start-up

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

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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.

What does the startup founder director want from team members?

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Working in a small business is not for everyone.  The working environment is transparent to a degree that many people find uncomfortable (your colleagues and manager, maybe even your directors are likely to be aware of your every move – which is great if you’re performing).  New business is rarely turned away so the only way quality can be maintained and delivery deadlines met is by team members working longer hours; this happens a lot when your small business is growing.  Your founder directors, although appreciative of everyone’s efforts, are always looking for “more”.  Performance issues are likely to be addressed sooner rather than later and perhaps more bluntly than many people are used to or prepared for.  The runway between joining as a newbie and being deemed to “fit in” may be viewed as too short by most.  Also, the swift exit if your colleagues decide you aren’t going to work out is brutal.

Of course – there’s a lot of upside too.  If there wasn’t, no-one would bother putting themselves through startup discomfort & pain.  But that’s not the topic of today’s blog.  Today is about what I as a founder director expect from team members as a minimum.  Here’s my top 10:

1.       Commitment to our customers, to the business and to our common goals.  This covers everything from being on time for meetings, doing your prep, being reliable and a host of other stuff.  Real life recent commitment examples from our own small business are being in the office on a bank holiday because a project review must take place, giving up a Sunday to travel to a company event – even though family plans had already been made, changing plans and flying to see a customer the next day because they needed you to.

2.       Passion about our company, customers, products and mission – this has to be real, it can’t be fake or people can tell.  See my accompanying blog photo of Eddie Ryce from Learning Pool’s sales team if you don’t believe me (photo credits to Paul Clarke & Ruth Cassidy).

3.       Honesty – about where you are, what you’re doing, why something failed, what you think about something.

4.       Hard work and an eye on the prize – yeah – long hours sometimes but an outcomes focused approach where you can easily prioritise what’s important and make sure that’s done first.  Linked to this I expect you to travel in your own time and to make sure all your follow ups and admin are done without anyone having to check or nag you.

5.       Self-sufficiency.  Not everyone has this on Day 1 but everyone needs to strive towards this.  Spending time managing team members’ performance is an overhead I’d rather do without.  You should make it easy for your line manager to manage you.

6.       Self confidence but with it the ability to know when you need help and the confidence to ask for it.

7.       Self-awareness – required to be a good team player.  It should be obvious to you before it is to anyone else when you’re verging on asshole behaviour.

8.       Enjoyment of the here and now.  Everyone wants to and will move up – but try and enjoy what you’re doing to the full when you’re doing it.

9.       Responsiveness – if I’m trying to get hold of you out of hours it’ll be for a good reason.  If I can’t reach you despite having provided you with every device known to mankind (at your request usually) that’s annoying.  Please note – being available in this way isn’t for everyone.

10.   A desire to improve.  Everyone should have this although in truth, some need it more than others.  That’s life!

They’re my top 10.  I’m sure there are loads more.  Keep your comments coming.  I love to receive and read them and so does everyone else.

Sherry Coutu – entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, mentor & role model

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It’s been a while since I’ve told you about someone interesting I’ve encountered in my travels so this blog is all about Sherry Coutu, award winning entrepreneur and a successful angel investor.  She has the smarts (MSc with Distinction in Economics from the London School of Economics & an MBA from Harvard), the track record as a practising CEO (her first start up was acquired by Euromoney plc and her second was floated via an IPO in 2000 when Sherry was five months pregnant and it was later valued at $1 billion), a successful investment track record (she’s invested so far in over 35 companies, one of the most recent being Artfinder) and the network (she sits on the boards of LinkedIn and Zoopla.com as well as being an investor in two VC firms).  Are you impressed yet?  There’s a lot more.  Sherry also has 3 young children and aims to spend one day per week putting something back via philanthropic pursuits (she’s on the board of Cancer Research UK, a trustee at NESTA, a non exec at Cambridge & Harvard universities and she works with NSPCC on a programme for disadvantaged teenagers).  I suspect on the philanthropic front there’s probably a lot more.  I know for a fact on the professional front there’s an awful lot more.  Wired Magazine voted Sherry one of the 25 most influential people in the wired world in May 2011.

I hate to tell you this but Sherry Coutu is also very understated, very cool and very nice.  I met her first a couple of months ago when Learning Pool was selected as one of the 9 SME finalists in the Cabinet Office’s Innovation Launchpad competition.  Sherry has been the driving force behind this initiative which seeks to improve in a practical way government engagement with SMEs.  I snapped the pic accompanying this blog when Sherry was delivering her presentation last Tuesday to the 120+ civil servants gathered at BIS.  We’ve been lucky to have her input and insight into our Big Society School idea as part of the Launchpad process.

My favourite Sherry Coutu quotes that I’ve come across so far are “I think the most important question for any startup is “Is what they’re aiming for going to change the world somehow? Is it going to make it a better place?”” and about working in the technology space “it’s a great industry that we’re a part of … being able to peer into the future and to invest in things that are likely to change our world. … It’s a huge privilege”.  In one video interview she tells how her father waved a bunch of fibre optic cable at her when she was 5 years old & told her it was going to change the world.  Life is all about those moments, isn’t it?

I’ve always thought I was a decent enough plate spinner and until I met Sherry, I’d never been envious of another person’s career.  I now realise I can surely do more.  Sherry’s tutor at the LSE talked to her about considering becoming an entrepreneur…I turned down my place at the LSE when I was 17 because I didn’t feel ready to move to London.  I wasn’t brave enough.  I’ve wondered over the past few days about how different my life may have been if I’d grasped that particular nettle – but then I also got to thinking about all the good things I might have missed and I’ve concluded that life really is too short for regrets.  It’s only in Kurt Vonnegut novels that we should visit those forks in the road & examine different outcomes.

I’ll leave you today with another great Sherry Coutu quote “As entrepreneurs you’re either seeking to disrupt something, or as a dominant market player, you’re seeking to retain your position. You know, you have to ask yourself, “Where’s the puck going to be in 25 years?”  Yep – the gal’s still a Canadian!  Sherry – it’s been a privilege to get to know you.

 

10 ways to punch well above your weight as a small business…

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We all agree it’s great to be a small business but sometimes, especially if you’re just starting out, you might want people to think you’re bigger than you are.

Below are 10 ways you can do that.  I’m sure there are many more – so I’ll be glad to see your comments.  Also interested to hear if people think some of this is “wrong” to do as a small business…as in do you think it’s deceitful or just resourceful?

1.       Be professional from Day 1 of trading.  By that I mean have a logo & a brand, get business cards, have a decent website (not one of those dreadful one page affairs that tells you there’s more coming later), get collateral printed if that’s part of your sell…and always behave in a professional manner.

2.       Work hard to keep your website content fresh and changing; write newsy articles and blogs and aim to have new “stuff” on your home page every day or every other day at least – if your website isn’t refreshed, people will stop coming back & you’ll lose momentum from your launch.

3.       Use freelance resource if you don’t yet have a team in place, but present those people as part of your team & give them business cards, company email addresses etc.  Don’t lie about this if you’re asked outright…most people will be sympathetic to what you’re trying to achieve.

4.       Speak at conferences and events and be visible – a lot of people do this very well.  You have to hustle a bit to get onto the event organisers’ radar but it’s no doubt worth the effort it takes.

5.       Gather up a small advisory board & feature them on your website.  Most people will be prepared to help you get started & won’t demand 30% of your company or £1,000 a day in return.  A lot of luminaries like to dabble in interesting projects so make yours so & find an innovative way to reward them.

6.       Get yourself some testimonials.  Ideally from early adopters or your first customers.  If you don’t have any customers yet, offer some of your prospects a free trial or a discount in exchange for a written  or video testimonial.

7.       Use a proper landline number.  When Learning Pool was starting out, we obtained a London phone number to give the impression that we had a London office, even though we were based in Northern Ireland.  We never lied about this to anyone & always told the truth when asked – but the truth is that no-one asked.  They recognised it as a London number & assumed the rest.  Along the same lines have a co-working space or concierge service to use as your company address – don’t use your residential address.

8.       Register for VAT from Day 1 – even if you won’t get anywhere near the turnover registration hurdle in Year 1.  It makes your company appear bigger from the get-go and therefore more credible.

9.       Partner with a larger organisation if you want to pitch for a big contract or piggy-back onto a bigger company so that you can use their government framework if they’re on one – you will usually pay them a percentage of any contract you win in order to avail yourself of this but it might be well worth it.

10.   My last & favourite one – hold all your early days business meetings in the poshest hotel you can find.  We used to use The Goring Hotel as our “London office” in the early days of Learning Pool (it was the hotel the Middletons stayed in the night before this year’s Royal Wedding – that’s how posh it is).  We would stay in there for days on end ordering tea but never any food as we couldn’t afford that.  You’d be amazed at the number of people that have since told us they were convinced we used to stay there.  Ha – I won’t tell you where we did used to stay…but it will be in the book when we eventually get round to writing it!

That’s my top 10 folks – can’t wait to see your additions.  Keep ‘em coming.

Going for business awards – is it worth all the hassle?

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Over the 5 years Learning Pool has been trading we’ve entered a few – won some & lost some – but is it worth the time & effort that it takes?

Like most things in life, the answer is probably “it depends”…which I know isn’t a great deal of help to you if you’re reading this blog to find out.  The thing is that awards cover a huge spectrum.  At one end are the “straightforward” awards – for example, the Deloitte Fast 50 technology awards.  It costs nothing to enter, you don’t have to write an essay or deliver a presentation, you don’t have to be a Deloitte customer, it’s up to you if you want to buy a few more places at the Awards dinner but there’s no pressure.  All you have to do is make your published financial information available and a calculation is performed of your revenue growth over a defined period of time.  The 50 companies with the highest growth are then ranked with the winner being the company whose revenue has grown by the biggest percentage.  It’s black & white and the numbers don’t lie.  We like this one & have been the Rising Star winners in Ireland for the past two years.

At the other end of the spectrum are the much less clear & transparent “industry” awards such as those run by e-Learning Age magazine.  I don’t know this is the case but from our perspective winning appears to be all about who you know in the industry and how much money you’ve spent with the magazine in sponsorship and advertising – as I say – only my own opinion from Learning Pool’s experience.  We’ve entered twice and although shortlisted each time have won nothing.  The winners are judged behind closed doors by a panel of industry “experts” – most of whom have their own e-learning companies and are therefore in direct competition with many of the entrants.  A more cynical person may conclude that everyone who enters gets shortlisted so as they’ll fork out for a very expensive table at the Awards dinner.  I shouldn’t scoff so – at least our last experience of this farce served to remind us that Learning Pool’s industry is very much the public sector and not e-learning.

Somewhere in the mix lies the business “competitions” – usually for seedcorn monies aimed at new or fast growing start-ups.  These require a detailed business plan, a significant time commitment and a number of presentations over a period of time.  The one & only time Learning Pool entered the Intertrade Ireland seedcorn competition (in 2008) we did well and won the Northern Ireland heat (we’re very proud of our trophy and that’s it in the photograph).  We were pipped to the post by resellers of 3D printers…I’ll say no more but c’est la vie.  This competition is definitely worthwhile for new start-ups, we learned a lot in the process and I would recommend it for any Irish companies thinking about entering.

In the future Learning Pool will continue to enter the Deloitte Fast 50 but we’ll probably be a bit more discerning about other awards and only enter in partnership with our customers to showcase their projects and achievements.

In summary, I don’t know whether entering awards is worth it or not – and I’ll be interested to hear your views on this.  Awards dinners are a fun night out for your team, especially if you win, but weigh up how much time and energy entering will take up and think about whether or not you would be better off, certainly as a start-up business, investing that resource into making sales.

 

Top 5 qualities the start-up CEO wants from team members

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You have to be a certain sort of person to get on well in a start-up and there’s no doubt it isn’t a suitable career choice for everyone.  I thought a quick “top 5 qualities” may be useful for any of you out there that are wondering if this sort of adventure is for you.

My original list was much longer but I’ve whittled it down to the 5 that matter most to me – I realise that this is personal to me and many of you will have some of your own that you wish to add in the comments section.

Read on if you’ve been bitten by the start-up bug or are thinking you might jump in to the technology bubble that’s rapidly exploding right now.

1.       POSITIVITY No-one wants to listen to or work alongside a whinger or sniper.  Yeah – things generally aren’t even close to perfect in a start-up environment but get over it & get over yourself & you’ll  make a far better team member.

2.       HARD WORK No getting away from this one folks.  You cannot cover off everything you need to by working 9-5 for 5 days a week.  If that’s all you can give, stay well away from start-up land.

3.       COMMITMENT I want to know you’re gonna stick around long enough for me to recoup my investment in you – and there will be one.  The flip side to that is the minute you’re gone, you’re gone – don’t expect a leaving party & sad farewells in a start-up; no-one has time for that.

4.       ENTHUSIASM AND ENERGY Enthusiasm for what we’re all trying to achieve, hunger for success and energy which manifests itself as urgency in all that you do.  Don’t come sloping in to work at 9am telling me you are tired.  I don’t want to hear it.

5.       A SOLUTIONS FOCUSED OUTLOOK Don’t bring me problems.  We have millions of those already.  Push yourself a bit, work it out & bring me a solution.  I like that a lot better.

You’ll note nothing on the list has anything to do with your skills.  I guess they’re a given & a secondary consideration.

As always your comments are welcome – keep them coming & I look forward to reading them.

 

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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