Mentor manager delivers miracles

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‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups
Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers can help them by finding experienced and expert mentors.

Their extensive network of supporters is one of the most distinctive features of Accelerators. Their early-stage ventures have fast-changing needs for support – in terms of knowledge, expertise, advice and relationships; and keeping up with these changes and introducing people with appropriate contributions is a job for which the programme leader is often the best placed person, but he can seldom give it enough time.

One Accelerator has used a leading intermediary as their ‘mentor manager’. Once a week he would talk briefly to each team, on the first occasion to all of the team together, then each week to a different member, and ask:
What is your current ‘pain point’?
What are you currently struggling with?
to which he would add his own experienced perceptions. The CTO of one team was having trouble in managing a growing team: he was an expert in technology but managing people was a different story.

‘Validating a financial product is not as easy as going into the street and conducting a survey: you need specific experts! This team was having trouble in finding and getting in touch with a decision-maker within a large African Bank who would be a specialist in micro-credit in two specific sub-Saharan countries.’

As an intermediary, his task was then to find someone who would be able to help the team with their specific issues. There was a very good chance, he said, of doing so from within his and the Accelerator’s own extensive data-bases. With some two hundred previous startups in the latter’s data-base, within a week that CTO had meetings with numerous experts on the subject and gained tremendous confidence.

If these sources did not identify a good contact, his second line of attack was to search Google and LinkedIn by using key words, for someone with whom there could be some kind of link – with their company, their skills, their country and their activities (eg they had spoken on the topic at a recent conference).

He would contact them by e-mail, hope to spark an interest in the project, invite them just to have a 10-minute phone call with the team, then to Skype and perhaps meet.

On one occasion he searched the main VC, Tech and banking conferences in two countries, identified three people who might help a startup, and within a week had arranged Skype calls to two of them.

He brings to Startupbootcamp his experience when Up Global held Startup Weekends in some 270 cities in one single week last November; and he has kindly offered to come and tell us more about his work at the Workshop we plan to hold shortly – about mentors and mentor management.

See also:
I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day
When the participants had an opportunity to meet the mentors at the beginning of a recent Accelerator programme, my encounters with the latter revealed five different mentor roles. http://wp.me/p3beJt-8N

John Whatmore
January 2015

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Co-working spaces in Silicon Valley

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Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. 

Co-working spaces are one of the distinguishing features of to-day’s new-fangled Accelerators (short periods of intensive development for a limited number of carefully chosen small teams working alongside one another, aiming to develop an idea for a new business into a marketable proposition with the support of facilitators and an army of mentors). In imitation of Silicon Valley, London has been seeing a wave of new such spaces in the last two years. So what do the new buildings of Facebook, Twitter and Google have to tell us about the design of these spaces?*

Change is seen as high technology’s most valuable commodity. The cubicle has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

Facebooks’ headquarters encloses a pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cup-cake store and a barbeque joint, a wood working shop, a print shop and an arcade. It also includes two cafeterias, several special food shops, and three small restaurants, and shortly a noodle shop. Everything is free or subsidised.

Facebooks’ unofficial slogan is “hack”, which has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Their Hackathons are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does so.

There are posters everywhere, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness – like ‘Taking risks give me energy’ and ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Facebook moves around as many as 1,000 out of its 6,000 employees every month, re-assigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so that they are short and decisive.

The print and wood working shops are intended to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.

Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning, and design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around’, something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul – people get used to change when change is expected.

At Twitter’s headquarters, irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas – the company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business areas, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working. Here there is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: we must all change, all the time.

Information sharing has become the hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.

Google’s new headquarters has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures and multi-coloured bicycles for intracampus transport. But what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making. A team-leader in Google’s Real Estate Department cites studies of ‘biophilia’ – love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. He is after the Holy Grail of the Knowledge Industry – ‘how to measure productivity, which is not just how quickly you type or how well you make a line of code, but how you feel about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home’.

Google Real Estate is more lab that furniture department: it tests chairs in order to provide each person with the correct chair; it tests desks, lighting systems, heating systems etc. It has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights in order to provide more natural lighting; and it provides ‘nap pods’ where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence, with noise reducing cushions. ‘The harder we work the more important it is to have to space to get away from the chaos for a while’.

*Adapted from the `International New York Times’ 3 March 2014

To Accelerate or not to Accelerate: that is the question

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While it will be impossible for some time yet to prove that Accelerators are effective, the likes of Google and Microsoft are busily betting on their future.

Nothing better illustrates the dilemma that innovators face than the fact that it will be impossible for several years yet to prove the value of Accelerators – short periods of intensive development for selected cohorts of teams, working closely together, along with a host of supporters – yet it is a model being rolled out by leading companies.

Engagement, enthusiasm, funding, alumni and followers all give a rosy feeling to the Accelerator concept; and in spite of their rapid proliferation in the UK and Nesta’s admirable financial support of early adopters, Nesta’s experts are deeply cautious about its future.

Yet September saw Google announcing that it is building a network of tech entrepreneurs in seven North American Cities. A spokesperson commented that they have been incredibly impressed with the catalyzing impact that tech hubs have had – helping startups to grow, and creating jobs in local communities in the process. The aim is to ‘create a strong network, providing each hub with financial support alongside access to Google technology, platforms and mentors, and ensuring that entrepreneurs at these hubs have access to an even larger network of startups.’

September also saw Microsoft offering technology startups in the B2B, consumer and gaming sectors the chance to apply for its Accelerator programme in London. The chosen entrepreneurs will take part in a 12-week programme to help grow their businesses through mentorship, access to resources and technical assistance. The Accelerator is looking for 10-15 startups developing technologies in financial services, electronic retail and commerce, gaming, big data or enterprise software. Microsoft will not be taking any equity in the companies, but will maintain relationships with startups through an alumni programme after they “graduate” the Accelerator. During its pilot the Accelerator will be based at Central Working in Shoreditch.

Microsoft also feels that startups are suffering due to a severe skills shortage. The companies are struggling to find talented developers to work with in the UK, which is preventing business growth. This developer shortage can be blamed on the increase in B2C companies that have ventured into the software business taking the talent with them. Microsoft actively tries to solve these problems by running roundtables and workshops to introduce developers to new Microsoft technologies.

Despite the skills shortage there does not seem to be a shortage of energy in the developer ecosystem. “There’s still plenty of buzz and excitement around it.” And that is the dilemma.

Dreamstake, the free website for aspiring entrepreneurs

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Dreamstake, the free website for aspiring entrepreneurs which measures their progress, is growing, and expanding its offering; and it has done some diagnostics

Dreamstake is a free interactive startup platform for entre-preneurs which has a rating feature that acts as a marker of their progress. Membership is growing fast and has increased from 6,000 in April 2012 to 10,000 now. It is has added regular educational events at Google Campus in Tech City; and enables its members (and others) to see how well they are making progress by comparison with other members. And some recent statistical analysis reveals aspects of their businesses.

 

Dreamstake acts a bit like an online Accelerator by taking startup founders through a process to get them ready for investment and then introducing them to potential investors.

An algorithm enables each member to keep track of the progress of his or her startup, by measuring team size and mix, progress with the product, fund-raising, number of pivots and other key measures of success. The speed with which this measure progresses also acts as an indicator of the dedication of its entrepreneurs. All of this is available for potential investors to see.

Dreamstake has introduced regular educational workshops for startups – at Google Campus, where it is now the largest provider of events. They take place every Monday evening and there are funding-related events on a monthly basis; and all of these are provided free. For those that sign up for a full Accelerator programme – weekly academy, monthly bootcamps, performance review and mentoring – Dreamstake charges a success fee upon successful introduction to investment.

The data which has been input by the entrepreneurs has revealed some interesting analysis. Social media is a dominant theme and that for some 70% of its members their vision is their primary motivation – followed by the concept of a product – for 25%, and money for a mere 5%.  Forty percent work from home, 25% from an office and a third say that they are in co-working spaces. (Over half had English as not their first language, the vast majority of them European.) Among their technical skills, HTML comes top, followed by web development, PHP and CSS. Of the kind of businesses they are developing less than 20% are described in terms that are other than IT related; over 60% are clearly internet or mobile related.

Progress is hard to interpret in a fast-growing community like this, but the statistics show that nearly a quarter have had one pivot, and about a third of the total have had two or three pivots (a quarter have as yet had no pivot at all). Eight percent are at the idea stage, 58% are at the prototype or beta stage, 17% have a full product, 13% are in revenue, and 4% are profitable.

Dreamstake offers universities and their ilk an attractive  and low-cost way of supporting their aspiring entrepreneurs.