How to be a ‘backable’ entrepreneur

If you’re a budding entrepreneur the chances are that you’re thinking about getting investment of some kind, or that you will at some point in the future. I was recently fortunate enough to attend a seminar by Ivan Nikkhooas part of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation. Here’s his expert advice on what you need to become a backable entrepreneur.

Be a missionary, not a mercenary

Be honest with yourself for a second. Are you solving a problem you really feel strongly about? Or are you just trying to make a load of money? A mercenary just wants to make money and would start any company that they thought would bring the biggest ‘prize money’.

In reality, chances are that the mercenaries of the world are not going to be a successful entrepreneur. And those mercenaries that are a success, won’t do it with backing from a venture capitalist. Think of it from the investors point of view — you wouldn’t give millions of pounds to the guy that will lose interest as soon as a more lucrative opportunity comes his way. As soon as a mercenary is feeling the heat, they’re likely to give up and find some other way to make money.

Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but it can’t be the only thing you care about. Investors want to see that you are a missionary. You care passionately about solving a problem and you’re committed to getting it done. You’ll not only attract investment — being a missionary will make it easier to attract early employees who are as committed as you are, and your customers will join your ‘tribe’ in droves.


Be Innovative

The second step to being a backable entrepreneur is to be an innovator. Investors are looking for huge returns on their investments, and that’s unlikely to happen if your idea for a start up is to do what someone else is doing/has done.

In order to get investment your company needs to be addressing an underserved niche, solving a problem in a way that wasn’t possible in the past, or some other innovative approach. Don’t go to a Venture Capitalist and expect investment for your dog grooming shop unless you’ve got a reason for thinking that you have an innovative approach that gives you some defensible competitive advantage over the incumbents.

Of course being innovative extends to more than just your business model. The journey from start up to billion dollar exit is frought with problems that have no easy solution. When you’re running out of money and that big business deal is falling through, you need to be an innovator to solve what looks like an impossible situation.

Which nicely ties us in to the third element of being a backable entrepreneur…

Cope with stress well

By the time you’re stood in front of an investor, you’re almost certain to have learnt the lesson that being an entrepreneur can be a stressful profession. You need to be able to convince your potential investor that you’ll cope with that stress effectively rather than collapse like a dying star.

How do you demonstrate that you will cope with the stress? Having a track record of executing well is a good start, particularly if you have played a key role in launching a successful start up before. Another great indicator is that you have managed to create a great team around you. When you have a great team, you can delegate responsibilities and share the load.

Easy right?

So there you have it, who knew being a ‘backable entrepreneur’ was so easy? Of course it’s easier to say than to do. Get out there and be a stress free, innovative missionary!

I’d love to hear from anyone else out there who think there’s something else that should be added. Get in touch!

What are investors looking for? Be a line, not a dot!

What do investors look for? It’s the million dollar question (sometimes literally!), so it’s worth spending some time thinking about the answer. In a recent NEF workshop we visited London Business School to hear from Dr Jeff Skinner about what investors want to know before they put their money on the table.

 

 

 

Ideas are cheap

You’ll often hear about how ‘ideas are cheap’ - and it’s true to an extent. The world is full of people who have ideas for the next big thing and will be more than happy to tell you about why they’re the next Uber/Apple/AirBnb. Sure some of them might turn out to be on to something, but undboutedly the majority are being a bit too optimistic.

So, how to make sure that your idea is a really good one, and you're not just another misguided individual? Try asking yourself the following questions. If you can answer each one then you just might be able to convince someone to give you some money to get you started. If you can’t, then think about working out the answer, and asking yourself whether there’s more work to be done before approaching investors.

1) Why now?

As noted above - ideas are cheap and easy to come across so the chances that you’re the only one that has thought of something is exceedingly slim. So on the assumption that someone else has already had your idea - why doesn’t it already exist?

Did someone already try to do your business, but fail? Why did they fail? And why won’t you fall at the same hurdle?

When you first have that ‘Eureka moment’ it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of having spotted an opportunity and to charge straight in to action. In fact, discovering that someone else has already attempted your business idea is almost certainly a good thing! The things you’ll learn from them will either help you avoid their mistakes (if that’s possible), or save yourself months or years of work trying to get a business off the ground that can’t succeed.

So, investors are going to ask you why your idea could be done now, when it couldn’t have been done before. What has changed? New technology? Different culture? Whatever it is, make sure you’re clued up in advance.

2) What’s your competitive advantage?

Related to the ‘why now?’ question is one about what your competitive advantage is. Assuming you have made it past question 1), you’re now left with a great business idea and the time is right for someone to take this to market. So what’s to stop anyone else coming along and competing with you?

If your idea is easily replicable by any Tom, Dick or Harry then even if your business is profitable now, it likely won’t stay that way for long. Why won’t the large established companies just copy your service or product? Why won’t some other entrepreneur just start their own business and try to do it better?

Your competitive advantage has to exist in the present, but should also be something that will be defensible in the future. For instance there is something to be said for being the ‘first mover’ - but if that’s the only advantage you have then you may soon find that bigger and more experienced competitors will use their advantage to undermine you.

The sort of things that might count as a competitive advantage are varied. It could be the relationships you have to suppliers or advertisers, a patent you hold on some technology or a strong brand.

3) Can you execute?

More than just the idea - investors will want to know about you and your team. First, are you all on the same page regarding things like vision for the future of the company and attitude to risk? If they’re not then investing would be very dangerous indeed! There will be enough external threats to survival - it’s not ideal to add internal conflict to the list!

Crucially, the investors will want to know whether or not you and your team can execute on the critical success factors. That is, can you get things done? More than anything, establishing a relationship for yourself as a team that can execute is essential.

As the title of this post suggests, investors invest in lines, not dots. You turning up on their doorstep with a bright idea is all well and good, but teams that can’t execute almost always fail. The process of receiving funding takes at least 6 months, and some times much longer. During that period of discussion investors will be keeping a keen eye on which of your targets you’re hitting and how often you fail to achieve objectives you identified as critical to your success.

 

Of course, there's plenty more that could be added to the list. Hopefully it serves as a starting point when evaluating your next business idea. If you have any more suggestions to add - let me know in the comments!

Hiring a developer - a guide for the non technical entrepreneur

Putting your entrepreneurial vision into motion will almost certainly involve some coding at some point, whether it's a website or an app. But if you're not as tech savvy as you need to be, how do you make it happen? Learning how to code is possible these days with a wealth of free and affordable online courses (e.g. Codecademy), but not everyone has the time (or the desire) to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of programming. Unless you want to learn those skills for their own sake, you're more likely to get frustrated and eventually give up on the project altogether.

An alternative for most budding entrepreneurs is to get someone else to do the coding for you, but how do you go about it? I recently attended a web development workshop through NEF, led by the nice people at Steer. Here's a quick guide about what I learned on hiring a developer.

Step 1: Decide what you're building

There's no point looking for a developer until you know what you're going to be asking them to do. Are you building an app or a website? What will it do? What will the user journey look like? What features are absolutely essential and what would be nice to have as an extra?

Get as clear as you can with what you're hoping to achieve so that you can be very clear with developers who express an interest in getting on board.

It's also useful at this stage to build a wireframe - a visual representation of what the website or app will look like, where the buttons will be and what they will do. You can do this just using a pen and paper if you want, but there are also several online tools to help. Take a look at: balsamiq.com or gomockingbird.com.

Step 2: Think about cost

The amount you have to spend on developing your site can obviously make a big difference about what the end result is like and how many of the more complex features you have been able to include. On the other hand, if all you need at this point is a more basic product then you shouldn't waste money on hiring someone very over qualified for the task.

At the cheaper end of the scale a junior developer will expect to be paid somewhere in the region of £10-20 per hour and will most likely have between 1-3 years of experience.

A highly skilled individual developer with more than 5 years experience will usually be paid between £30-40. This option would be the best choice if you want to be really sure that the end result will be up to scratch, or if you want something complicated that would require the developer to really know what they're doing.

If time is of the essence or if one person is unlikely to have all the knowledge required to deliver the product then you may have to look at hiring a team of developers. Here things start to get very expensive and can vary wildly, but expect to pay around £100-200 per hour.

Finally, you have the option of hiring an agency that will take the whole project off your hands and do everything from designing to coding to maintaining afterwards. It's very unlikely that you will need to use an agency, particularly if you are trying to build a very first version of your idea. However if you do go this route, you could end up paying about £10,000 per project.

Step 3: Find a developer

Assuming you're not going down the agency route, you next have to actually find someone who might be interested in working on your project. This becomes more difficult if you have no idea at all about what developers do or how websites/apps are built. It would be extremely wise to educate yourself on at least the basics before moving ahead.

This doesn't mean you need to become an expert, but if you don't understand how the technology works, it will be impossible to articulate what you need in a developer! There are a myriad of ways to build a website or an app, but fortunately there are also dozens of resources that will allow you to teach yourself what you need to know. Have a google, speak to any tech-fluent friends you know, and write a list of required skills for your project.

When it comes to finding developers, depending on where you live there may be many different ways. In most major cities there are regular tech meet ups that can be found quite easily, but you should also make the most of your network to get the word out. Post on Facebook and LinkedIn, see if your friends know anybody that might be interested.

Another option would be to post your job on one of the many job boards out there that cater specifically to the developer community e.g. Stack overflow, GitHub or Silicon Milkroundabout.

Step 4: Vetting candidates

Okay, so you've worked out what it is you need done and you've managed to attract interest from a few developers who are keen to work on the next big thing - now you have to look a bit further and decide on who is most suitable.

Before the interview you should ask them to send you some code samples and/or previous projects they have worked on. Have them explain exactly what it is they did and if you're really new to coding you should ask a friend or technical adviser to take a look and ask for their opinion.

The final step is the interview, but it could be as informal as meeting for a coffee so you can get to know each other better. Again, if you have a friend who knows their stuff, see if you can ask them to join you for the interview, or perhaps arrange a phone call between the candidate and your friend so he can ask the right technical questions where relevant.

Aside from that you are looking for three things; do they have a personality that you can get along with?, do they have the time to commit to the project?, and are they actively involved in the coding community?

On the other hand, warning signs to watch out for might be; do they struggle to answer technical questions about their previous projects?, do they have a big ego or a bad attitude? And have they been unwilling or unable to share sample code with you?

Step 5: Success!

Hopefully you will end up with a developer who has the right skills, that fits your budget and who will do a great job for you!

Hopefully the quick guide will give you a starting point. If you have any more advice, leave a comment and let me know!

Hiring a milkshake - finding the jobs to be done

A common piece of advice shared with budding entrepreneurs is that you should start a business with the intention of filling a gap in the market, or providing a service where there is a need. However, a good way to frame this same of advice is to ask: What jobs need doing? and Why is your product or service is worth hiring to do it?

Clayton Christensen uses the example of a fast food chain that wanted to sell more milkshakes - they knew that milkshakes were being purchased, but couldn't increase the number. Their breakthrough came once they understood the job that their customers were hiring a milkshake to do.

See this great video of Clayton telling the story.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9nbTB33hbg[/embed]

The Burger King customers were hiring a milkshake to a) pass the time on their way to work and b) keep them going until 10am. It turned out that milkshakes do the latter job better than the alternatives (apples, doughnuts, toast, and so on), but if these customers arrived at Burger King on their way to work and there was a long queue, then they would just put up with being bored.

So the answer to selling more milkshakes wasn't to make Burger King milkshakes more delicious than McDonalds milkshakes. The answer was to make Burger King milkshakes do the job they were being hired to do, but do it better, by being more readily available to commuters who were in a rush.

Slaying giants: Why disruption works

When a startup talks about 'disrupting' an industry, what are they really talking about, and why does it work? Disruption occurs when a new technology or innovation comes along that undermines the profitability of the established incumbents, often leading to the collapse of the latter. Often this collapse occurs very quickly over the course of just a few years.

Take for instance the mass production of cars at the beginning of the 20th Century. At the turn of the century it would have been almost incomprehensible that horse drawn carriages would be replaced as they were. However, along came Henry Ford and the mass production of cars, and very soon the number of horses plummeted (as well as the various services that existed to serve those horses).

However, why does disruption work so often, even these days? It can't simply be that the large companies can't imagine the technology that is around the corner, just waiting to wipe them out. Some of these companies spend millions or even billions of pounds researching and developing new technologies. The idea that every case of disruption was caused by some genius entrepreneur inventing a technology in his bedroom that would wipe out the competition doesn't seem very realistic.

Certainly there have been some extremely brilliant minds who have disrupted an industry (e.g. Bill Gates), but there have been too many examples of disruption for every one of them to be a genius. Plus, sometimes the millions spent on research do lead to a breakthrough, but doesn't prevent bankruptcy for the incumbent. Look at Kodak who established themselves as producers of film for cameras. Kodak actually invented the digital camera, the technology that would kill of camera film, and they still managed to go bankrupt!

Big companies have all the advantages of established dominance of a market, millions of pounds to spend developing the next big technology, and yet still manage to get displaced. What's the answer?

The Answer

The real reason that disruption occurs is because large companies are not free to think in the long term, and are under immense pressure year on year to deliver profits. When a company comes up with an innovative new idea, they must compare the likely profitability of that new product with their established business model.

Let's consider Kodak again - their core business was in producing and selling camera film, a business with a healthy margin of profit of about 85%. That meant that for every pound someone spent on a roll of Kodak camera film, 85p was profit for Kodak!

When they designed the first digital camera, the proposed profit margin was something more like 15%, much less than the traditional core business. This meant that every year when planning what to focus on, Kodak had to choose which of their options would produce the most profit and so keep their shareholders happy - obviously there was no competition as to which would win.

They chose to keep supporting their camera film, even though they knew that digital cameras were the future of photography, and eventually they ended up going bankrupt.

Another example to help illustrate the theory would be to look at Amazon. They have a very small profit margin on their core business (selling books) and so are much more likely to innovate and seek out more profitable products. This is why today Amazon allows people to sell things second hand through their site, and why they launched the Kindle which has proven extremely successful. When your core business has very slim profit margins it's easy to choose other alternatives and not suffer.

The lesson here is that when large companies behave rationally, they open themselves up to be disrupted. They don't have the freedom to move away from their core business for the sake of the long term because the pressure of delivering profits year after year is so high.

As a result, every mature profitable industry has a space with lower profit opportunities which the 'big guys' won't be interested in. It won't be worth their time focussing on the areas of their business with the lower profit margins and so there is an opportunity for start ups and entrepreneurs to move in.

 

What is the 'Expert Entrepreneur'?

On Day 1 of the NEF Bootcamp, we heard from Chris Coleridge, lecturer at UCL and responsible for a large portion of our entrepreneur training this year. But what, exactly, are we being trained to do? It isn’t simply how to start a business, since that could be anything from a lemonade stand to a McDonalds franchise; neither of which are the intended outcome of the NEF programme. Rather, the aim is that we should become what Chris called an ‘Expert Entrepreneur’. An expert entrepreneur is not simply someone who starts a business. They exhibit the following 5 behaviours:

  1. Expert entrepreneurs leverage existing resourcesOne of the most important things that separates an expert entrepreneur from your average joe is that he or she doesn’t wait until ‘the perfect moment’ to start working on a business or project. They get started anyway using the manpower, money, skills, etc that they already have, and don’t put things off over and over again. You will never catch an expert entrepreneur saying “Once I’ve learnt how to code, then I’ll be ready to start my business.” Or, “Once I’ve read that book, then I’ll have learnt everything I need to start my business!"

    Instead, the expert entrepreneur just gets started anyway. If you can prove that the idea is a good one then you can worry about resources, but if it turns out to be no good then you will not have wasted valuable time and money on a project that would never have succeeded.

  2. Expert entrepreneurs seek surprise and a ‘secret’The basis of the advantage that an expert entrepreneur has is fleeting, local information. By embedding themselves in a particular industry or domain, it’s possible to gain the insights necessary to spark a great business idea. If it was possible to identify opportunities by just sitting at home browsing the internet, then everyone would do it. But by working in a particular industry or living in a certain city, the expert entrepreneur will put themselves in a position to gain the right information and perspective.

    The key, then, is to get out into the world and talk to real people about their pains and problems.

  3. Expert entrepreneurs form partnershipsThere is no such thing as a successful solo founder. An expert entrepreneur is able to form a strong network and form partnerships with individuals and organisations that will benefit all parties involved. The expert entrepreneur should be confident about reaching out to others to propose this sort of win/win proposition.
  4. Expert entrepreneurs manage risk - i.e. the affordable loss principleRelated to number 1, the affordable loss principle is the idea that you should spend as little time and money as possible on a business until you can determine whether or not it is a valid business with real potential for growth. No matter what the odds of success are, the price of the next move an entrepreneur makes must be as low as possible.
  5. Expert entrepreneurs manage without predictionThe typical managerial approach is to decide on the desired ending point, see where we are right now and then determine an action plan to join up the dots and reach the goal. This is not an option always available to the expert entrepreneur; things change quickly and it is likely that you will have made some incorrect assumptions along the way. You can’t simply write an action plan that will lead you to your end goal, since who knows what you have missed or what will change?

    Instead, the expert entrepreneur manages based on their means - they manage based on what they have and where they are right now.

So, we have our definition of the expert entrepreneur! It’s most likely the case that many people have some of these qualities, but the expert entrepreneur is not so common. How often do we hear people talking about what they would do if only this or that were the case? How many people get on and act rather than sit in their rooms and plan and plan with no end? Our next training with Chris will be about idea validation; the first step to becoming an expert!

The 5 things I have learnt from NEF so far...

This week the New Entrepreneurs Foundation kicked off for another year and I was fortunate to find myself in the class of 2015! Every year there is a bootcamp where we can get to know our fellow young entrepreneurs and begin the course in earnest.

So, it was off to beautiful Lee Valley in North East London (see above!) where the 30 or so young aspiring entrepreneurs gathered and it has been an incredible experience so far. Rather than go through every minute details, I thought I would highlight the 5 things I’ve learnt so far.

 

1. Being surrounded by entrepreneurial people is a fantastic feeling

 

It’s rare to be surrounded by such an intelligent, motivated group of people who are all so friendly and keen to make the most out of the year ahead. I was truly blown away by some of the amazing stories I heard and I think that even if all of the training was a waste of time (I’m sure it won’t be!), I will be glad to have gathered a network of likeminded people.

 

2. Personal goals are really important, but really difficult

 

On day 2 of the bootcamp we were took part in some leadership training with David Buffin who asked us to write down and think about what goals we want to achieve, be they personal, business, adventure or contribution in nature. I found the task surprisingly difficult, especially given that I have always considered myself a goal oriented person.

 

In the end I came away with food for thought. Recording a simple, specific goal is crucial to knowing what to do next and what sort of person you want to become. Spending some time really thinking about that should be high on everyone’s to do list.

 

3. Executive Coaches - a new, and potentially life changing experience

 

Everyone on the NEF programme will be given an executive coach who will be able to help with our personal development this year. I’ve never used this kind of service, but I’m excited to try it out and see how it might help. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to sit down with someone and just focus on how things are going and where you want to be.

 

Another reason to work out what your goals are and what your vision is.

 

4. Start a Business NOW

 

On Day 1 we heard from Chris Coleridge of UCL who will be delivering a great deal of the training this year. His main message was that we should be looking to become an ‘expert entrepreneur’. What this means could be a blog post in itself, but my main take away was that you shouldn’t put off starting your business or project. Ideas are plentiful and talk is cheap, so don’t wait around for the perfect moment to get started, just get on with it and worry about the fine details later.

 

It has really inspired me to get started and launch a business, whether with a fellow NEFer or on my own. In order to make the most of this year, starting an actual business will be an opportunity to put what we learn into practice and ask lots of questions.

 

5. Blogging can be useful (and fun!)

 

I have attempted to write several blogs over the years, but have always lost interest or given up after some time. Our session with Adele from Escape the City was so useful and she has managed to convince me! Finding my voice and recording my experiences throughout the NEF programme will be a valuable learning experience in itself, and who knows where it might lead.

 

The first three days of NEF have been so much fun. I’m so glad to have found my tribe in my fellow entrepreneurs and I’m sure our group has what it takes to make the most of the year ahead.