Mentoring: a timely Academic review

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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

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Corporates struggling with innovation?

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Are corporates struggling with their approaches to innovation? Working with startups is something that corporates are having to learn for themselves, but help is at hand.

Innovation is widely recognised as a top priority by corporate leaders, but delivering it is often delegated to individuals whose brief is unclear, who lack support (indeed often face opposition), whose colleagues have little understanding about their initiatives, and who often feel quite isolated.

A wider range of corporates has been showing interest in startups – in working with them as much as investing in them. Startupbootcamp, with its widespread experience of helping startups and scaleups in particular sectors (including Fintech in London) brought together corporate innovation leaders from several countries in a recent ‘Rainmaking Summit’. It provided them with a series of discussion panels and inventive exercises to help them to tackle typical pain points, like communication and support.

Sources of help and experience for corporates looking to work with startups seem to be scarce; and this conference indicated that there is a real opportunity for programmes like those of Startupbootcamp to help them to learn from each other’s experience.

John Whatmore, February, 2017

Five approaches in which identifying big issues is the carrot that leads the innovation process Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns) March 2016 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-dU)

 Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns) Oct 2015 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bx)

Accelerators attacking bigger issues? If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields? Oct 2014 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SETsquared tops Trumps

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SETsquared tops Trumps 

The top Incubator illustrates the range of support that can be offered to young businesses.

Karen Brooks of SETsquared, a partnership of five universities centred on Bristol, recently rated ‘Global Number 1 University Business Incubator’, spoke at a recent ‘Knowledge London’ meeting of leaders of university incubators about the six programmes – at a variety of levels in the innovation pipeline and in various sectors – that SETsquared runs; and added that it was all about a mutual relationship with industry – understanding what business wants; and she commented that SETsquared had no academics on its staff.

The most striking contrast, I suggested at that meeting, between Accelerators most of which are branded ‘pop-ups’ (as c.12 week programmes) and Incubators many of which are in universities, is that the former:

  • are more involved with their businesses
  • provide more input and support,
  • have many more contacts with the business world.

But SETsquared is a leader in all of these respects.

At the Pervasive Media Studio at Wastershed, Bristol – a twelve month home to a dozen young businesses, over lunch together on a Friday everyone has to talk about their progress, about which notes are immediately circulated so that teams can meet up to learn from one another’s experience. Jim Milby, until recently a Director of Barclays Bank, who mentors at Startupbootcamp, insists on a weekly review with his team wherever he is a mentor. Paul Miller, one of the authors of Nesta’s The Startup Factories, and founder of Bethnal Green Ventures – a winner of a major grant from the Cabinet Office’s Social Enterprise Startups programme – holds a review once a week with every team in the Accelerator. At ‘Office Hours’, he asks the same questions of each team “What did you achieve last week, what will you do next week, what is stopping you; and what have you learned”.

Accelerators provide more input and support, especially in the form of mentors, notably with specific advice eg on design, potential customers, fundability etc – often in a ratio of four or five to every team. Techstars, Startupbootcamp and Wayra Lab all have around 150 mentors for each programme, (as does SETsquared,) among whom two or three are regularly attached to each team; and Seedcamp has even more.

As does SETsquared, they have many more external contacts with local practitioners, experts and entrepreneurs in businesses in the sectors in which their young businesses are involved, upon whom they can call for specific help. Moreover their leaders are often entrepreneurs themselves.

Incubators are still essentially providers of office space more than they are facilitators of business development, but it takes little (often only a canteen) to encourage their occupants, who are all on the same growth path, to draw from others’ experience and find the essential help that they often did not know they needed!

John Whatmore, November 2016

The latest twists in Accelerator programmes

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Support for startups and scaleups: the latest new twists

Six developments all designed to enhance interactions among and between the entrepreneurs in Accelerator programmes, their mentor community, VCs and relevant corporates.

FinTech in London could hardly be more topical or more relevant; and Startupbootcamp is among the most experienced of support programmes. So what is new in their latest programme? (For a description of a recent programme, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-8W)

  • They have invited one startup to be a startup-in-residence – to add to and benefit from the experience of being in the Accelerator.
  • They are running three, yes three, mentor matching days in the first four weeks of the twelve week programme. This acknowledges that match-making is a chancy business, and that as a new business evolves its needs for help evolve too.
  • They are running a social meeting for their mentor community, where an inspiring entrepreneur will share his/her story, which will also provide an opportunity for mentors to share their own experience.
  • They are holding a meeting well into the programme at which heads of innovation in this case from major financial institutions will debate how they can best work with startups – an opportunity for those present to exchange experience.
  • And they are holding regular weekly ‘Coffee Houses’ – expert gatherings for mentors to meet informally with startups to discuss their challenges in the week to come, each one focused progressively on a topic of the moment.
  • Finally, some incubators arrange a session at which a number of VCs can listen to pitches from emerging businesses so that they might keep in touch with those that interest them.

Chance meetings are well-recognised as among the best sources of support, and time is so vital to every young business that anything that can increase the chances of a good chance is valuable.

See also ‘Design you own Accelerators’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-K.

John Whatmore, October 2016.

SMEs need someone to act as ‘chair’

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SMEs need someone to play the chairman role even more than do bigger businesses Lead mentors have the ability to ask the right questions and to turn up with someone who has just the expertise you are about to need.

Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and Techstars all attach mentors to their young businesses so as to provide feed-back and advice at the moment it is needed – on a proactive basis, not just when it is sought. This is in sharp contrast to Incubators such as those at Sussex Innovation Centre, Imperial College and UCL’s IdeaLondon and others, where advice or help is provided when it is sought – on a reactive basis.

There are topics that early-stage businesses know little about (eg development grants, intellectual property); there are things they don’t know how to do (eg 3D printing, ‘chatbot’ publicity); there are tasks of which they have little experience (eg strategy and management), where someone who has ‘done it before’ is invaluable. And in a world of disruptive advantage, time is not their ally.

Jim Milby who mentors several small businesses, recently retired as a Director of Barclays Bank, where he has ‘seen a few businesses’ and ‘knows a lot of people’. It is his extensive experience, his connections and importantly his independent voice that make him highly valued by the SMEs he works with. He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because you don’t want to go pitching for funding before you’ve got some customers.’ While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, the strategy for getting there, or even the team itself.

John Whatmore, April 2016

Red Riding Hoods should beware of the Wolf

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Unilever and Canary Wharf both invite you to come and help them crack a world-wide problem, but… Corporates are seducing startups into giving them their good ideas, but the odds and the risks against getting your rewards are less evident than they should be. There is a solution. Next week: If you have a tough problem, try a Hackathon.

Here’s a new but increasingly familiar slant for startups – from a big corporate (Unilever). We’ll identify some specific key issues, they say, (in this case how data can be used to attract people to live more sustainably). You come along and work with our staff to suggest ways to crack such issues – at a Hackathon. Our staff will provide background – marketing, sustainability, IT and consumer research, together with one-on-one mentorship. One winner gets £5,000 in prize money, and may be invited to participate in a paid pilot with Unilever, with £31,000 made available to help develop and test their idea.

Level39 at Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ has launched a similar challenge. Smart City technology companies have been invited to apply for one of six streams – each about a specific aspect of ‘the city of the future’. For each stream, six teams were to be selected to enter an Accelerator with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group partners – to develop their technologies and solutions. In each stream, one would receive a £50,000 prize, and ‘pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city’.

It’s hard to tell whether these are impact enterprises or commercial ventures. Each competition has only one winner; and the costs and benefits of being involved in any pilot are unknowable. There is no mention of who owns the ideas nor who shall have the rights to them. And there is no one there to protect your rights. So if you have a good idea, you would be at risk of being seduced into a process in which, whether you win the prize or not, your ideas may have lost any protection.

Nesta, some time ago in an open innovation pilot, acted as intermediary for P&G by eliciting and selecting relevant ideas and then providing a period of support and development with the help of a VC for their originators (including ensuring adequate protection and the writing of a business plan) and enabling the best to be pitched to P&G. Ultimately, one of these was felt by P&G to have very considerable market potential. (http://www.nesta.org.uk/corporate-connect). This process, known as the ‘Air Lock’ is run regularly now for many different companies by its creaters in Nesta in ‘100% Open’: it builds up communication channels and trust, and it protects IP.

Young businesses in accelerator programmes run by organisations like Techstars and Startupbootcamp expect to get from idea to marketable proposition in 13 weeks (for which the latter take around 7% of equity in return). At that point they are in a position to negotiate with users as investors on a commercial basis rather than simply on the terms dictated by a corporate.

Accessing creative start-up talent is increasingly necessary for larger companies who want to capture the best ideas, people and technologies. As scouting by corporates for good ideas becomes more common, they must not be allowed to play the Wolf to Red Riding Hoods. They should recognize that they do not know what they will be able to catch in their fishing net: vagueness simply raises suspicions.

John Whatmore May 2015

Startups like Red Riding Hood should beware of corporate wolves

Aside

Unilever and Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ both invite you to come and help them crack a world-wide problem, but… Corporates are seducing startups into giving them their good ideas, but the odds and the risks against getting your rewards are less evident than they should be. There is a solution.

Here’s a new but increasingly familiar slant for startups – from a big corporate (Unilever). We’ll identify some specific key issues, they say, (in this case how data can be used to attract people to live more sustainably). You come along and work with our staff to suggest ways to crack such issues – at a Hackathon. Our staff will provide background – marketing, sustainability, IT and consumer research, together with one-on-one mentorship. One winner gets £5,000 in prize money, and may be invited to participate in a paid pilot with Unilever, with £31,000 made available to help develop and test their idea.

Level39 at Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ has launched a similar challenge. Smart City technology companies have been invited to apply for one of six streams – each about a specific aspect of ‘the city of the future’. For each stream, six teams were to be selected to enter an Accelerator with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group partners – to develop their technologies and solutions. In each stream, one would receive a £50,000 prize, and ‘pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city’.

It’s hard to tell whether these are impact enterprises or commercial ventures. Each competition has only one winner; and the costs and benefits of being involved in any pilot are unknowable. There is no mention of who owns the ideas nor who shall have the rights to them. And there is no one there to protect your rights. So if you have a good idea, you would be at risk of being seduced into a process in which, whether you win the prize or not, your ideas may have lost any protection.

Nesta, some time ago in an open innovation pilot, acted as intermediary for P&G by eliciting and selecting relevant ideas and then providing a period of support and development with the help of a VC for their originators (including ensuring adequate protection and the writing of a business plan) and enabling the best to be pitched to P&G. Ultimately, one of these was felt by P&G to have very considerable market potential. (http://www.nesta.org.uk/corporate-connect). This process, known as the ‘Air Lock’ is run regularly now for many different companies by its creaters in Nesta in ‘100%Open’: it builds up communication channels and trust, and it protects IP.

Young businesses in accelerator programmes run by organisations like Techstars and Startupbootcamp expect to get from idea to marketable proposition in 13 weeks (for which the latter take around 7% of equity in return). At that point they are in a position to negotiate with users as investors on a commercial basis rather than simply on the terms dictated by a corporate.

Accessing creative start-up talent is increasingly necessary for larger companies who want to capture the best ideas, people and technologies. As scouting by corporates for good ideas becomes more common, they must not be allowed to play the Wolf to Red Riding Hoods. They should recognize that they do not know what they will be able to catch in their fishing net: vagueness simply raises suspicions.

John Whatmore April 2015