Start-up business

A blog about appreciation

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Today’s blog is an appreciation blog.  Often we find ourselves just taking people for granted and not giving them enough appreciation for what they do for us – so this is an attempt to redress that balance in some small way.  I’d just like to say a big thank you on behalf of all of us who work in Northern Ireland’s emerging digital and online content sector to Matt Johnston (@cimota) for the tireless work he does on behalf of us and to promote our sector and our companies. 

I’ve spent the last two days in London with Matt.  We decided it was time to go and tell a few more people about the many talented people and small businesses that work in our chosen space in Northern Ireland.  Over the course of those two days we’ve promoted Digital Circle and its companies to:

·         The Technology Strategy Board

·         A group of social entrepreneurs

·         The Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

·         Everyone present at Friday’s Tuttle Club in London’s Centre for Creative Collaboration

·         The gathering of entrepreneurs and start up companies at Dominic Campbell’s City Camp London get together at the Hub King’s Cross

We’ve been blown away by the amount of interest there’s been in Digital Circle and at every event Matt’s had a stream of people wanting to ask him about the workings of the Digital Circle, how it started out, what the future plans are and what the Digital Circle members have gained from being part of the community.  It appears that what we have in Northern Ireland is quite unique in terms of small and micro businesses actually engaging, collaborating and helping each other out.

So this is my way of saying we appreciate you Matt and all you do for us.  The non-stop networking, the liaison with our government departments and Invest NI, the constant promotion of our companies, the search for opportunities for all of us and the signposting, the bright ideas you have, the introductions you make, the tweeting you do (I couldn’t believe how many people at Tuttle nodded when you revealed your Twitter name – they’d all come across you), the sheer volume of stuff you wade through so that we don’t have to and the dry good humour with which all of the above is delivered.

Please join me in appreciating Matt and post up your story in the comments of how he’s helped you or your company.

If you’d like to know more about the Digital Circle or join our community, you can do so via this link http://digitalcircle.ning.com/

 

Entrepreneurs are story tellers…so says Doug Richard

I’m so glad that I took yesterday out to attend Doug Richard’s excellent “Starting & Growing a Successful Business” lecture in Letterkenny.  Learning Pool’s now an established business (when do you stop being a startup I wonder?) but most entrepreneurs have one eye on the next opportunity – it’s part of our condition…

Doug’s a man I could listen to all day.  He sounds exactly like the wonderful architect Frank Gehry (a Toronto man who’s also lived in LA for a long time) and he doesn’t mince his words.  I knew a bit about Doug already & I expected him to be like his reputation – ferocious, blunt to the point of rudeness & flashes of vitriol.  Instead – he’s a caring pussycat trying to impart his vast experience of being an entrepreneur to those folks that are just starting out.  Impressively, as part of his School for Startups social enterprise, he’s spoken to 7,600 entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs in the last 2 ½ years.  He says he does it to show it can be done & to prove the government wrong – he thinks the way UK government supports & starts new business stinks.  I think most startup businesses we network with (and there are an awful lot of those) would wholeheartedly agree with him.  So – he’s a sort of energetic entrepreneurial avenging angel.

What impressed me most was his ability over the course of the day to really add value & give advice completely on the spur of the moment to people in the audience with businesses as varied as stainless steel catering equipment, online bridal directories, health clubs, micro-breweries, logistic businesses & distributors of artwork – so it must be true – business really is just business and entrepreneurialism can be learned – you don’t have to be born to it.

Doug’s written plenty of stuff & there are loads of good & free resources on his School for Startups website including his excellent blog – so I’m not going to regurgitate all that stuff again here in my blog,  Instead – I’m going to give you the quotes from Doug that I liked enough yesterday to write down – just to give you a flavour of the day and a flavour of Doug Richard.  Here we go:

Entrepreneurs are not born; babies are born

Some businesses can simply not succeed; entire industries exist that do not make any money (example he gave was the airline industry with the exception of our friends at Ryanair)

Some industries are harder to make money in; you need to know what industry you are in

A brand is a residue of what’s left; it’s a promise – you need to have a promise that you’re offering

Simple businesses are the ones that are most likely to succeed; but everyone does too much in their business – it’s human nature

You should make your promise accurate & narrow – how narrow can you get?

The story you tell as a young business is the most important thing – often you have nothing else

Entrepreneurs are defined by the story they tell

Risk & reward walk up together in a perfect continuum

Look elsewhere for tomorrow’s today (advice to go & check out other countries when looking for a business idea)

Government makes the measurable important instead of the other way around

You must delight your customers & exceed expectations – even by just a little – this will create word of mouth

If you’re building product, think about how you can include whimsy (he used the example of Apple’s “bounce” when you scroll to the end of the menu – utterly unnecessary but Steve Jobs felt it should exist)

Your family & friends are there to support you when you’re wrong so don’t ask them to appraise your new business idea

There is no conversation with a prospective customer that is too long, they are all too short

Every company should write a short profile of who their customer is – write it as a story – give them names

Most business expenditure is not driven by need but by ego (e.g. company cars)

Adults should only be rewarded for accomplishments, not for trying hard

Entrepreneurs are on a journey of discovery not invention – all the answers are already out there

Don’t stop at Page 1 of Google when you’re doing market research – there’s value in the long tail

You make more money from having an innovative business model than you do from having a great product or service

Business models matter & you should think about yours

Don’t overlook affiliate marketing (if this is your bag, Doug runs an 8 hour class on this alone)

Take the first offer – it might be the last offer!

Product doesn’t have to be better, it just has to be different (example used was skype – although of course it is also free!)

Just ask your minority customers why they don’t buy more from you (what a blindingly obvious idea – thanks Doug – we’re doing it)

A patent is not protection, it’s a hunting licence to protect (talking about the costs of defending patent breach)

No-one has ever started a company in Silicon Valley & ended up with what they thought they would – they are all Plan B companies

In an entrepreneur, resilience is so important (as an aside – in the very first conversation I ever had with Paul McElvaney many years ago, I asked him how resilient he was.  It’s something we as business partners return to from time to time to make sure we’re still resilient as – yes – you really need to be)

It’s a very, very rare business that succeeds with just one person – there needs to be a team

You have to be optimistic to be an entrepreneur

There were a few “funnies” as well that I noted – please be warned that there’s a small bit of bad language coming up:

I don’t speak “local” – when he couldn’t understand a few of the strong accents in our Donegal audience

I’ll take better, I’m good!

We don’t use the phrase “poison chalice” in the USA (talking about being Chairman of the Tory task force to review SME support in the UK)

I’m saving you an entire MBA today

Thanks for the validation…I was a bit concerned.  I know I’m obnoxious (to a member of the audience that told him he believed he was right about something)

On software development – Imagine selling a fridge where in v1 it just holds stuff

On Google rankings for your company – Do you know what we call the second page? – Siberia

On competitors – It’s not that you’re paranoid, they’re after you; they want to rip off your head & piss down the hole

On being an entrepreneur – Resilience, overcoming adversity, survival – they all pale into insignificance if you’re an asshole

In conclusion, a fab day where we learned a lot and Doug even made up a word – perfical (a perfect vertical).  Don’t miss him – he’s brilliant, warm & very well informed – and he’s running one of these again in Dublin on 16 Feb & a Belfast date is to be announced.  Come along with your questions & expect him to challenge you – he isn’t your mum & surely you’d rather know if your baby’s ugly.  I guess you want to know what I asked him don’t you?  I asked him how he decides on the one investment he chooses each year from the 3,000 business plans he receives.  He was candid & admitted that there isn’t a “one” from  the 3,000 – he decides what the next big thing is & goes hunting for a company to invest in.  All I can say is I hope he has an urge to invest in a public sector online learning community – come talk to me if you do Doug!

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

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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.

 

The truth about marketing…

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With less than a week to go until Learning Pool’s annual conference & with no flights leaving Northern Ireland again this morning – oh and with the prospect of launching a new website next week – marketing is something that’s been in my mind – a lot – recently.

For small companies, there’s always a lot of anxiety around spending your limited amounts of cash on marketing.  Everyone knows the old premise that 50% of marketing spend is effective, it’s just a shame that no-one knows which 50%…

At our HQ in Derry, we’re up to our eyes in balloons & conference giveaway bags & party planning so I think it’s wise to take 5 minutes out & reflect on the following excerpt from 37 Signals’ recent book “Rework”:

Marketing is not a department.  Every time you answer the phone, send an email or someone uses your product – that’s marketing.  Every word you write on your website is marketing.  Every error message in your software is marketing.  The checkout counter and every invoice you send is marketing.

Aah – I feel so much better now – it seems those conference giveaway bags aren’t so important after all…