and businesses on the premises – on special terms as providing work collaborations for the goldsmiths who are connected with the Centre.

In addition to short courses on specialised subjects, the Centre has also created a number of videos and runs taster workshops; and there is a substantial programme of all sorts of events.

Some 50 craftspeople are linked to the Centre as providers of skill, tutoring, information etc; as are some 15 business people as contributors to the Centre’s business programmes.

The Centre houses the latest equipment and facilities into a meticulously crafted old building, and provides an atmosphere of spare elegance in which design, skill and beauty meld.

It includes spaces of all kinds: there are 24 professional workshops and 4 educational workspaces; tool rooms (one containing over 150 different kinds of hammer!); a CAD room with terminals; a conference room; a snug; a high quality café cum meeting space (depicted as ‘coffee, kitchen and craft’); and an area for exhibitions, conferences, product launches, receptions etc.

*

In the startup world, training and development do not have a place: that world relies instead on ‘entrepreneurs’ to emerge spiritually. There is an urgent need for some organisation in the startup world to take up these roles.

John Whatmore, October 2017

Organising your venture’s supporters

Aside

Organising your venture’s supporters Priscila Bala of Octopus Venture Capital, (formerly Mentor Director at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute) has emphasised the value of advisers, and suggested how to set up and make good use of them.

Savvy enterprise start-ups understand the power of relationships. When it comes to entering new markets, gaining the support and endorsement of well-connected or local industry players can make all the difference. Advisory board members can fill knowledge and network gaps within your company or your own background – to help with product development or sales strategy or to introduce them to valuable clients, suppliers and investors.

An advisory board can be a bounty when you find the people who are experts at solving a set of problems you have, engage them with clear expectations and rewards, and turn to them whenever you have issues related to that problem. To find the right people, you have to be clear on what problems you want them to help you solve.

For example, Steve Blank [of I-Corps] suggests (1) that there are five primary types of advisory board members:

  1. Technical advisor: for product development advice
  2. Business advisor: for business strategy and guidance
  3. Customer advisor: for value proposition and positioning advice
  4. Industry advisor: for domain expertise
  5. Sales advisor: for market tactics and demand creation

Beyond these, it’s important that you identify the crucial challenges in your scaling up roadmap, to determine what kinds of advisors will be strategic to you, and which will complement your team’s skillset.

Go for ‘stars’! Advisory member relationships can work particularly well if the candidates you are courting are well-connected leaders in their space

Clarifying your objectives will also enable you to have you targeted conversations. For example, if your goal is to grow a base of customers in a particular vertical, try the following:

  1. Ask your customers or prospect customers who they respect.
  2. Ask your Board of Directors and industry connections for referrals.
  3. Have a point-of-view related to the industry, and build a profile and relationships based on your expertise.

If you are a first-time entrepreneur or an early-stage entrepreneur, there are often many apparent candidates but who won’t be valuable advisors for your business. Ask for referrals within the industry and spend time getting to know the advisor. Before formalizing any advisor relationship, ask for their input on a few demonstrative issues — how would they approach them? Who might they reach out to? What strategies have they seen in the past? What were the outcomes? Which risks do they anticipate?

Compared with Board members, you can focus the work and input of those advisors much more narrowly to their expertise, there is more flexibility on the time and level of engagement the advisor can offer and you can successfully engage a larger group of advisors within this mandate.

Most companies don’t engage their advisory board in meetings as a group; instead they reach out to specific advisors as needed, and set different frequency for those interactions.

Strong advisors are busy people. Since you likely will only have a limited amount of their time each week or month, be rigorous about setting agendas for each meeting or call, be explicit about actionable items between conversations (your action items and theirs), and send follow-up summary emails after every meeting. Some entrepreneurs find it helpful to use a running Google Doc shared with the advisor to keep track of ongoing notes together.

Ongoing feedback is another helpful tactic to successful advisor relationships. Mention to the advisor up front that you will want to spend 15–20 minutes in your third or fourth meeting talking through how the relationship is going to-date, and how you can improve your collaboration. Advisors are professionals, and should be receptive to feedback. Some relationships will work better with a set schedule of interactions; others might require more flexibility and unfold in “bursts” of support. Work with the advisor to find the style and cadence that works best for your partnership.

Compensate your advisors. In addition to aligning incentives and recognizing that expert time is valuable, compensation will make you more disciplined about the calibre of advice and support you are seeking and getting. It formalizes the professional relationship you expect from advisors, as it does your commitment to receiving their open and honest expert feedback, rather than having them tell you what you want to hear.

Advisory boards can be a powerful asset, accelerating your access to people and solutions that are key to your company’s success. Advisors can make strategic introductions, help you secure contracts or fundraise, attend strategic meetings with you, help you secure press coverage for your company or serve as a reference for your product or your work, and help you recruit other members of the advisory board or your team.

(1) My work at IdeaLondon came up with exactly the same analysis.

See the full article at: https://medium/octopus Ventures/how-advisory-boards…

John Whatmore, September 2017

 

 

Imperial’s vast new incubator

Aside

Imperial White City to house vastly more space for young businesses

With four times more startups and scaleups than on its South Kensilngton 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.

Imperial White City in West London consists in the development of a wholesale new university campus. Imperial, very much a leading university, long constrained by the shortage of space in its part of London, took an opportunity offered by property developments in White City to rethink the complete structure of university education.

The gap that has emerged between students and staff could be bridged, the thinking went, if it were possible to bring together – into a community – students, staff, alumni, local businesses and the local community.

One of the dozen or more buildings on the new site is, rather enigmatically, called the Translation and I-Hub; (another is the big new ‘maker’ space, about which I will write next). The aim is to create a ‘dynamic, enterprising environment that enables the translation of research outcomes into internationally significant technologies’, co-locating research capabilities with ‘allied [commercial] enterprises’.

The building will offer ‘spinouts, startups, SMEs, scaleups, established industry leaders’ about seven times more space than was previously available on the South Kensington campus (1) (ie it will house perhaps 250-350 businesses,) for incubation, grow-on and collaboration with corporates.

Of the 13 floors, three are already kitted out as wet labs/office spaces devoted to incubator grow-on use – with coffee/community areas, that will house around two dozen bioscience businesses (one floor will be for businesses in synthetic biology). And the other ten floors are open plan office space, (initial plans show no coffee/community areas), each of which could make an ideal incubator for a community of carefully matched young businesses. While access to experts in departments still at Kensington will of course be harder, the bioscience incubator has recruited its first alumnus (‘who has done it before’ ie built a big business from the ground) to work with its occupants. (2)

The new facilities, all shipshape, will be impressively modern, not least with all the latest communication facilities. In so far as more of the accommodation than in the past is oriented towards more mature startups, the offices anticipate a greater focus on the individual company and less on the centre as an innovation community; yet the essence of the new thinking lies in the unity of the community.

If cross-fertilisation is of increasing value, the proactive management of support will be vitally important. But it will be unusually challenging by virtue of the wide spectrum of the parties involved and the very large area of the accommodation.

John Whatmore, June 2017

  • The South Kensington Incubator was home in all to around 80 young businesses – 20 core SMEs plus 10 in cleantech and 10 in synthetic biology; some 30 were virtual/hot desk businesses, and around 10 were brand new startups.
  • Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and MassChallenge inter alia average 5 mentors per startup, some closely attached, others called up as their businesses evolve.

See also: 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. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-gu)

STOP PRESS Imperial has just announced that it is seeking to recruit a Director of Entrepreneurship to lead its new Enterprise Lab.

John Whatmore, May 2017