Business Partner

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.

What makes a great virtual team member?…time to practice what I preach

Paul_in_stansted_lounge

Today’s my last day in Northern Ireland for 6 months.  For the past 5 years I’ve managed a highly motivated part of the Learning Pool team who are absent from our Derry mothership & who work from home in England and Scotland.  Tomorrow I become one of them.  This past couple of weeks I’ve been really mulling this over & wondering what it will mean for me.  I’m also slightly worried that I may not be the exemplary virtual team member that I imagine I will, a carbon copy of the perfect remote worker in the image I have in my mind’s eye.

In my view, these are the qualities & behaviours of a great virtual team member:

·         superb communicator – in both directions – giving & receiving information; this applies equally to customers & colleagues

·         highly organised in terms of managing appointments, follow ups, phone calls, CRM updates, keeping your online calendar bang up to date

·         ability to work efficiently on the hoof (on trains, in cafes, at airports, in the car)

·         knack to really bond with people you don’t see face to face much – other virtual colleagues but also the people in the powerhouse or mothership – the people you need to actually do things for you that you can’t do yourself

·         planning your schedule to get the most out of each day by combining appointments & using common sense

·         gift for really knowing what’s going on beneath the surface at HQ, think that comes about by really listening to what your colleagues say

·         makes the best use of the available technology & doesn’t get bogged down in constant technofail

·         books travel well in advance to get the best prices

·         effective collector & disseminator of customer information back to the mothership team

·         self starter with a lot of drive

·         ability to complete & finish things (this one is tricky for me) in a fast paced & constantly moving environment.

From time to time I’ve been critical of how other people do some or all of the above.  I guess I’ll know by this time next week how I’m doing myself.  Any hints and tips from you, my dear readers, will be most welcome as always.

So what am I going to miss most over the next 6 months when I’m London based.  Folks – there’s no competition on that score.  The photo of Paul was snapped yesterday at Stansted airport.  He’d just finished a conference call with our tech team & is posting something up on Twitter.  As usual, we had a few right old laughs yesterday – despite both of us having a 3.30am start, a tricky meeting at the Cabinet Office and the usual mixed bag of rushing around London for meetings, juggling stuff as we go.  Along the way, and starting at 5.30am, we also discussed everything that both of us are working on, we did some long term strategic planning, we both chatted to a number of colleagues, customers and partners, sketched out a couple of new products or markets for existing parts of the Learning Pool portfolio, swapped the usual load of gossip (mainly about other entrepreneurs or businesses), exchanged views on the content of business books we are both reading (cuts down on individual reading time if your business partner reads it & gives you a précis of course), managed to have both breakfast & lunch in the most random of places, went through some sort of time/space portal at Stansted airport, took two plane journeys & two long drives each, but were emailing again when we got to our respective homes last night.  The relationship anyone has (should have) with their business partner is pretty intense and full on.  I’ll refer you to a previous blog of mine if you’re interested in reading more about this – it’s here https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

We’ve been working together like this for 8 years, we rarely disagree and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper in between us.  I guess that’s what I’m going to miss most.

 

Forget Fight Club, what are the rules of Start-Up Club?

Fight_club

We all know the first rule of Fight Club – (shhh – don’t mention it) – but what are the rules of Start-Up Club?  These are the 10 Rules I’d suggest to someone starting out with a new business:

Rule 1 – Just Do It – the time will never be right & there’s no point in procrastinating, obsessing over the fine detail (you’ll find out soon enough you can’t control things anyway) or delaying.  Grasp the nettle & get going.  Entrepreneurs have many sayings but one that I like a lot is “Leap and a net will form”.  Well – it either does or it doesn’t but there’s only one way to find out.

Rule 2 – seek out a great name and then get a great strapline.  It might not be the one you start out with but keep looking.  All our companies (so far) have had great names including my very first company which was called Kicking Assets.  Keep thinking – it doesn’t cost you anything to think but this is stuff that makes a high impact.

Rule 3 – network like mad both online & in real life.  Not to the exclusion of all else of course but do work at it.  I’ve written a previous blog about networking which you can read here https://kickingassets.co.uk/so-you-want-to-network

Rule 4 – be well informed, there’s no excuse these days not to be – we have the internet!  Join the appropriate groups (online & real life, like Northern Ireland’s Digital Circle) & talk/listen to other entrepreneurs.  You have to work at this too.

Rule 5 – ask for help if you need it.  Most people are generous with their time & advice and everyone wants you to be a success.  When people help you out, be gracious & don’t abuse their good nature.

Rule 6 – look for innovation in your product or service, your product delivery channel and also your business model.  Innovation in your business model can be a real differentiator.  Again – this doesn’t cost you anything, you just need to think about it.

Rule 7 – don’t go it alone.  Find a business partner or a couple of non execs or perhaps seek out a mentor or join a collaborative network.  Starting a business is too hard for a person to do by themselves and a problem shared is a problem halved.  I have another blog about this specifically which you can read here if you want to know more https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

Rule 8 – get good advice.  Shop around for an understanding bank (we quickly moved away from our first bank when they wouldn’t support our growth strategy & these days bank with the fabulous Northern Bank) and once you find them, have an open and honest relationship with your bank manager.  Talk to other entrepreneurs and start-ups about the accountants and legal firms they use.  Look for modern professional advisers that understand online businesses and who use technology and social networking themselves.  Cut a good deal by promising them they’ll get a decent payback when you exit.  Agree all your fees up front.  Never get any of these guys out of the Yellow Pages or equivalent.

Rule 9 – work hard and always be open and alert to opportunity.  Usually it doesn’t come up & slap you in the face – you need to be watching out for it.  I’m afraid working hard has to be a given.  Without doing it you will fail and anyone that tells you anything different than that is a liar.

Rule 10 – have some fun.  Running your own business or working in a start-up is the most fun you will ever have at work.  Sure it’s hard work & the lows can be pretty awful – but the highs are AMAZING & you get to hang out with some great people in your own team.

Send me your own tips in the comments below – I can’t wait to read them.

So you wanna be a startup CEO…5 qualities you absolutely need

Paul_and_me_casino

Being a startup CEO seems to be an attractive occupation right now and one that the press & certainly Hollywood makes look pretty easy as well as fairly glamorous.  I thought I’d write a blog about my own views on the necessary qualities people need to make it through to the other side.  Please note that being the CEO of a startup requires a different set of qualities to being CEO of a mature & established business and indeed, that sort of experience may well be a hindrance in a startup environment.  Also it’s no accident that the photo of Paul & me above shows us in a casino setting – there’s a lot of luck at play as well – so don’t feel too bad if your startup is one of the 50% or so that fail in the first year.   

I’ve seen other bloggers make great long lists of these but I’ve distilled mine down to 5 main qualities:

1.       RESILIENCE – this is the big one.  It’s also a quality you should look for in a business partner or in your team members as you recruit them.  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In reality 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 16 hour days consistently).  As part of this quality I would include not bleating about how miserable you are & making your colleagues feel bad as well – there’s nothing worse than that.  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 to London even though you only finished work 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.  At the end of the day, having the stamina & energy required to make a new company a success should not be overlooked.  The amount of sheer hard graft is savage & impossible to communicate to anyone that hasn’t been there.

2.       READING PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS – you need to be naturally good at this and it’s the quality that stops others from pulling the wool over your eyes.  First up you need to have a gut feel about how things are going for the company – you should be able to just tell, a bit like second sight.  You also need a natural ability to read your markets and know what products are right, when to launch them, etc.  Other times you use this is in appraising ideas (which you do on an hourly basis in a startup) and rapidly sorting them into good & bad, negotiating, making decisions (most of the time with a serious lack of information), recruiting people, choosing partners and so on.

3.       OPTIMISM & POSITIVITY – if you don’t have this alongside being the keeper of your original vision, don’t expect anyone else to believe in your company and that goes for both team members & people outside.  I don’t mean blind belief but I do mean being confident and using a bit of spin when you need to.  By that, I don’t mean lying to your team about stuff – it’s more about protecting them from many of the stresses that they don’t need to know about as they have no ability to influence the outcome & it will only distract everyone.  You need to be able to absorb all of this burden and put a smile on your face and your best foot forward at all times.

4.       RISK – I’m unsure if this is a quality or not but being a startup CEO and being risk-averse do not walk along hand in hand.  You will borrow large sums of money, you will guarantee those loans against whatever tangible assets you own, you will take major decisions without any of the information you need never mind would like, you will fail at stuff over & over again.  If you are unable to compartmentalise & shut these things away in a place where you don’t think about them – you aren’t cut out for this life.  It will make you ill & paralyse you with fear.

5.       LEADERSHIP & VISION – your team needs to look up to you & your customers & other stakeholders will hopefully admire you & what you’ve achieved.  You need to keep the team on track, communicating the shared vision to them over & over again so that no-one ever loses sight of where you’re going, you need to be able to pull off what I call “Take my hand & walk with me into the abyss” when you only have half the story yourself and you need to be able to keep it real – no-one wants to work for a CEO that never does any work themselves.

I hope this helps any of you that are thinking about going down this route yourselves.  It’s hard work & unrelenting being in or heading up a startup but it’s also deeply satisfying and a lot of fun.  Always interested in hearing your views so post your comments up below.

 

Two Heads are Better than One – 10 pros of having a business partner

Paul_and_me_causeway

The photo above is me with my own business partner, Paul McElvaney.  It was taken a couple of summers ago & we’re sitting on top of the world – ok – it’s the Giant’s Causeway but it feels like the top of the world when you’re there…it’s a much better photo of Paul than it is of me but I love it nevertheless because we’re both laughing and the sun’s out.

This week we were over at Belfast’s Start VI talking to some early stage entrepreneurs about their plans for their new businesses.  This got me thinking about the whole business partner debate – to have or have not – so here are my thoughts on this subject:

1.       If you’re dreaming big with your start-up you should think about finding a business partner – unless you already have proof that you’re superhuman.  Our business, Learning Pool, has grown from nothing to 50 people and £3.5m turnover in 4 years.  That’s a lot of work whichever way you look at it.

2.       Partners should have complementary business skills – it’s the 2 + 2 = 5 effect.  In our case, Paul’s far more technical than me & has a project management background whereas I come from an accountancy & legal background.  Having said that – both of us are immersed in our chosen sector and we can both sell – that bit’s important.

3.       Two people means you have more ideas for brainstorming and (at least) two views on opportunities and risks; you can also learn a lot from each other.

4.       If there are two of you, chances are you have a much bigger network than one person and you just know more stuff and have more experience to draw on between you – so you can make better decisions than a person trying to figure it out on their own.  There are many decisions that Paul & I make every day on our own but there’s also a lot that we decide upon jointly via a process of debate & brainstorming between us – it’s hard to understand unless you try it…and you have to be prepared to not always get your own way.

5.       It makes the business more “formal” in those early days – if you were by yourself chances are you wouldn’t bother with monthly management accounts or you’d be more lax over expenses or you wouldn’t write so much down.  This early discipline stands you in good stead when you start to scale.

6.       Two people can cover a helluva lot more ground – business requires a lot of travel, pitching, attendance at events, socialising, networking.  It also makes it easier to get away for a bit of a break.

7.       Your partner’s there for the bad times – when you don’t win a contract you’ve pitched hard for or when the bank says No – but also for the good times – and it’s great to have someone to share with.  A new business is like a rollercoaster ride and having a partner to bounce off & share stuff with & who picks you up when you’re down & vice versa flattens out some of those crazy peaks and troughs.

8.       Most entrepreneurs are control freaks so it can be hard working so closely with another person, especially at first.  They do say that you have to work at your business partnership like you would a marriage and that’s true.  You have to be prepared to be completely open and honest in a way that you will not be used to – not even with your family or your spouse/partner.  Your business partner will know more about your personal finances and even your personality traits than your close friends or family do.  You will have seen each other make unpalatable decisions and behave ruthlessly and you will have exposed that darker side of your nature to each other.  Once you’ve accepted this it is slightly comforting.

9.       There’s some practical reasons when you’re starting out – like having more working capital as there are two of you or having more places to get hold of start-up capital.

10.   Having a partner makes you more resilient and it makes you work harder – as you have someone else who’s opinion you care about to prove yourself to.

My own experience of this has been incredibly positive.  Paul & I work well together.  We both work hard and put an equal amount into our business in terms of effort and expertise – that’s important too – I don’t know how it would work if one partner felt short changed by the other but I guess it would be uncomfortable and unsustainable.  We have a lot of laughs along the way and there’s a great deal of healthy competitiveness and “sport”.  There have been some really bad days on the journey but there have also been some amazing highs and I wouldn’t change things for the world.  I’ve ended up with a friend that I would trust with my life without any hesitation.  And that’s a big deal.

I’ll leave you with a quote from John D Rockefeller “A friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship”.  Bit of food for thought in there.  I look forward to your comments friends & readers.