Startups

Three is definitely a charm – my early stage angel investments

Today’s blog is a sister piece to last month’s “Angel Investment from this Rookie’s Perspective”. Last time around I wrote about what I was looking for in early stage startup companies when I was deciding which ones to angel invest in. This time I’m going to talk about what I liked most of all about the three startups I ended up selecting and investing in.

Before I begin, let’s recap on what my motivations are for angel investing in the first place. All angels will no doubt have different motivations. I am excited by the idea of putting something back in terms of helping some new early stage startups get moving. I wanted to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. After some thought in summer 2014 following my successful exit from Learning Pool, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to start another new business of my own and I knew I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else as a bog standard gun for hire (much as I enjoyed my 4 month sojourn in 2014 working with the vInspired Task Squad team – they’re doing really well – check them out) but I did want to carry on working.

This made the quest easier for me as I then knew that I was looking for companies where I could add value with some hands-on involvement and I also knew then that it was important for me to pay more attention to the founder/founding team as I was going to be working with them for the medium term. Let’s face it, in a startup the team or founder is far more important than the idea – ideas are ten a penny and most startups do pivot or at least swivel a little.

One surprising thing – I haven’t invested as part of any formal angel syndicate or group. I really thought I would but it hasn’t happened that way. That topic alone is probably worthy of another blog.

So what and who did I choose? All three startups are cloud based online platforms (a no brainer for me now that I come to think about it!), two of the three founders are female (this makes me very happy), all three founders share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar, two are companies based in England & one is in South Wales (disappointed that I didn’t find anything in Northern Ireland or Scotland this time around), all are involved with changing the way people do things – communicate, learn, organise. All three really care about their team culture as they grow and whilst they’re all focused on generating revenue and making profit, they all know that there’s more to life than making money. Finally, all three have a capacity to really scale quickly and without adding huge resource into the team.

First on my list is RunAClub headed up by fab founder and CEO Sally Higham. RunAClub has everything you could possibly need to run any sort of club or group, all simple to use, neatly packaged and stored in the cloud. Beautiful. Our customers so far are national sports organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups and individual clubs/groups. What do I like most about RunAClub? It’s such a useful product, everyone we speak to loves it and it’s so clearly scaleable. I love most things that truly save people time whilst remaining affordable and easy to use. As an investor, I like that RunAClub is scaling fast in its chosen core market but I also like that there are numerous other verticals for us to move into. An unexpected but very welcome bonus along the way has been that a really old friend has co-invested with me and this gives me a chance to work with him again.

RunAClub team last month in Sally's kitchen in Wiltshire - you don't have to be blonde but it helps!

RunAClub team last month in Sally’s kitchen in Wiltshire – you don’t have to be blonde but it helps!

I first saw Sally pitch at a Clearly So Big Venture Challenge event last summer. During her presentation she said – “what I really need in order to maximise RunAClub’s opportunity is another me” and that resonated strongly with me because I’ve been in that position so many times myself – so when she’d finished pitching I went straight over & introduced myself.

The RunAClub team is the liveliest and most can-do bunch of people that I’ve met in a long time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I’m genuinely looking forward to spending time with them, growing a successful and valuable business.

My next is Captive Health. I love that I’ve known the founder Andrew Cockayne for years. He used to be one of my Learning Pool customers many moons ago and I’m so pleased that he’s become an entrepreneur himself and also that I can continue to work with him. Captive Health is the most mature of my 3 investee companies and in truth is more of a scaleup than a startup.  The company provides the health sector with a platform that allows richer interactions with and between their staff and their patients. Staff can access information and network within their teams when they’re on the move (only 40% of people working in a hospital have access to a desktop). Patients can use Captive Health to provide feedback and information about their choices and preferences. Hospitals love the products and we already have five as customers with many more in our pipeline.

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital – I’m working on their footwear!

I heard Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, speak at last month’s e-Health Week 2015 Summit. His opening gambit was “No industry has ever re-invented itself on the scale that the NHS needs to over the next 5 years without smart use of technology”. Captive Health’s product set offers the NHS some affordable tools with which to get ahead in dealing with their huge challenge and I’m pleased to be part of that mix.

Last but not least is Caerphilly based Noddlepod. Noddlepod is like a Slack for your learning communities. It’s a social learning platform that allows you to easily share your files and search for resources with the same degree of immediacy and familiarity. I met founder Ollie Gardener at a tech event in Buckingham Palace hosted by Her Majesty the Queen. Ollie was wearing Norwegian national dress. You can guess the rest. We’re very grateful to Neil Cocker of Cardiff Start & Matt Johnston of Digital Circle for allowing us to meet!

Noddlepod is my earliest stage investment of the three but it’s grown out of a number of years of considered reflection by the founding team on where learning is going next and Ollie has corralled some very experienced and well know global learning experts onto her Board including our Chairman Charles Jennings and fellow non exec Nigel Paine. Edtech continues to create frenzied excitement in the investor space and we’re encouraged (!) by the recent $1.5bn sale of Lynda to LinkedIn. Great that LinkedIn now has access to all that content but I wonder if they’ve thought about how to deploy it coherently to their millions of users?

With Ollie this month - outside my London Southbank "office" - having tea & more tea

With Ollie this month – outside my London Southbank “office” – having tea & more tea

Until LinkedIn or similar comes a-knocking, we’re focused on bringing Noddlepod to corporate universities and business schools worldwide. I love most that as a Norwegian, Ollie thinks way outside of the four walls of the UK in her growth plans and that she has a number of overseas investors and a pipeline already full of European opportunities.

So that’s my three. Exciting times. I’m certain I’ll prove all those people who advised me against making early stage angel investments wrong. As always I’m interested in hearing your questions, comments, observations. Check us out. Startups always need a helping hand and you all know it makes sense to work with small, growing businesses jammed full of bright, ambitious people with great tech – it helps our local economies and it keeps you sane.

Angel investment from this rookie’s perspective

Beautiful carved wooden angel - photo by Wolfgang Moroder

Beautiful carved wooden angel – photo by Wolfgang Moroder

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo

Last month I made my first angel investment. I know many of my blog readers are entrepreneurs and startups and some of you are or will be seeking angel investment, so I thought it might be useful/interesting for me to jot down (from a poacher turned gamekeeper type of perspective) for you a few of the choices I’ve made along my own personal investment journey and why – in case it helps you.

To set the scene I’ll start with why I’m doing a small number of early stage angel investments in the first place and what my criteria have been. My main objective was to eventually select a handful (my final number is three) of early stage startups where I liked the idea but more importantly liked the founder or startup team. My motivation is to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. If I make any money along the way, I’ll celebrate that as a bonus. Making money is not my primary objective – which is lucky because many of the wise heads I know have gleefully warned me (a few of them several times over) that it’s impossible to make money by investing in early stage startups.

A couple of other bits of info make up the full picture. Although I’m a member of a couple of formal angel networks, I haven’t invested through them or as a part of any of their syndicates. So far anyway.

Finally, the startups had to be somewhere on the spectrum of my own areas of interest so that I can add value. This inevitably means software, X as a service or platform, community, scaleable, public sector, always something to do with people and how they can save time or money by collaborating, learning from each other or working together.

I’ve been talking to startups for years. It’s a natural part of what all entrepreneurs do. For me the night out that will always trump all others is one where I can watch other startup entrepreneurs pitching. I just love that initial rush of thoughts about another person’s ideas – working out the angles on the business models and the commercials…seeing if I can spot some opportunities that they’ve overlooked. As an aside, I love it even more if it’s something I’ve considered doing myself in the past but haven’t been able to work out the commercials or the logistics and then someone else manages to do that (for example, Northern Irish startup Send My Bag).

As a seasoned and successfully exited entrepreneur, people seek me out anyway for all sorts of reasons. Because of this it was fairly easy for me to start about a year or so ago to assemble a long list of 20 or so potential investee companies and kick off an initial conversation with the founders as a way to start my selection process.

This is what I was considering:

• Do I like the product or product idea and am I convinced it can scale?
• Would I buy it myself for my own (theoretical) organisation to use?
• Is the founder credible, articulate, stable and sensible but with a dollop of sparkle?
• Do I like them enough?
• Can I see myself working with them over the next 3-5 years?
• Are they resilient enough to keep things moving forward when times get tough and do they have the grit to sack bad hires quickly and stand up and fight for themselves and their company when they need to?
• Are they well-informed about their competitors and the way the market is moving?
• Can the founder front the business; are they likeable and convincing without being arrogant and smartass?
• Is their company valuation reasonable and realistic?
• Do they have a good overall grasp of what their next 2 years looks like in terms of back of the envelope targets, resource requirements, funding, effort needed, team, etc?
• Is the founder generally on top of their workload and easily able to articulate key messages and information?
• Are their targets and forecasts reasonable or complete pie in the sky?
• Can I clearly see how I can add value to both the founder and the company?

It took me a while to put the above list together as I’ve never written it down before. In case you’re wondering – yes – it is more or less in order of importance to me. I did say this blog was going to be about my own personal investment journey…

Only companies that passed the first 2 questions made it onto my long list of 20 companies in the first place and then between June and December last year I whittled those original 20 down to 3. I guess where it gets interesting is how I did that. I’m afraid it isn’t scientific for anyone who’s expecting a checklist and a spreadsheet.

A few fell at the valuation hurdle. If all you have is an idea and you don’t have any product built or any customers, your company in my eyes is not worth £1m. Simple as.

A few others fell by the wayside because of the founder. The trick here is to keep meeting with them until you’re either convinced that they’re the real deal or until they let their guard down and expose themselves to be anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive or any of the many qualities you as an investor don’t want to see in a startup CEO or leader.

Some over time I just had a bad feeling about, or something told me that the founder wasn’t 100% honest – I could just feel it wasn’t good when I scratched the surface.

Others I lost because a few months in the product was no longer holding up or it became apparent that the founder wasn’t able to move at the pace required to get to market within their window of opportunity.

A couple went because the founder had more than one focus and it became apparent that they were spread too thin and weren’t giving any of their projects the attention they deserved.  A couple more because the founder knew it all and wouldn’t listen to any advice from me or from anyone else.

And so I was left with three – which was the number I was hoping for in the first place. Two of “my” founders are female and one is male. They all share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar.

This blog is part of a short series and I’ll write about the companies themselves next time around.

If you have any questions please ask them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Startup recruitment – reject show-offs, clowns and mavericks …

Bryan Keating - possibly the world's best Chairman

Bryan Keating – possibly the world’s best Chairman

From the warmth of my temporary California base this week I noticed with interest that successful scaleup Futuregov is advertising publicly for an Executive Chair. Why with interest? Well really it’s because these types of appointments are so rarely advertised in a scaleup or SME.

This got me thinking about small business recruitment in general and what a dark art it is. Staying with the Exec Chair campaign for a moment, I can understand fully why Carrie & Dom are going down this route – it widens the selection pool beyond their own (extensive) networks and it’s a more transparent, open and fair process. But will it get them the right or best candidate? I’m not sure. Inevitably, processes that open some doors also close others.

In my world, the more usual way to bring someone into your small business as Chairman or a NED is to go out to your network and then make direct approaches to people, or a person, that you think may be suitable. A number of conversations take place behind closed doors and the “target” individual will make a decision based on any combination of the following and more – do they like your business, do they like you, how much else have they got going on right now, does your opportunity complement or conflict with their other current activities, can they see clearly how they will add value, what are you offering them, how’s it going to look on their own cv, are your exit aspirations linked to their available forward timescales, etc

Many of the sorts of people that I might approach if I was seeking an Executive Chair would never participate in a public recruitment process. They wouldn’t wish to be open and transparent in their dealings or intentions and they simply wouldn’t compete in a public way with others – definitely not. So well done Dom & Carrie for being brave enough to run a process that rules those people out and good luck with finding the right person.

There’s a wider issue here and one that I’d never really thought about much – despite having spent an awful lot of my own time during the past 10 years actively recruiting people into my own teams. At a dinner in Dublin last year I found myself sitting next to the head of a very, very large software company’s 2,000 person development team. We chatted away and inevitably the conversation turned to how difficult it is for a small business to recruit decent tech talent. My dinner companion at this point happened to say to me that he has a rule whereby he never recruits people via recruitment agencies or headhunters. Never. No exceptions. His reason for this was simple and straightforward. He believes that only second rate candidates use their services. He recruits only via his company’s new graduate programme and he sometimes interviews people recommended by others in his network or team. His further rationale when I challenged him a little on this was that he may occasionally miss a good person in this way, but the amount of time he saves by not bothering with or interviewing “bad” candidates was considerable and the trade-off was worth it. It also saved him from the nuisance factor that recruiters & headhunters introduce into your business – once they’ve placed a candidate with you they continue dialogue with your employee so that they don’t miss an opportunity later to make more commission when they can persuade that person to move again.

Later on I thought about my own career path and realised that I’ve only ever formally applied for two out of the numerous jobs I’ve had in my working life – once as a new graduate (I got my first job by applying via an advert placed in the Guardian) and again when I was moving to a new country (Northern Ireland in 2000) and didn’t have an existing network. Everything else I’ve ever done has come to me through my network.

Recruiting the right people into your team is the hardest job of any startup or scaleup CEO. I don’t care what any recruiter or HR person says about this, recruitment into your team is a nightmare and often it’s completely random as to whether or not the appointment you make turns out to be a success. Drawing up endless criteria and scoring lists of candidates against them? For the most part a complete waste of time and energy and it turns the process into something akin to the very worst excesses of procurement. Recently I’ve heard of a couple of people in my own network who’ve been encouraged to apply for vacant posts by the Chief Executives of those organisations. Both have gone on to apply & attend interview and both were unsuccessful. What’s that all about? Were they being used as stalking horses by unscrupulous Chief Execs wanting to make up their interview numbers or was it that the panel had a scoresheet that had to be adhered to on the day and therefore the Chief Exec was over-ruled or outvoted and their preferred candidate ousted by someone who happened to interview better on the day. (Rookie startup CEOs – this is something else to definitely watch out for – the professional interview performers – great at interview but by the end of Week 1, you realise with a sinking heart what a dreadful mistake you’ve made.)

Instead, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Also, reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team.

For me, this is an interesting topic because despite having built world class startup teams several times over on a shoestring, recruitment is something I’ve struggled with over the years. I’ll readily admit that some of the worst and most personally painful mistakes I’ve ever made in business have been recruitment related.

Interested to hear your views, hints and tips for others on small business recruitment so please do share in the comments section below. The photo above is of Bryan Keating, the best Chairman I’ve ever worked with or for. Although having said that I’ve always loved the story about how the founders of the Innocent drinks company used to employ a 50p piece in the early days that they referred to as “The Chairman”. They flipped it for a simple heads or tails decision when required. I don’t know if the story’s true or not but certainly food for thought Dom & Carrie?

Going the extra mile…or why the little things in life really do matter

Extra Mile - Palm Springs style!

Extra Mile – Palm Springs style!

Do you remember this poem from your schooldays?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

I was fascinated by this story as a child and it’s a theme I often return to when I think about startups or small businesses. As an aside, the idea of a small issue leading on to something much bigger lends itself to many aspects of life outside business too – but more about that later.

In my mind, there are two ways that smart small businesses elevate themselves above basic bog-standard delivery and every new business struggles with either or both. Those organisations that can get these two things right effortlessly, consistently & with grace are the ones most likely to succeed.

The first part is about making sure that nothing important gets dropped. I know there’s a saying in startup land – “if the wheels don’t come off, you aren’t going fast enough”. Ignore this sort of silly “bro” culture nonsense when you’re starting your business – startup chaos is never fun from a customer perspective. If you can get efficient delivery right with some consistency in the early days as you expand beyond your founder team and early doors customers then you have a chance. It’s always very difficult to instil your founding team’s customer service ethic into your employee team. Fact. You can devise methods of measuring and monitoring customer service standards until the cows come home, but in my view the better way to tackle this when you’re starting out & beginning to expand and grow your team, is to focus on bringing the right people on board in the first place. People who already share your values and have the right mindset.

It’s ok to make a rare exception (maybe someone completely new to the workplace?) but really take care with your early recruits as those first team members are the foundation on which you’ll build out the next layer as you expand and then the layers after that. Never, ever employ someone who in the first 5 minutes of a job interview can’t articulate to you why they really want to work in your business and what specific value they will bring to you. That “better a hole than an xxxhole” statement is very true and one that I wish I’d paid attention to a bit more closely myself on several occasions – because you do really know in your gut whether or not someone is right to bring into your team. It’s all about creating the right sort of culture in that first wave of team members. If you get this wrong you are lost. In the course of my career, the most difficult customer issues I’ve ever had to resolve have been minor situations made worse by lack of communication or people in my own team lying to customers in order to cover their backs.

Also – everyone screws up from time to time. This is ok. The important thing is to learn as a team from mistakes made and to fix things for your customer as quickly and painlessly as possible for them. If you get this bit right, you could find yourself in an even better position with your customer because they’ve seen how you behaved in a time of adversity and they will admire you more if you’ve been honest.

The second part of this blog is more fun – once you’ve figured it out. What does “going the extra mile” actually look like in your particular business? I once heard Doug Richard say “any conversation with a customer is too short” – and he’s absolutely right. Without knowing why your customers buy from you instead of anyone else and which bit of what you provide they value most it’s pointless trying to go any extra miles as you could be wasting your time providing them with something that doesn’t really delight them and may even annoy them. U2’s music for example!

Everyone knows that startups have to over deliver. It’s one of the ways to get your first few precious customers – the ones that will hopefully go on to become ambassadors for you. Subsequently, stories about delivering customer delight and the resulting karma are legendary in entrepreneur circles. Hearing these tales from other entrepreneurs is one of my favourite pastimes and in my anecdote kitbag I have countless stories of huge contracts won on the back of a small act of kindness delivered at some point in the past. One is about a sales guy getting home at night & receiving a call from a school he’d just delivered some computer kit to that day. The teacher called him because he was delivering a presentation the next day & the printer cable he needed was missing. The sales guy didn’t complain, quibble or argue – he simply grabbed a cable from the office, turned the car around & drove the 70 miles back up the road to take it to the teacher with good grace. Years passed and the small computer company had pivoted & grown into something much bigger and different. The teacher changed jobs too and when he was looking for a supplier to provide an airport security system, he went back to that same sales guy.

My own favourite is a Learning Pool story. Sam Barbee & I went to a large and remote unitary local authority to deliver a lengthy sales presentation to a big group of people in a most unsuitable room. It was one of those rooms used for computer training and many of the people were hidden from view behind computer screens. We didn’t know anyone in the group and introductions weren’t made. The council had recently become a unitary authority, swallowing up the district councils in the process. Many of those in the room had been through long drawn out rounds of local government restructuring and were feeling fragile and bruised. Sam & I soldiered on with the presentation. Suddenly a woman at the back got to her feet and announced that in her previous role she’d been a Learning Pool customer in one of the district councils. Without waiting for permission, she launched into a tale about how she’d been working one day as administrator on her Council’s learning environment and had got it into a bit of a muddle. Tired and fed up she went home. Next morning she came into work with a feeling of trepidation, knowing she had to undo yesterday’s mess. She switched her computer on and immediately realised that her Learning Pool account manager had noticed overnight that she’d got herself into a muddle and without waiting to be asked, had gone in & fixed it for her. She finished off by saying that in all her years of working in local government she had never worked with a more customer focused supplier than Learning Pool. It was incredible. Sam & I could have kissed her. The atmosphere in the room changed in a heartbeat and 6 months later, after jumping through all the usual procurement hoops, the contract was ours.

But where do you draw the line? And how do you know what your own extra mile is? This is the tricky bit. As a small company you have to find ways to delight your customers that don’t eat too heavily into your margin – but you can only do that if you know your margins on your various products and services and the dependencies between them. So – know your customers and know what they want from you, know your margins and be aware across your team of where you have a bit of space to give a bit more. Delivering the extra mile doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money but you do need to give this some thought. If you get it right, it will pay you back in spades and you’ll sleep easier at night. A good start is to make a vow never to nickel and dime your customers from Day 1 and to always extend the same high level of courtesy from everyone in your team to everyone you deal with – no matter who they are.

I’d like to hear any of your stories about instances of a small act of kindness in business paying back many fold so please do share in the comments section below.

On a personal note, I keep a loose mental tally on favours I’ve done in business for others and favours I’m owed. I can’t help it – it’s the accountant in me wanting to classify everything in life into debits and credits. Don’t worry – I haven’t started noting it down in a ledger yet. I try to keep it so that I’m in credit with everyone in terms of favours I’ve done for them. I’ve done this all my working life and it’s only ever led to good things happening for me – and it means that when I really need a favour or need someone to pull me out of a hole, there are usually lots of people I can ask.

Why are charities struggling to build and launch digital products?

NESTA audience

NESTA audience

This week I was privileged to keynote at the NESTA Impact Investment team’s Going Digital launch with NESTA’s Katie Mountain and Isabel Newman. Katie & Isabel asked me to speak because of my fairly unusual perspective – a tech entrepreneur who’s actually worked recently on a revenue generating digital project launched by an established charity. Earlier this year I was lucky to spend 4 happy months at vInspired, working with Sam Sparrow, Hannah Mitchell & Damien Austin-Walker getting awesome microworking platform Task Squad finessed and launched.

This blog covers the key elements of my NESTA talk without the personal anecdotes and side stories I included on the night. I should also just add a point of clarification here. This blog is about charities/CICs/social enterprises launching revenue generating digital products and services; it isn’t about making charity core business more digital. You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a view on that as well, but that’s for another day. It’s also not about my specific experiences at vInspired – it’s more generic observations across the whole sector. I’ve been a charity trustee myself for well over 10 years.

NESTA's Katie Mountain

NESTA’s Katie Mountain

At first glance, established charities appear to be ideal environments from which to launch digital products. They are crammed full of bright people with tons of good ideas, despite what they say they have more money to invest in product development than most startup businesses, they have a deep understanding of their target market and there’s lots of goodwill towards them, there’s existing infrastructure in the charity for the project to draw from (finance, office space, marketing & PR, etc) and they have easy access to politicians. So what’s making it so hard?

It’s unfamiliar territory…and there’s baggage

The best startups are said to be those that are “scratching an itch”. The entrepreneur sees a gap in the market and develops a product or service to SELL into that gap. The entrepreneur begs, borrows and steals seed funding and assembles a team focused on getting that product or service built and to market as quickly as possible. Money is frequently the key driver but money also qualifies early market interest in the product. Private sector success is often determined by getting to revenue in lightning speed & “owning” that niche before anyone else does. The founder or co-founders have probably had to put their houses up as collateral to raise the seed funding. The team eats, sleeps and breathes the project. Everyone’s under a lot of pressure. Often an unhealthy amount. Despite this, 80% of tech startups fail in their first 18 months according to Forbes (we’ll return to the 5 top reasons for failure at the end of the blog for anyone that’s interested). Charities simply do not work at this pace – but the private sector SMEs they’re competing against do. That’s a challenge.

The second part of this point is that the startup begins with a blank sheet of paper. For charities, many are creating digital projects to diversify away from dependence on government grants or to simply boost their income when other sources are drying up. This is a different type of driver. They are trying to do something that’s well outside their core business. They say that building a tech startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling the plane on the way down. You need your team to be focused and on it. In charities, the digital project is often something people in the team are doing as an addition to their original day job. Working on projects part time is far from ideal and just doesn’t work. One of my conditions upon joining vInspired was that I would only undertake activities where I added value to the Task Squad project and did the things that other people in the team couldn’t do at that time. I stayed away from all-staff meetings, writing reports for trustees and so on.

The environment is risk averse…and no-one has any skin in the game

In my experience, many charity CEOs are very entrepreneurial. They’re also swamped with a million different things. Senior teams and trustees can be very risk averse. Back to that 80% failure thing – this is a high risk and uncomfortable place to be where you have to allocate money and time to something that probably won’t fly. Many charities are only engaging with this process because they are desperate to generate new income. Funders and sources of finance like NESTA, the Nominet Trust, the various social angel groups, will invest in certain projects but they expect to see the charity provide match funding, especially if it has reserves. This puts constant additional pressure on the startup project team as they are under non stop scrutiny and find themselves fielding questions from people in their own team unfamiliar with this territory and expecting to see results fast. For the people in that startup project, the “us” and “them” is very tricky. At least in a private sector startup you’re all working on the same project.

Mary McKenna

Mary McKenna

Too much investment can be a curse

In my view the best digital products start out on a shoestring budget. That way the team is more creative and it’s less of a big deal if the project fails.

A few people when they heard I was giving this talk lobbied me to say the issue for charities in building and launching digital products is lack of money and resources. I’m afraid I disagree. A large budget can lead to laziness, excessive outsourcing and maybe a “build it and they will come” product.

Back to the trustees. Often they meet infrequently but they’re the people who approve and sign things off. This doesn’t sit well with agile development, pivots and product iteration. All startup projects pivot. Getting the trustees into a place where they are comfortable with the risk involved and buy into the match funding element is definitely a challenge, but without it projects are not investor ready.

There’s a lot of meetings and governance

I understand the reasons why charities do this but it’s an additional overhead that other startups just don’t have to deal with. In an early stage private sector startup, decision making sits in the hands of one or two people. They have authority to do what they like. It’s their money. Decisions are made quickly and based upon imperfect data and information. Things move at pace. There are no reports to write, the list of KPIs or metrics monitored in the early days is short or non existent, there’s no-one else to keep in the loop, social impact isn’t measured. A charity tech project has to do all of these additional tasks on top of build and ship.

Pace is the single most frustrating aspect of working in a charity that I experienced. That and having to book meetings with people you can see across the room & who you just want to speak to for two minutes – because that’s how things are done. The structured environment slows everything down.

NESTA Panel - Isabel Newman, Mike Dixon, Kieron Kirkland, Emma Thomas and Shreenath Ragunathan

NESTA Panel – Isabel Newman, Mike Dixon, Kieron Kirkland, Emma Thomas and Shreenath Ragunathan

The team is any organisation’s most valuable asset

Charities have great people. Sam Sparrow who leads vInspired’s Task Squad project is one of the most impressive and talented people I’ve ever worked with in any business. There’s been a terrific drive to get a lot of charity team members onto and through accelerator programmes. What charities are bad at doing is allowing their newly trained intrapreneurs to be responsible and accountable and just to get on with things; especially with people that are considered to be “junior”. Structures are hierarchical where they need to be flatter and more matrix or project driven. In a tech startup, the most appropriate person is allowed to get on with what they’re good at within clear and agreed parameters. I’ve found that in charities, the decision making boundaries are sometimes unclear and this is one reason why the CEO and trustees end up as bottlenecks.

On top of this, there’s a Europe (world?) wide shortage of digital skills, developers and people with good commercial skills and there’s a great deal of competition to attract the best talent. Because these skills are in short supply, the people taking important decisions may not be properly equipped to do so – especially about digital. This results in poor commissioning and bad management of suppliers.

Here’s my presentation slides from the night:

I’ve probably just scratched the surface here and am very conscious that I’ve put forward an awful lot of challenges without many useful solutions. Fortunately, on the night there was an expert panel present (Kieron Kirkland of Nominet Trust, Mike Dixon of CAB, Emma Thomas of YouthNet and Shreenath Ragunathan of Google) all of whom were able to voice their own very practical advice on how the sector can improve in this space.

For anyone who’s wondering about the top 5 reasons startups fail – here they are:

  1. Lack of deep market knowledge – know your audience!
  2. Lack of USP or the ability to properly articulate it – market test your idea, work on your messaging and remember that some ideas are just bad ideas.
  3. Failure to communicate and lack of clarity
  4. Leadership issues – not so much for a charity – this one is more to do with flaky founders or personality clashes amongst co-founders that lead to the startup imploding
  5. The business model is wrong or underdeveloped – this one is KEY – spend as long as you need to getting your business model right

As always I am very much looking forward to your comments on this rather long blog. I hope we can have some useful and positive narrative about what we can all do to make this better because frankly, we really need to. If you have any questions for me about any of the above then please get in touch with me or post your questions up in the comments section for everyone to read and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Pitching for success – some lessons from the Demo Coach Nathan Gold

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

Last week I attended my first Tech London Advocate Women in Tech event at the Telefonica HQ in Piccadilly and what an event it was.  We heard from a number of interesting speakers (Nikki Watkins especially) but the highlight of the evening for me was listening to Nathan Gold deliver a 30 minute version of his longer workshop called “Pitching for Success”.

Nathan is a San Francisco based demo coach.  He spends his life getting people or companies prepared and ready for high stakes pitches.  He helps people make their pitches and presentations more memorable and more compelling & his specialism is doing this for people who are in situations where they cannot afford to miss or fail.  Wow.  Think about that for a moment.  No pressure Nathan.

Anyway – I’ve listened to a fair few of these sorts of presentations over the years and would class myself as a hard to please audience member as well as a bit of a cynic, but honestly – Nathan was fantastic & I learned loads & loads of new stuff.  I’ve checked with him & he’s happy enough for me to share some of his hints & tips with you. Having said that – my recommendation is to go & see him yourself if you have any opportunity to do so and accelerators/regional development agencies/investment readiness programmes – book him now to run a session for your companies – it’ll be worth every penny.

Nathan’s methodology includes a lot of stuff that many of you out there who are getting ready for pitches yourselves won’t like, for a whole number of reasons – but mainly because you are going to have to do some thinking & also some work. More on that later … We start with a useful mnemonic:

VP + (SAME)2

You need a killer value proposition.  As well as forming the basis of your elevator pitch you can use this for so many other things – so it’s worth investing however long it takes to get it right.  Nathan uses Steve Blank’s “We help X do Y by doing Z”.

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

If you’d like to brainstorm this then you can use a VP matrix (see photo). I can’t tell you how useful & important this bit is.  Half the people I meet can’t explain their business to me in less than 5 minutes never mind in a single sentence.  Keep in mind that you have to get to a place where you’re going to be able to pitch your entire business in an initial investor meeting that may be no longer than 10 minutes.  Brief and simple is good.

Before I move on, a word on elevator pitches. Nathan recommends that you have three versions – a 30 second, 60 second and 90 second elevator pitch.  I’d never heard this before but it makes perfect sense and it’s very useful to have these rehearsed & in your kit bag, ready to trot out as required.

Still related to explaining what you do, use a Simile – “A is like B”.  Use this when you’re explaining in more & more detail & people still don’t get it.  Nathan’s own version of VP + S is “I help people prepare for high stakes presentations by rehearsing them as if they were in a Broadway show”.  See how effective that is.  Even if you’ve never been to a Broadway show you can immediately imagine how much work goes into the rehearsing.  When he said it, I imagined a couple of founders standing in a room in front of Nathan, going over & over & over their pitch until every word & image had been scrutinised, every aspect of it discussed in full and until their delivery of it was flawless!

Or if it’s easier, use an Analogy “A is to B as C is to D” – to illustrate this Nathan used the example of a company in San Francisco who’ve launched an electronic surfboard.  They explain it using this analogy “We do for surfing what the chair lift does for ski-ing” – see how easy that is to understand now as opposed to wondering what on earth someone would use an electric surfboard for…

A Metaphor works like “A is B” and the last bit of the first SAME is Examples – use them appropriately & drop in an S an A or a M to bring them to life.  Remember – investors see a hundred pitches a week, plus all the stuff they look at online & on video via the angel networks.  Out of the thousands of companies they see pitch, they invest in a handful.  The hardest bit when you’re starting out is getting noticed & being given an opportunity to pitch.  You will make it easier for yourself if you’ve really, really thought about your VP & how that sounds to the audience you’re presenting to.

Onto the second round of SAME.  When you’re presenting – whatever it is – start with a Story.  Don’t jump straight into factoids.  As your company grows, make sure you collect and share those stories so that everyone in the team knows them and can use them.  Nathan uses a Story Matrix to collate and classify the different types.  I like this.  We collected stories for every occasion as we were building Learning Pool.  They’re so useful.  Everyone loves a story and everyone warms to a storyteller – as long as you’re honest, authentic and real!  In the Story Matrix use the same layout as the VP Matrix.  Your column headings are Company, Sales, Support, Me, etc & your Row headings are story types – so Success, Failure, Fun, Legends, etc. Legends are the stories that are really hard to believe but which you can prove if challenged!

Nikki Watkins

Nikki Watkins

The next A is Adjective, and it’s the one you should add to your job title when people ask you what you do.  As well as coach, Nikki Watkins describes herself as adventurer, evangelist, believer.  I know they aren’t adjectives but this A is about being more descriptive about yourself upon introduction so that you will be remembered.  Nathan used a nice example “I am an entrepreneur with the soul of a dancer” – the entrepreneur in question has a dance related business.

Next we get onto one which is great when talking to customers but not so good for hard nosed investors…it’s a sprinkling of Magic.
The final E is Enthusiasm and your ability to communicate the passion you feel for your product, service, idea, company, life itself.  If you don’t have this then don’t present because this is the number one ingredient in your presentation.

Anne Winblad as quoted by Nathan Gold

Nathan left us with a great quote from Anne Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners “If the CEO doesn’t appear to be a good communicator we don’t fund the company”.

I’ll leave you with a famous story. During a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, President Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom.  He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr President” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Really think about your messaging, especially when you’re pitching.

Thank you for your insights Nathan and for sharing VP + (SAME)2 with me.  I hope everyone finds this as useful as I did.

The 5 hardest startup lessons I’ve had to learn

One of my highlights of this busy past week was chatting with the Public Service Launchpad cohort of entrepreneurs & intrapreneurs in London and sharing with them a few of the hard lessons I learned as we were building Learning Pool.  Even though I probably scared the life out of everyone with my stories a few people have asked me to blog this session so here we go.  I’ve organised my thoughts into my 5 key learns – I’m sure other entrepreneurs out there will have more of their own to add.

PSLaunchpad-2

Lucy Knight’s amazing sketchnote of my talk.

Relentless execution is required to the exclusion of all else.  The odds are stacked against you in a startup.  70% will fail and won’t make it to the end of the first 18 months.  You have to move your project forward every day.  This means no distractions or other side projects.  No social life and the bare minimum in terms of spending time with your family.  I can remember my mum saying to me that she saw less of me in those first 2 years at Learning Pool when I was 20 miles down the road than she did when I was previously working in London 500 miles away.  If you’re only prepared to work 60 hours a week in your startup you might as well forget it as you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.  You have to deal with exhaustion and sometimes the sheer boredom of it as you spend a lot of time doing stuff you don’t enjoy.  You have to use every minute productively.  Make all your phone calls when you’re hanging around.  Use time on planes to write blogs and website content.  If you go away on holiday, expect to work every day – even if you have a co-founder and team.  There’s no off button.  You’ll work 364 days in those first few years (everyone’s entitled to take Christmas Day off!).  You’ll also constantly iterate and pivot based on customer feedback, make endless decisions (often with insufficient info), do your damnedest to hit deadlines, overdeliver and do rework for customers without being paid for it (suck it up) and you’ll always be selling and doing a load of other stuff you’ve never had to do and are probably uncomfortable with.  It’s quite common to hear startup entrepreneurs talk about all the stuff they’ve gradually shed to make more time in their working week and in extreme circumstances that will include sleep.  I was discussing this with Mark O’Neill of Government Digital Service this morning & we concluded that kickstarting an early stage startup is like throwing cats against a wall and hoping some of them will manage to scrabble up to the top – not that Mark or I would ever do such a thing.  Also the knowledge that others out there might have cats with sucker pads instead of paws…

Financing – should you take investment or bootstrap.  Sometimes this decision is dictated by your product.  You can’t launch a new drug or build a semiconductor company without investment.  If you take investment, expect to be bitterly disappointed by the early doors valuations you receive and brace yourself for the late night calls and crazy demands of your investors.  They’ll all spin you that line about owning a smaller slice of a bigger pie.  If you bootstrap, be prepared for the pressures that will bring.  Complete focus on getting to revenue, constant running of your numbers, daily cashflow forecasts, making the awkward phone calls when you can’t pay your suppliers.  Having to borrow from the bank and then compartmentalising that worry.  Being really honest with yourself or yourselves about where you are against your business plan.

3.     Learning properly how to sell and all the boring stuff you have to do in order to sell successfully – scanning for tenders, writing responses, following up for feedback when you don’t win them, iterating your pitch, implementing and using a CRM (I know at least one startup entrepreneur who used to fire people for not keeping the CRM up to date), getting ISO accredited, building a brand, having a proper sales deck and collateral, constantly refreshing your website content.  The discomfort of making yourself pitch if you’re not a natural salesperson and (if you’re sensible) learning to sell in pairs.  Making smart decisions about what to chase with your limited time and resource.

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

        Dealing with your own people.  You can’t afford anyone experienced so you recruit for potential.  That then requires a lot of time (that you don’t really have) as the team doesn’t know much and therefore they run everything past you.  Not many people can write coherently so you’ll spend a lot of your time re-doing what others have done – usually after they’ve gone home or gone off on holiday.  I found a lot of time is spent trying to second guess the mistakes your team are going to make in some sort of order of priority.  In reality, not that much bad stuff happens.  It’s the excruciating moment when you see an email that’s gone out or overhear someone talking nonsense on the phone.  It’s useful to teach your team early doors how to make their own decisions.  If you don’t do that it will add to your own already massive decision burden.  Letting people go when they don’t work out.  This gets a bit easier over time and the interval between joining and leaving certainly shrinks dramatically.  Disappointment when people you’ve been good to let you down.  That doesn’t get any easier.  The realisation that you’ve become a worse person inside yourself over the years.

5.      Working out the people mix, building the culture you want and creating a cohesive team.  After all it’s your opportunity to create the sort of business you’ve always wanted to work in yourself.  Sticking to your values and not compromising on them.  It’s easy to own the moral high ground when you’re a PAYE person; you soon discover where your values limits lie when your house is on the line.  The stuff you find out about yourself that you may not necessarily like.  Burying that ego that’s been growing during your years in education and when you were climbing the career ladder.  As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, looking in the mirror when things go wrong & through the window when things go right (to see who else was involved in getting that good result).  The sheer amount of time you will spend with your co-founder(s) and team in those early years.

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

So – I hear you all ask – this sounds bloody awful so why bother?  That’s easy & I have 5 reasons why it’s worth it:

1.       The Prize – financial and other.

2.       The huge satisfaction you get from building something from scratch that you’re proud of.

3.       The highs are amazing.  When you make a big sale or you land a sale where you started out as the underdog.  When you win a big award.  I still remember how I felt the night the call came in telling us we were the Intertrade Ireland regional Seedcorn competition winners.

4.       Putting yourself out there as a startup entrepreneur means you meet some great people and have some incredible experience.

5. Nothing can touch being your own boss and taking control of your own destiny – no matter how terrifying that can be from time to time.

I h  I hope this rather long blog has been useful to someone out there and I’m dedicating it to all the people who helped us when we needed help – you know who you are.  If you have any comments or questions feel free to add them in via the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Good luck to all the PS Launchpad projects by the way.  I’m waiting for you guys to connect with me via the usual channels!

5 top tips to keep that small company culture as your startup grows?

Not so long ago Learning Pool was 4 people congregating around Paul’s kitchen table in Donegal.  6 years later we employ 50 people, support over 700,000 learners & 350 public sector organisations & Deloitte’s have deemed us to be the 26th fastest growing technology business in the UK over the past 5 years (6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland) with 1100% growth in our revenues in that period.  At the same time, our customers tell us that our business feels more like a family to them than a company.  This week’s blog is about how I think we’ve managed to combine aggressive growth with retention of the desirable qualities of a small business and keeping hold of our personal values along the way.  I appreciate this is a topic that many of you will know far more about than me so I’m looking forward to reading & answering your comments and questions.

Learning Pool team having cake – which happens pretty much weekly

Before I start I should say that one of the greatest pleasures of owning your own business is having the opportunity to shape the culture of your organisation because we all know too well what bad company culture looks and feels like.

These are my top tips:

Aine and Emma – two of our original Learning Pool team members snapped last week at LP Learning Live South

  1. Invest in your own people and help them grow with the business.  Today our team extends to more than 50 people, but 15 of those 50 have been with Learning Pool more than or very close to 5 of our 6 years and not one of them is in the job they started at – they’ve all moved up or sideways and up.  Many of our team did not have years of experience when they joined Learning Pool, but what they lacked in experience they made up for with great personalities, enthusiasm and energy, a hunger to learn and desire for success.  Our original company culture is carried in each of their hearts and delivered via their daily actions.
  2. Linked to point 1 above is take care with your recruitment.  Recruitment is the most important job of a fast growing company’s founders so make proper time for it & don’t delegate it to someone else.  The worst mistakes we’ve made in our 6 years so far have all been linked to poor recruitment decisions.  You know what they say – better a hole than an asshole – and it’s true.  Avoid prima donnas and mavericks, whatever they seem to bring – they just aren’t worth it.  Recruit for potential and personality and work hard to develop your talent.  When you make a recruitment mistake, reverse the person out as quickly & as painlessly as you can for their own sake and for everyone else’s.

    At the end of last week’s LP Learning Live South

  3. It’s easy to be customer focused when you’re small.  As a startup you have to over deliver anyway and when you’re starting out you don’t have many customers and you’re eagerly learning from them.  As you grow, you have to find a way of continuing to deliver that level of excellent customer service.  We’ve done this by constantly automating as much as we can as we’ve grown so that our customer facing people get to spend as much of their working week as they can interacting with customers – as that’s where the value add lies for our customers and for us.  We’re about to go through another (painful) round of this between now & Christmas but we recognise it’s worth it.
  4. Encourage everyone to have their say.  We’ve tried hard to do this at Learning Pool from the very start.  We have a culture where everyone’s ideas are heard and debated (even Tony’s) and everyone is expected to innovate.  We’ve used Yammer for years to facilitate ad hoc brainstorming across our dispersed team and it’s also used for extensive banter and leg pulling.  I used to worry about this but it’s only made me nearly faint once & that was when a local authority HR director asked me if they could see Yammer working in situ.

    Night out in Dublin 2011

  5. As founders and senior managers you have to love your team and all of you have to love your customers and enjoy interacting with them.  None of that can be faked.  It has to be real.  What do I mean by love your team?  You have to care about them in & out of work and sometimes even take care of them, you have to appreciate the contribution they make and reward them as best you can – financially and in other ways, you have to trust them and give them space to develop and progress.  You have to make time to have some fun together as that’s important too.  The Learning Pool team works hard but we play hard too and we find time to do some voluntary & pro bono work together when we can.

Team in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Day

That’s my thoughts.  Look forward to reading yours.

What makes us different?

Edge of CliffThe amazing photo on this week’s blog is of Norwegian extreme artist Eskil Ronningsbakken.  Why am I using it?  Because I heard a saying about startup entrepreneurs a couple of weeks back that I liked.  It was “if you’re not at the edge, you’re taking up too much room”.  Other sayings  I like on this topic are “If the wheels don’t come off, you’re not travelling fast enough” and also “If you can’t code and you can’t sell, get the f*** out of my way”.

I think a lot about why it is some people can cope with running small businesses and others can’t.  In my view it comes down to 3 things.

The first is a stronger ability than most people to be able to compartmentalise stuff.  What I mean by this is that you can carry on doing what you need to do at that point in time (be it get up on the podium and pitch to investors, focus on getting a tender response finished or complete a sales call) when something else distracting is going on – either in your business or in your personal life.  Being able to compartmentalise in this way also allows you to block out other bad stuff that you would otherwise worry about.  When bad things happen, as they do from time to time, I think about them and if there’s nothing I can do right this minute or today to address them, then I put them out of my mind until the time is right to deal with them.  I don’t lie awake at night worrying.  I put them out of my mind in a locked box that I open when the time is right.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never get anything done.  I’d be paralysed with fear.

The second is resilience.  I’ve seen a couple of entrepreneur buddies in the last couple of weeks who have really been under the cosh recently.  If they weren’t so resilient they’d have given up, one in particular many times over.  What is resilience?  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working long hours consistently).  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane even though you only got home at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.

Last on my list is the big one.  I used to think the big one was resilience but I’ve changed my mind.  It’s also the one out of the 3 that I think you can learn or at least improve.  It’s the ability or willingness to make quick decisions.  I make a lot of decisions in my job. Some days it’s all I do.  But there’s more.  It’s the ability to make decisions when you have no or certainly less than perfect information and it’s the ability to make a decision and move on.  If everyone worked in an environment where they were encouraged or allowed to do this, the world would be a much better place.

I’m sure everyone has their own views about what should be in this top 3.  I look forward to your comments or questions as always.

10 quick questions to find out if you have what it takes to be a startup founder?

Today’s blog takes the form of a quiz to help you determine if you have the right qualities to be a startup founder or small business owner.  Not everyone does and this is a topic I’ve written about often in the past.  You all know the drill – it’s like one of those magazine quizzes everyone’s so fond of filling out in secret.  All I ask is that you’re at least honest with yourself…

1) You’ve been thinking about developing a new product and have done a couple of months market making.  You’re in a taxi between meetings in London when you receive a phone call from one of your spies who tells you a competitor is thinking along the same lines as you.  Do you:

a)      Phone the competitor and tell them to back off – it was your idea first

b)      Ring your bank, pitch your idea to your bank manager & see if he or she will lend you the money you need

c)       Scratch that idea and move onto the next one on your list – you have loads of ideas anyway

2) You badly need a Sales Exec to help your startup business cover more ground.  You engage a recruiter to help you find someone.  The next day you get a call from the recruiter – he’s decided he wants the job himself and he pitches to you on the phone.  You like the recruiter but he knows nothing about your sector.  Do you:

a)      Carry on with your original plan and interview according to the schedule – you’re sure to find someone with the right background and experience

b)      Decide to give the recruiter a chance – at least you know he will pitch and what’s the worst that can happen

c)       Look for a different recruitment firm that employs more professional recruiters

3) You’re at the airport when you run into a friend.  You’re chatting away when the person he’s at the airport to meet arrives.  Turns out he’s a visiting US venture capitalist.  You’re tentatively looking for investment.  Your friend introduces you and with no warning invites you to pitch to the American investor.  Do you:

a)      Give him your business card and say you’ll send him some information about your company and give him a call the next day

b)      Trot out your elevator pitch as confidently as you can whilst shaking a bit inside

c)       Make your excuses and get the hell out of there as fast as you can

4) It’s Christmas Eve and your business partner rings you to say he’s just had a call from the bank and they’ve turned you down for the loan you thought was a dead cert.  It’s the 4th bank you’ve talked to during December and they’ve all refused to lend you any money.  Do you:

a)      Do nothing – you’re sure it will all work out ok come the New Year

b)      Carry on with your shopping, take Christmas day off (it’s Christmas after all) but on Boxing Day, get on the phone with your business partner and start writing a new business plan for the next bank you’ll be calling

c)       Cancel Christmas and make your entire family miserable

5) You get evicted from your London “office” – ok it was an apartment and you’ve breached the terms of your lease by running a business out of it.  You have a small team and they need desks.  Do you:

a)      Call an estate agent and start looking for an office – they cost a fortune but hey – it’s one of the overheads of running a business right?

b)      Ring a friend whose office you were in the other day.  You noticed he had 3 desks but was only using one of them

c)       Have a little cry

6) You’re developing a product for market and badly need to generate some revenue to bolster up your pitiful cashflow.  The product’s only about 20% complete.  Do you:

a)      Phone around and see if anyone else you know wants to pitch in and share the risk/reward

b)      Call a few prospects and cut them a special deal for being an early adopter of your new product

c)       Stop development whilst you scrabble about to raise the cash to continue

7) You come out of a long day of meetings in London where your phone has been on silent.  You have 26 missed calls.  There’s been a serious security alert and all the London airports are closed.  You have an important meeting in Northern Ireland at 10am the next morning which you cannot miss.  Do you:

a)      Go and find a hotel before they’re all booked up.  You’ll get a plane ok in the morning with a bit of luck

b)      Run like billy-o to Euston and jump on the first train to Scotland.  You know you’ll get an overnight ferry and be able to persuade someone to pick you up at the port in the morning

c)       Call and cancel the meeting.  It’s perfectly reasonable to reschedule in the circumstances

8) You receive an abusive letter from a supplier who’s threatening you with legal action for non payment of an invoice.  You haven’t paid it because the work they did for you was woeful and you’ve explained that to them.  Do you:

a)      Ignore the letter and hope they’ll go away

b)      Call them and make a reasonable offer for the work they’ve done; if they won’t see reason put it out of your mind on the basis that most people who threaten you with legal action never actually follow through

c)       Panic and call your lawyer straight away

9) You go and pitch to a VC and they send you a term sheet which you believe doesn’t represent the true worth of your company.  Do you:

a)      Go back to them and do your best to negotiate a better deal

b)      Go back and pitch again, receive an improved term sheet and then turn that one down – you know your company is worth more and those guys are likely to put it down the toilet anyway

c)       Take it anyway.  You’re desperate for the cash and you’re unlikely to get a better offer

10) You’re 2 years into your startup and at last you can take a bit of money out and get away for a brief holiday.  On the day you pay yourself your Mum’s dog gets run over by the postman and needs an operation which just happens to cost the same as your holiday money.  Do you:

a)      Have the dog put down, tell your Mum there was nothing could be done for it and buy her a new (similar) dog for a fraction of the price of the operation

b)      Pay for the bloody dog – there has to be some karma in this world

c)       Jump on the plane as fast as you can leaving your Mum to sort out her dog

Ok – so by now you’ve guessed that these are all real life situations that happened in my startup in our first couple of years.  For every one of the 10 scenarios above, we or I did (b).  Be interested if you agree whether or not we made the right choices.  I hope you had fun reading this.  It gave me a good laugh writing it and brought back a lot of happy memories from our early days.