Avoiding the pitfalls that lead to zombification

zombie, zombification, startup zombies

 

Apparently Brad Pitt filmed a movie in Glasgow all about zombies.

 

Many of the streets around the city centre were renamed and given American-style street signs so it looked like a typical US city centre.

 

Zombification in the start-up scene

 

I’m not a fan of zombie movies, so I cannot say I’ve seen this particular film. But, as I speak with numerous UK start-ups and many angel investors, there would appear to be a fair bit of “zombie-ism” or “zombification” taking place in the start-up scene.
There is nothing better than a pitch from an entrepreneur that blows you away. It should be well rehearsed, but not robot like.

It should cover a few of the staple bases, but not be too technical. It should be delivered in a professional and business-like fashion to show respect to the audience and potential investors. There should, in short, be enough to hook an investor into wanting to find out more.

 

Then, if an entrepreneur communicates well with investors and completes some due diligence, a seed investment of say £150,000 can land. It seems £150,000 is a nice number as it dovetails well with the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, where up to 50 per cent of an investment made in a qualifying company can be offset against a private investor’s tax burden.

 

So, whether the start-up entrepreneur needs 150 grand, the magical pitch number is – yes you’ve guessed it – £150,000. So, in it goes and the entrepreneur looks at her bank account and her breath is taken away.

 

Yippee!

 

My word, after all that pitching and diligence, HMRC work and business plan formation, she now has someone else’s cash to run her start-up and shoot for the moon. Yippee!

 

But then something happens. Reality kicks in…

 

But then something happens. Reality kicks in and the entrepreneur has to do what she said she would do. She has to hire at least one or two key members of staff. She has to negotiate on contracts, terms, incentives, share options and the like. Then there is the new workplace pension and setting up everything with HMRC and her accountants on payroll, etc.

 

The business of running the business

 

Of course, there will be some form of premises needed to rally the team and stick on the website. There may be the formation of a board and the appointment of non-executive directors as specified by the investors. And still there is the business of running the business. It is here that the zombification process starts to form.

 

focus on hitting certain agreed metrics and targets

 

While the entrepreneur is running around doing admin-type functions to make the business legal and work, she also has to focus on hitting certain agreed metrics and targets. Metrics and targets that she used to convince investors to swell her bank account with coin. But, alas this is really and truly the hard bit. She is on her own and there is no turning back.

 

Dead in five months!

 

She promised a bumper payday and she has to deliver. And the next 12 weeks are torture. As she works out where and how to spend her money to hit targets, get traction, produce sales and attracts users or customers, her cash pile starts to reduce and the brutal reality kicks in… “I could be dead in five months!”

 

Like a zombie

 

So what does she do? Well, she starts to act like a zombie as the zombification process sets in. Her communication with her investors tails off. She does not share her frustrations, insecurities, fears and worries with her team. She starts to feel all alone and even lonelier as she knows that she should ask for help, but cannot work out how to.

 

Her thought processes turn to mash and while there is still some glimmer of hope that she can pull it all back on track, she cannot face the reality that in essence, she has no idea how to run a business. In effect, she is already a zombie and will not get second-stage funding.

 

My shout out to anyone who has raised investment is make sure you avoid zombification. Enlist the expertise of your investors, mentors and anyone who you think has a brain. Be honest and communicate. Brad Pitt won’t always be around to save the day.

 

Altitude sickness: are you prepared to scale?

challenge, scale, altitude, grow

 

Clint Eastwood starred in the Eiger Sanction many years ago.  It’s a pretty good movie and although not recent, it is worth tracking down.  In the movie, Eastwood is gearing up for a big climb.  One of the biggest – The Eiger. A great deal of the movie focuses on him getting prepared for the climb.  He has to get physically fit.  This involves exercise and lots of running.  He has to re-skill himself in the art of knots and buckles and all things mountaineering.  And finally he has to acclimatise himself as the air at that high altitude is thin and he needs to be able to operate there with his mind and body under stress.  It’s a bit like growing or scaling a business…

 

doomed from the get go

 

If UK startup founders don’t prepare to climb the Eiger, then they are doomed from the get go.  If you follow my blog posts you will know I have been banging on about why startups founders are not growing from Corbett to Munro to the Eigers of this world.  It’s short-termism and a lack of understanding what it takes to be fully prepared for what is ahead. The evidence is there to see.  Only a handful of founders are actually making it to next round investments, breakevens or big milestones. There are a number of reasons for this, but let’s focus on a couple.

 

seasoned investors actually wish startup founders would ask for more cash

 

A big number, in fact a huge number of startup founders do not understand what burn rate means.  Clint Eastwood did.  That’s why he trained hard to skill up.  It’s so easy to get carried away spending cash, trying new things and hiring in new people, without truly understanding the full monthly costs of these and how they impact the bottom line.  I have witnessed many startup founders who raise a wad of cash – say £150,000 – then have no clear path up the hill.  The have perhaps mugged off a few investors telling them that the cash will last for 18 months. But the reality is that to scale from Corbett to Munro, takes a lot more than they bargained for.  I’ve heard so many times from seasoned investors that they actually wish startup founders would ask for more cash and be more realistic.

 

founders are actually terrified of what is next and hide in their own areas of strength

 

Secondly, and perhaps one that many of you may find a little perplexing, is that many founders are actually the reason the startup fails to grow and make it to the Eiger.  Who would have thought it, eh?  The founder is the baddie who actually kills off the trek up the hill half way there.  Why does this happen?  Much of the time it not the business idea or the product that is validated and created.  It’s the founder who cannot keep up.  Keep up with the pace of carnage that is and will take place within the startup as it begins to scale.  Added complexity, new personalities in the team, dealing with investors and lacking that flexible ambidextrous mindset that can move between science, data and analytics to gut feel, instinct and intuition, causes meltdown and an imploding of what could be pretty special.  Many founders are actually terrified of what is next and hide in their own areas of strength to avoid facing the facts that they are not coping or do not want to prepare for the big changes taking place and ahead.

 

It’s a big old hill

 

It’s easy to work with a single spreadsheet that the founder is comfortable with.  It’s easy to micro-manage a small team of two or three as a founder gets started.  But the rules of the game and the toughness of the climb kick in when new altitudes need to be reached as the startup becomes more scale ready.  This is when our UK founders require to take a leaf out of Clint Eastwood’s Eiger sanction preparation.  It’s a big old hill and it takes mindset preparation, teamwork and a willingness to get uncomfortable.

 

I think we need to be a bit more honest and dare I say it – forthright – in how we mentor and prepare new and existing founders for the Eiger.  Otherwise, we do them no favours when they get altitude sickness.

 

Short-termism is killing startups – it’s time we grow up

 

It’s a fact… not enough businesses are making it in the startup world.  There are plenty starting in all sectors with great ideas.  There are a shed load of incubators and accelerators, support vehicles and consultants, but still only 33% of startups who get initial seed funding are making it to Series A rounds.  It should be much higher – right?

 

So, what is the problem?  Why are UK startups not cutting the mustard?  Why are we not creating more Moonshoters? It’s staring us right in face.

 

It’s called Short-Termism.

 

Only 1 in 10 startups that obtain seed funding go on to secure later stage investment

 

Having worked with thousands of startup founders who work hard to secure that golden egg of £150,000 in a first round of funding, I am amazed at the small, in fact tiny proportion, who then go on to raise the next round and grow.  I can honestly count on my two hands those who have nailed next stage finance.  It gets worse… This is backed up by recent research that shows that 1 in 10 firms that obtain seed funding in the UK go on to receive later stage fourth round investment, compared with nearly a quarter in the USA.

 

startups were formed at a record pace of 80 an hour last year

 

Entrepreneurship has become quite trendy. Having co-founded Entrepreneurial Spark in the UK, five years ago [I have now moved on from this], I see there is a huge appetite for people starting businesses.  So much so that NatWest has powered Entrepreneurial Spark to 13 hubs in the UK, each of them rammed with hopeful founders.  This, like many programmes out there is to be applauded, especially NatWest, who are putting their money where their mouth is.  Giving new start founders the opportunity to just crack on is a good thing.  Techstars, The Bakery and so many other startup outfits all create a healthy ecosystem.  StartUpBritain has completed research that shows startups were formed at a record pace of 80 an hour last year. Wow!  So, how is short-termism killing off so many of them?

 

The startup surge has created a race to the bottom

 

Imagine if you will, an architect designing a house.  She will ensure the foundations are solid and all the load bearing beams are built to cope, while plugging in all the services that the house needs to become a home (eg electricity and sewerage).  The structure will be built to a specification that is built to last.  It is built not for fun or to be sold, but to last.  In short, the architect is building for the long term with all that entails: multiple owners, weathering and wear and tear.  Unfortunately, our startup founders in the UK are not thinking like the architect.  We have too many building their ventures as quickly as they can – to sell. This is key in determining why so many are failing to make it to round two and three of investment.  Along with the surge in startup activity, there has been a race to the bottom in making investment the Holy Grail.

 

create more business builders than startups

 

It’s time to re-think and re-imagine how we build new start ventures and founders who can think more long term.  It’s time to create more business builders than startups that are not built for short term investment.  “Business Building” may sound a bit old hat and not so sexy.  But alas, it is what it is and while startup is a genre or movement, Business Building is the new black!  It’s time to focus on post investment execution, albeit the pre-investment validation was sound.

 

Once the funding is in, the real work begins

 

Execution is where the battle is won or lost.  Once the funding is in, the real work begins and you have to make it work.  The problem is we are not teaching our startup founders how to run a business, how to execute.  A startup is basically a bunch of capabilities and an idea all crashed together like mashed avocado.  But founders needs to flip out of fund raising mode and put on their big boy pants and run an operation to a point where it has some operating rhythm.  But, we have a generation of founders who cannot get to grips with this, not grasp how significant this is to them living or dying.  It’s a failure that can be avoided with some real thought and action.

 

Investors are also looking for more rounded founders

 

Short-termism is a mindset that we all need to bring to life for new founders who are in “build my startup to get investment” mode.  Investors are also looking for more rounded founders who they believe will make it, at least to the next round.  They of all people want to see their investments succeed.  So, whether you are starting, have started or are working with a startup, think about the founder and her potential to skill up to run a business and not simply get a badge for bringing in seed investment at the SEIS cap.

 

It’s time for our startups to grow up.