A Blockchain mindset

Blockchain, crypto-currency

 

It’s time for founders and startups to get real when it comes to managing their investors…

 

I’ve spoken with oodles of investors recently. Before this I spoke with and indeed interrogated a whole raft of startups. What I wanted to get to was the truth about startup founders and their relationships with their investors. What I found was astonishing and needs to be fixed.

 

something happens once the deal is done and the startup founder is off and running.

 

Initially when investors speak to startups, the startup founders love the investors. I guess it’s like dating and the startup founder has big puppy-dog eyes. The investors just love this and lap it up. After all, they need to really like and have respect for each other as one is selling equity in its company while one is purchasing that equity at an agreed valuation. A valuation that is generally based in assumptions, comparables, due diligence checks and some bullshit. But, something happens once the deal is done and the startup founder is off and running.

 

The “long-lasting relationship” becomes a one night stand

 

For some reason, the investor relations part of the equation falls by the wayside and the founder no longer has puppydog eyes. What should have been a long lasting meaningful relationship in essence becomes a one night stand. And this has to stop.

 

The Blockchain and all that it encompasses is built on trust. In short, our lack of trust in each other means we need contacts and legals to make things tight. Blockchain creates more certainty in anything that it is applied to. Which is why it is so prevalent in crypto-currency. Blockchain mindset means a cementing of trust that is immutable. All the relevant players on a specific Blockchain all sign up to the trust element. This produces the key and the security code. And this is what is needed in the realms of startup funding. In short, a whole lot more honesty… from all sides of the table.

 

Founders who have taken in cash need to be open and honest about themselves, the right team, where the business really is and what is keeping them up at night. If this means telling the investor that they are stuck then so be it. Investors on the other hand need to be more willing to understand the founder and where the business is. In most cases you will get bad news or news that does not correlate with the forecast. It is at this time that the founder needs you to enable and not berate or criticise or generally give them a hard time.

 

If we could develop a Blockchain mindset in our startups and our investors then so many more ventures would succeed.

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.

 

Startup life lessons from Arsenal football club

 

Ok, here’s a wee exercise for you. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say “Arsenal football club”.

 

Now whilst I’ve been a Gooner from a young age, there’s no way I think many of your words are positive in light of current events. Lifeless, gutless, pathetic or embarrassing are all adjectives I’ve heard around London over the last fortnight.

 

So what has gone wrong at a club with a world class stadium, unlimited finance and a rich and vibrant history?

 

Profit-itis. The same virus infecting startups all over the country

 

Arsenal have contracted a virus. Pure and simple. Sadly for the UK, this is the same virus infecting startups all over the country. Profit-itis.

 

Being a startup is great, you have access to trendy co-working spaces, free beer on tap and all the digital content you could ever desire. You are a trail blazer, you are your own boss and you will set this market alight and write your own legacy. Investors are throwing themselves at you, money is growing on trees and you are the lord of startupland!

 

your vision begins to narrow

 

You take on your first £150k investment and something strange happens, your vision begins to narrow, you close your eyes and all you can see is £ signs. Creativity levels slowly begin to drain as voices begin whispering phrases in your ear like “payback period” and “cost reduction”.

 

You are captain of this ship

 

Investors want a return on their investment, and rightly so. Their views should be listened to and can often add invaluable advice. However, do not bend over. Do not pander to their every whim and request. It’s their money, yes, but they have invested in your vision. You are captain of this ship but unlike you, they will relentlessly drive for an increased ROI, maximum EBITDA & reduced COGS. No thanks.

 

they strove to be extraordinary and blow the competition away

 

The Arsenal team of invincibles had no such problem. They were not content with merely aiming to win the league, they strove to be extraordinary and blow the competition away. They did not want to just win and increase the bottom line, they wanted to win in style. A class above the rest. It’s this relentless drive to always be extraordinary that set them and Wenger apart, to inspire those around them to raise their game and become better.

 

As soon as you begin to settle for mediocrity, disaster is never far behind

 

Profititis has the opposite effect. Money becomes an all-consuming driver like a spell cast upon you, leaving you devoid of your lateral thinking and creativity. Turing you into a zombie football club or worse yet, a zombie startup. As soon as you begin to settle for mediocrity, disaster is never far behind.

 

To avoid Profititis and maintain your long term health, keep the faith in your vision and never shoot for anything less than being truly extraordinary. Growing your vision, mission and team come above all else as long as you are delighting your paying fans along the way. And to those needy investors who demand you sit up and pay them attention, simply ask them to take a look at the dejected figure of a once great Arsene Wenger and his beloved Arsenal football club.

 

It’s time female founders received a level playing field

We laugh at how ridiculous ads like this seem nowadays, but have things really changed?

 

 

I recently interviewed a woman who was running a new startup and asked her about her capacity to be “all in” as running a new business is all-encompassing.

 

To illustrate the point, I rather smugly pointed out that I had been up since 6am and hadn’t left my laptop since then, as I was so busy.  I further added that I would be here until 7pm, still tapping away on the keys.

 

How silly did I feel?

 

The female startup owner then stated with some conviction, I’ve also been up since 6am, I am still here working in a serviced office space and I have dealt with two children under five in the meantime.  How silly did I feel?  But, I was delighted with her answer as with that attitude she has an improved chance of making in startupland. But, why is there bias or perceived bias in startupland and is it harder for female founders or female entrepreneurs to get ahead?

 

I started to look around and to be frank the evidence is all plain to see and paints a picture.  Babson College, consistently ranked number one for entrepreneurship in the USA , conducted a long term study on venture funding and whether or not females were getting an equal slice of the cake.   Well, how about this for a statistic!

 

“For the 10-year period from 1988 to 1998, women-led businesses received only 3.5% of the total venture capital invested in private companies (290 women-led ventures received investment compared to 4016 men-led ventures in the same period).”

 

It would appear that historically startupland favours the boys and while the situation is improving, there is still a bias that prevents female founders or teams with females in them from getting ahead.  And with all the news coming out of Silicon Valley around sexual harassment, we begin to see what has been happening.

 

Only last month, it became clear that even those running programmes in startupland were not averse to using their positions of power – as men – in, well, not a nice way.  The accelerator, 500 startups, is big in the USA and gets lots of media attention.  It appears to have been very successful and I have used video footage from it in talks I have done while at Entrepreneurial Spark.  Many founders and startups worked hard to get on to this programme led by Dave McClure.  McClure has been idolised by many for the work he does at 500 startups.  But, McClure has fallen from grace as he has been outed as not being a very nice chap when it came to females around him on his programmes.  In his own words:

“I made advances towards multiple women in work related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate….I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations.”

 

He has since been removed from running the 500 startups.  Quite right too.

 

So, what is to be done to change this and indeed make sure it doesn’t continue to manifest itself in startupland? Especially, as more and more female led businesses and those with females in the leadership teams emerge.

 

it should not need more females as investors to have more females making it in startupland

 

Well the answer is that it will not happen overnight.  As the complexion of angel syndicates and VC funds changes to include more females, then this will help.  But, it should not need more females as investors to have more females making it in startupland.  What it needs, is us blokes to stop thinking like blokes and stereotyping females as less capable than men. Couples have families – not women.  I hear it all the time – she’s about to start a family or she’s having a baby. Really?  What we mean to say is they are starting a family and they are having a baby – him and her or indeed her and her.

 

Don’t let the old boys networks and golf club anachronistic thinking colour your judgements

 

As I interview many new founders over the next few months, I will be even more aware of any gender bias that goes through my head. I consider myself  fair minded and to be honest gender does not really figure in my conscious thoughts when making decisions on female founders.  But it may be in the sub-conscious that all us blokes need to watch out .  Don’t let the old boys networks and golf club anachronistic thinking colour your judgements.

 

Its 2017 and it’s time to encourage more female founders into startupland and make sure they get a level playing field.

Listen to your customers – don’t get trapped on Fantasy Island

Corkscrew roller coaster

 

Boss, the plane, the plane!!  Yes it was these immortal words from Herve Villechaize aka Tattoo to Mr Roark on the programme – Fantasy Island – that I always knew would lead to a good story.

 

At a luxurious, but remote tropical island, the enigmatic Mr Roarke would make the dreams and fantasies of well heeled guests come true.  Money was no barrier and what the guests thought would be a terrific fantasy on many occasion turned out to be anything but.  Usually, as with all fantasies they had not thought it all through, so different circumstances and outcomes would pop up and surprise them.  This then got me thinking about people who start businesses from a laptop and a spreadsheet and create their own fantasies.

 

this is where the conversation became a little strained

 

I once had a guy  – who we will call an ‘entrepreneur’ as he told me he was one so I had to believe him – tell me his business was valued at £20 million.  Great news I thought as I studied him.  Can you tell me all about it and how many staff you have.  Tell me about the profit you make and your plans for growth.  And this is where the conversation became a little strained.

 

He pulled out his MacBook Pro and opened it up, where I was presented with a spreadsheet.  Now, I’m not a big spreadsheet fan, but I sat and had a good look at it all the same.  The spreadsheet outlined a £4M profit in year three.  It showed explosive growth in customers using his mobile App.  I must say it all looked good and most plausible on a laptop screen.  But, when I asked him some questions about the £4M profit, I ended up with more and more questions.

 

With not one customer at that time, this ‘entrepreneur’ had created his very own fantasy that would have fitted well into an episode of Fantasy Island.  He was convinced beyond reason that his early adopter customers would jump at the chance to use the App and that the money would tumble in thereafter.  I could see Mr Roarke and Tattoo shaking their heads behind the scenes as this fantasist in front of me was living in a world of make believe.  I suggested that he go out to a friend of mine who would be a model customer for his App.

 

the grim reality of facing a customer asking hard questions

 

A few days later I got two rather interesting phone calls.  One from my colleague who told me that the ‘entrepreneur’ was deluding himself and one from the ‘entrepreneur’ telling me that my colleague had been rude and did not understand how the App worked, so dismissed it.  Oh dear, I thought, the grim reality of facing a customer asking hard questions of your wonderful spreadsheet that is in fact, a fairy story or fable.  Suffice to say, the ‘entrepreneur’ with the £4M profit business in year three is no longer and in fact had disappeared into a black hole, despite me suggesting that he keep talking to customers to get more feedback and insight.

 

the best way is to co-create the business with customers and be prepared to pivot

 

This approach is typical of many who startup and get seduced by spreadsheet madness.  A zero here and there is easy to add into the spreadsheet and this is where it moves from reality to fantasy.  I’m not going to stifle anyone who wants to start a new business – far from it.  But, I would suggest from experience that the best way to do this is to co-create the business with customers and be prepared to pivot and swap out staff.  As I tell people who apply for the Moonshot Academy, there is no point in starting out with the wrong people taking up precious seats in the spaceship.  It only adds to the load.

 

Co-Creation with real people who you believe will buy your products really helps with product/market fit.  It is very different from the Fantasy Island approach on a spreadsheet, where Mr Roarke and Tattoo will allow you to live out your fantasy of being an entrepreneur for the day.  There is nothing wrong with talking to people about your idea.  Trust me it is where you gather your best insight…

 

Stop being a startup, become a business builder

 

Moonshot business building

 

Business is the beating heart of a country.  Whether it’s selling mangos at the roadside, building an Internet of Things startup or operating in a large corporate.  Business, as all politicians from all persuasions will tell you, is vital to the success of economies.

 

You’ve heard it all before – right?  Business creates jobs for people.  It gives people purpose and gets them out of bed.  It pays HMRC taxes and in some cases contributed towards pensions.  Business is essential and it is everywhere.  Train franchises to farmers to airlines to grocers to ecommerce to newspapers.  Every country has programmes in place to support business and encourage people to enter – startupland.

 

The UK has many such programmes.  But, something is missing…. And if we don’t take action, it will kill off the next generation of business builders.

 

much of what we have out there supporting these “startups” in startupland is not hitting the spot

 

I’m being pedantic here in my language and proactively referring to people starting businesses as business builders.  It’s time to re-frame the lexicon that has creeped in over the past decade where firstly startup and then scale up became the sexy words that encompassed business and indeed entrepreneurship.  Startups are everywhere and we have shed loads in the UK from Edinburgh to Manchester, Birmingham and London.  But, much of what we have out there supporting these “startups” in startupland is not hitting the spot.  Too many of them are still failing and still not making it.  There are multiple reasons for this.

 

Short termism permeates startupland

 

First off the bat is the short termism that permeates startupland.  I see it all over the UK.  Startups who are jumping onto the investment travelator and whose stole purpose in life is to get investment.  It’s all about the funding and that’s why they then dive bomb once they have brought it in.  Ostensibly, they are building a model that is attractive to investors, whether they be family and friends or high net worths or angel syndicates.

 

it may be more prudent to ask them, how they are going to run the bloody business

 

But, all the questions are wrong, it could be argued.  Instead of asking these newbie startups who have just come into startupland, what their exit strategy is, it may be more prudent to ask them, how they are going to run the bloody business.  It’s everywhere, startups creating three minutes pitches, business plans and investment decks showing potential investors the big pay days they may get.  But, these newbies in startupland don’t have a scooby doo on how to actually run a business.  Therein lays the first problem.

 

Secondly, our startups don’t understand what “timing” means.  Timing is crucial when starting a new venture, seeking investment and building a business.  Let me give you and example here.  Internet of things [IOT] businesses are trendy just now.  I spoke to a young startup recently who is developing an umbrella that uses photovoltaic energy to power your iPhone while it’s up. It can also Bluetooth stuff from your smartphone while interacting with beacons etc as you walk.  Pretty impressive stuff.  But, if this idea had been put out 5 years ago, it would have been too early.  The flip side of this is coming to market too late and trying to create the next Facebook.  Timing is key to understanding when investors invest and where they will be and where your service or product fits.

 

We have too many solopreneurs

 

Thirdly, despite all the signs and signalling from the USA, VCs and all the support out there, we just do not have enough teams.  We have too many solopreneurs, who cannot or do not have the capacity or nous to co-create a business with others.  Trust me when I tell you this is really tough and it requires you to think and act differently.  Team formation at the leadership level is crucial to potential success.

 

Having a co-founder is also a big plus point.  Whether it’s serendipity and you stumble across each other and hit it off with the same vision for the idea or whether you have to actively go looking, a great co-founder speaks volumes to investors.  It is the team that will execute.  It is the team that will think things through and overcome.  It is the team that will pull through when time are really tough.  It is the team that co-creates and has that emotional buy into progress and success.  But alas, we do not have enough startups in startupland who can pull this off.  And it is having an affect right now on how startupland is functioning.

 

think about you, your co-founder and team as business builders

 

Finally, and I could go on a bit on this rant, we do not have the mindset of business building.  As I said earlier in this piece, startups are looking too much like short term bets.  Forget labelling your self as a startup or scale up and think about you, your co-founder and team as business builders.  It’s a mindset change and one that is overdue in Scotland and beyond.  So, I would encourage all those involved in supporting businesses to re-purpose support and thinking into a longer term approach that puts Business Building at the forefront of a startup’s mind.

 

It’s perhaps time to take a step back and re-examine how we as a nation as helping to create our new business builders, after all….. business is the beating heart of a country.