Tag: entrepreneurship

The falls after the highs

A few days ago, my business partners and I had our official launch event for our startup. It’s a business that runs hackathons bringing together students, corporates, and other organisations to solve social issues. The attendees work on a business, project, app, or campaign for 24–36 hours, and then pitch their idea to a panel of judges at the end. It went very well, and the three of us are over the moon with how it went.

This is not a blog about that.

I’ll probably write one, but for now there’s something that’s been bothering me for a few days.

You see, while I am incredibly proud of what the three of us have achieved (to say nothing of the work our event attendees achieved over the two days), almost the second that I announced the winning team — in other words, the ‘official’ end of the event — I felt empty.

I should be over the moon. Why am I not?

The above quote is actually something I wrote in a personal blog around 10 years ago. In that week, I had been awarded a black belt in a martial art I’d been practising for years, and had also completed a 55 mile challenge trek across Dartmoor in under 32 hours — something for which I’d been training for months. Each was incredibly important to me, and to have achieved them both in the space of a few days was incredible. Yet I distinctly remember waking up the next morning feeling decidedly less euphoric than I assumed I would.

I’m not sure why that line sticks out in my head, verbatim, after so long. But I was forcibly reminded of it over the last few days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled – I really really am. The event went well and – more importantly – the feedback we got from everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive. I’m proud of that weekend as a result of the hard work than went into it, and neither am I saying that I’ve constantly felt empty since the event ended — not at all.

But thinking about the event and the work we did isn’t providing me with the gut-bursting pride that I expected, and the feeling of deflation I felt wasn’t simply a decompression after an intense few days (and the preceding weeks). It was much deeper than that.

Pressure to succeed vs. Work-life balance

There’s a deeper problem though. In that deflating moment, I realised something. Up until that point, I had no idea how much I had invested into this startup. While I’ve said to people that I’ve put my soul into this business, I didn’t actually realise what that meant until a few days ago. That gut-bursting pride? I didn’t expect it; I needed it.

It worries me. It worries me because I know that my low moods are already on a hair trigger. I’m putting far to much pressure on a startup idea, and I’m struggling with the idea that my mental state is tied so closely to it. I felt deflated after my last event because that was my life up until that point. Once it had ended, how could I not feel empty? It’s why people have hobbies, other pursuits, friends, relationships, whatever. It’s things to make sure that when your situation changes in one part of your life, you still have other things that are stable and grounding. In my case, how I felt a few days ago was so much worse than how I felt 10 years ago, because I had other things going on at the time.

Catch-22

But I have a finite amount of time and energy, and putting my all into something that I believe in, in a perverse sort of way, makes sense. I know that it’s a stupid position to hold; I know that I’m custom-building my own environment for a monumental burnout-breakdown.

Yet at the same time, I don’t know how else to function. The irony is that there’s a part of me that’s scared about taking my eye off the ball — even if only for a little bit, for the longer term benefit of my health (and by proxy the business). Success and that feeling of a job well done is a drug — one that I need larger and larger doses of to maintain my normal function.

The same logical analysis that convinces my that my depression is an inextricable part of me, is the same thought process that goes into deciding that I probably should be working harder than I do. I exist in a sort of Schrodinger’s cat-style situation where at all times I know that I need to work harder, and I also know that I need to take my foot off the accelerator a little. The two are mutually exclusive, and both can’t be true. I know that.

It’s just that I also know they both are.

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Some thoughts on The Apprentice

This year is the first in the 12 years of the BBC’s The Apprentice that I haven’t been watching. I’m not boycotting it or anything, but I have to say that I’m not missing it at all.

It’s weird because, on paper, it’s exactly my kind of show – a business competition; reality TV with an intellectual element. The Apprentice is also a show that I’m arrogant enough to think I would do well in, so there’s that element of yelling obnoxiously at the TV that you get with basically every TV Quiz show that isn’t University Challenge. I love that element of TV.

In fact, a few years ago there was a change to the format of The Apprentice that should have made it even more appealing. Instead of competing to win some obscure job deep in the unknown depths of an Amstrad subsidiary, contestants were gunning for the chance to win money and backing for their own start-up ventures.

It was great news, and entrepreneurs nationwide rejoiced. While there was a lot of speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for the shifting goalposts (most prominent perhaps, the lawsuit by a former Apprentice winner against Lord Sugar), Sugar’s outward reasoning was a strong one. He declared that he wanted to prove to everyone up and down the country that anyone can start a very successful business with a relatively small amount of money. It was, in his own way, a show of force for the enterprising community.

And herein lies my major gripe with the show. Its not that it has become a petty ratings driven hour of drivel. Its not that the show does a shocking job of portraying women in the workplace. And its not that the whole thing is now so formulaic you can predict the outcome from about 20 mins into the first episode.

The show inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs

No. While these are all damning indictments of the show, the issue I wanted to talk about is that the sum of money that people are competing for – the Holy Grail of proof that anyone can start a successful business regardless of circumstance – is £250,000.

Now I know that this, in the grand scheme of business – and certainly to someone like Lord Sugar – is in fact a relatively small sum of money. Its just that if the ‘new’ aim and direction of The Apprentice really was to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to follow their passions, this seems a big number to jump for right out of the gate.

A counter argument I’ve heard to this train of thought is that the changing focus of the show isn’t to inspire more people to become entrepreneurs, but rather to encourage more people to see The Apprentice as an avenue to explore to that end. I’ll ignore the fact that, if true, this is a ridiculous aim, and instead focus on something else. Roughly the same number of people apply every year for a spot on The Apprentice as do for an undergraduate course at the University of Cambridge. Through the magic of statistics, you are therefore 600 times more likely to gain a place studying at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, than you are to become a contestant in any given year. 

The show acts as an education into the world of entrepreneurship

How about the fact that, just by watching it, you are getting to grips with business saavy that might otherwise escape you? 

On the face of it, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable claim. The show does place a focus on profit and loss, on the interactions and sales pitches of the contestants, and on the the ideas that they generate in relatively short spaces of time.

Again though, if this were the aim, The Apprentice falls laughably short. The show holds up these challenges as if they are the Gold Standard of business acumen. Every week they run a different challenge to see which team makes the most ‘profit’ from a task. Yet they utterly fail to take into consideration basic business such as fixed costs, staff time, etc.

Here, I know, I’m being incredibly pedantic. The point is to pit the two teams against each other, so if you assume all their fixed costs are the same it makes for easier viewing to just taking into account how the teams differ. I just think that in so doing you are missing a large chuck of the business mindset. 

Winning the challenges demonstrates the right skills

The biggest respect I ever had for Lord Sugar whilst watching The Apprentice was in one episode a few seasons back. I forget what the task was, but both teams did shockingly poor – it was the kind of thing that I was embarrassed to watch, and I had zero affiliation to anyone close to the programme. The norm is that the winning team every week gets a reward – a track day at Silverstone, a night making cocktails at some high end London club, etc. In this particular case, there was a winner for the task – or rather, one team did less poorly than the other. However, Sugar was so incensed with how badly everyone had done that no team got a reward.

I’ll skip over the fact that the entitled bunch reacted as if someone had shot their cat, and instead ask: why isn’t this the norm? Shouldn’t they have to fight for the prize? If the aim of The Apprentice really was to make better business people (let’s not forget that the show is aired by the BBC, whose mission statement is to “…inform, educate and entertain.” – so it isn’t totally out of the question), wouldn’t that make more sense?

Instead the show seems to reward arrogance and deceit, just as much as good business sense. I don’t mean to get all high-and-mighty, but all of the negative connotations we have about entrepreneurship and business, The Apprentice glorifies. And that’s totally fine – I love watching people have it out in the boardroom as much as the next person. But let’s not pretend we’re watching anything other than that. And let’s certainly not pretend that The Apprentice is doing anything good for the UK’s future and existing entrepreneurs.

I started this post by saying that I wasn’t intentionally boycotting The Apprentice, and then proceeded to take 800 words to argue how bad it is. I’m not actively taking a stand against the show, and I do recognise that it does represent some of the better television entertainment that exists (there’s a separate discussion to be had as to what that says about TV today…). And, of course, if you watch it I hope this series is a good one.

I guess my problem, ultimately, is that if the show needs to justify itself (and it does – every single show on the BBC does) it falls very far short.

All of that said, I might well tune in for the penultimate episode. While I stand by everything I’ve just said, the interviews do make for great television.

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On the power of crowdsourcing

Sometimes it seems like there is no way that your business can take off in such an over-populated world, where we can only seem to focus on something for about 30 seconds at a time. Just as we use tools to distract us though, modern life has also provided us with the means to break into markets and resources that, 10 years ago, we could never have dreamed of. Crowdsourcing is just one of those ways.

Crowdsourcing – “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people” (Wikipedia) – is perhaps one of the most powerful tools young entrepreneurs have at there disposal. Whether you need ideas, information, market research, or even money, there are more and more tools out there to help you get a foothold in the market.

So what steps could you take to launch your idea? That’s right, get ready for another listicle…!

1. MARKET RESEARCH – is there a need for my business?

Before we move onto to the newer, shinier, more innovative ways of tapping into crowdsourcing, its worth remembering the basics. Even something as seemingly mundane as SurveyMonkey, coupled with the right attitude to its distribution, can be a powerful (and free!) market research tool.

Be aware of those short attention spans though – make sure that the questions you ask are concise and leave no room for interpretation. Also think about exactly what it is you need from the survey. Really put thought into every question, and if it won’t add value, take it out.

2. FINANCE – how do I get funding?

Crowd-funding is a growing, though still relatively new, concept. Kickstarter is perhaps the most famous example of a crowd-funding platform, particularly since its recent jump across the pond from its native US, and I’ve long been a great fan of the concept.

For those unfamiliar, its essentially a way for projects to be crowd-funded rather than backed by an individual. From the developer’s point of view, they get the money they need without the bureaucratic strings attached to a single backer. And from the consumer’s point of view, they donate a small amount of money and get an ‘untainted’ product – they give money because they trust the developer, and so they are (hopefully) happy with the result. The great thing from a consumer’s point of view is that there is no risk. If the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t reach a pre-determined target, no one pays any money.

If you get a crowd big enough, the scope is huge. There are countless extreme examples, such as the ‘Exploding Kittens’ card game which ultimately raised nearly $90k over the course of the giving, or the Pebble Time watch which hit its (not inconsiderable) $1 million in the first 49 minutes. Some of these have more of a cult following than others, and some have more marketing muscle than you might have access to. But the principle is the same – if you have a project and you can get people to believe in it, then the sky’s the limit.

3. ADVERTISING – how should I spread the word?

So you’ve done the research, you’ve got the funding, and you’re pretty much ready to go. But how do you announce your big launch to the world?

Well we’ve already been through how crowd-sourcing and social media can help with research and money. Advertising doesn’t seem too much of a stretch, surely? I was recently introduced to Thunderclap – a great way of sharing a message across social media. You set a deadline and ask people to support your cause. If enough people have supported it by that time, then everyone involved automatically posts on their Facebook and/or Twitter page at the exact same time, creating a ‘Thunderclap’ of whatever message you like.

Its a great little gimmick to get people talking – and the best part isn’t even the Thunderclap at the end. If you’re clever about the target you set – ambitious but not out of reach – then in recruiting people to join the campaign you’re also marketing at the same time. Its a win-win!

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you can get away with using the internet as your sole aide in starting a business. You will need to also do some work ‘offline’ – customer surveys face to face, talks with professional advertising companies. The degree to which you do this will depend on the type and scale of your business. But the internet, and crowdsourcing, is a pretty exciting way to get started!

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On believing in your project or business

Entrepreneurship is a tricky thing, and success is a coveted reward. As a result, no matter how much you believe in your idea, there will be plenty of people who want to see you fail. That isn’t meant to sound melodramatic, it’s just that  while people enjoy a good success story, they also like to see people crash and burn. The former inspires them to feel like they can do anything, whereas the latter reminds them that its ok to be a mere mortal.

Of course, not everyone is going to be on a personal mission to sabotage your every move, but equally in life there aren’t that many handouts. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and you do have to make your own luck. (And with that, I’ve just exhausted my quota of cliches)

You will (hopefully) have the support of friends and family in your venture – and you will need them to succeed, but this won’t always be enough. You may also need investment from third-parties, or advice from other professionals. The phrase “people buy from people” is a well used one in many circles. How many of you have heard of (or even witnessed) someone with a great idea, but they didn’t get investment because they weren’t a nice person – they just didn’t feel right?

Hold on a second. Why is that even a measure? They don’t ‘feel’ right, or they ‘lacked passion’, or ‘the product was good, but I didn’t believe in the person’. These things should have no bearing on whether or not your product should appeal to investors. What matters is the hundred of hours of market research you’ve done, the countless prototypes you’ve made, the minute attention to detail you’ve put into your product. These are things that determine success, surely? Who cares what you’re like as a person, or how much passion you have?

Well, it turns out pretty much everybody – including those investors. When you think about it, it’s not that hard to understand why. A lot of investors don’t just put their money into your idea, they also put in their time. If you’ve ever seen Dragons Den, you’ll know that the Dragons put a lot of stock in the characteristics of the individual, and on more than one occasion they have put offers on not only the product in the room, but for a number of – at the time hypothetical – subsequent products. They do this not just because they have faith in the showcased item, but because they believe that the individual trying to sell it will be a good business partner.

Sticking with Dragons Den for a moment, you may have heard of Reggae Reggae Sauce, a caribbean inspired condiment that received an investment from the programme. If you haven’t seen the pitch, I urge you to check it out. In short, what Levi Roots did was deliver his pitch as a song, with a guitar accompanyment, that he’d written. It was obvious from the get-go that he loved his product, and his confident and assured approach to selling it told us that he believed in himself. He got the funding, and the rest, as they say, is history (oh look, I had one more cliche left in me afterall).

So you’re a likable and trustworthy person, and you are passionate about what you are doing. Great! You’re well on your way to becoming fantastically wealthy. Success, though, still isn’t guaranteed. We all know famous examples of people who, at the start of their careers, couldn’t seem to catch a break. From The Beatles to JK Rowling, history will always be littered with examples that, in retrospect, have made fools of the first people they went to. This wasn’t because what they were trying to sell was bad, but because it was believed that ‘guitar groups are on the way out’, or ‘people won’t want to read books about wizards’.

It’s in this scenarios where believing in yourself couldn’t be more important. You’ve done your homework, you’ve created something that you love, and you’re damn good at what you do. Make sure you remember that, even while other people apparently fail to see it. People will reject your idea, and it will sometimes be an incredibly demoralising ordeal, but by believing in yourself, in your product, and in your team you’ll be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and try again until you succeed.

To take a slightly different angle from this, you might want to check out this TED talk by Simon Sinek about why people buy products. The angle is different, but the message is the same – you need to believe in yourself and know why you are taking on this challenge. Whether it’s a project, a campaign, a business, or something else entirely, you need to first be able to sell the why. And for that you need to believe.

And if you need more convincing to stay the course, just think what would have happened to the music world if the Beatles had listened to the people that rejected them.

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What IE taught me about entrepreneurship

So it seems the days of the (in)famous Internet Explorer are numbered. While it’s obvious that Microsoft won’t bow out of the internet browser war completely, IE as we know it will apparently be retired in favour of ‘Project Spartan‘ (if nothing else, Microsoft need to be commended on the confident naming of their new product).

There are some things, however, that we can all learn from Internet Explorer – and specifically its relaunch a few years ago with IE10. For those who don’t remember, they launched a campaign to try to breathe new life into the dwindling user base which you can watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD9FAOPBiDk

In doing so Microsoft took a different tack with promoting it and, in my mind, was one that all entrepreneurs can learn from. I originally wrote the below for another site just after the launch of IE10, and now seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.

Once the crown jewel of the Microsoft Windows experience, Internet Explorer has long fallen out of favour with many internet users. It has often been put down as ‘slow’, ‘unsafe’, and ‘only really good for downloading Netscape/Firefox/Chrome (depending on the decade in question)’. While there are still more people using IE than any other browser (estimates are 50% share for IE, compared with only 15% second-place Google Chrome), it’s undeniable that IE is seen by many as the Beelzebub of the browser world.

But in 2012 IE fought back with its 10th incarnation, in a way that all entrepreneurs – aspiring, starting, or established – could learn a thing or two from.

Lesson 1 – Know that you can never please everyone…

No one knows this like Microsoft. As a company they have their fingers in a lot of pies, and so have to deal with competition on several fronts.

As with any form of competition there will be disputes. And when you’re designing your product or service it will be impossible to make it appeal to everyone. Microsoft found this out the hard way through IE when another browser came along and advertised itself as fast, better, and more secure. Whilst Netscape was arguably all of these things, IE’s only real flaw, up until then, was that it didn’t have any competition. It’s important to remember that however good your company is, you can’t create something that will be universally liked – you could mass produce kittens that never age, staying small and adorable for all eternity, but there will still be those who are allergic to cat hair.

Lesson 2 – …but one raindrop raises the sea.

OK, so I stole that one from Dinotopia, but bear with me. Of course there is no such thing as the perfect product – but that certainly shouldn’t stop you aspiring to make it. And while you’re on your journey, make sure you grab every success you can.

While it was done in a tongue-in-cheek way, the IE10 advert does make a very good point. Their apparent aim was to make just a little progress – “IE sucks… less.” Microsoft know that their advert isn’t going to convince everyone using Chrome to switch overnight. But companies spend millions trying to claw back one or two percent market-share here and there. With an estimated 2 billion people on the planet connected to the net, an extra one percent of people using IE equates to 2 million additional users for Microsoft.

In business – as in life in general – every day is made up of little challenges. But getting one more person to buy your product, getting that one letter of thanks from a client, convincing one person that your internet browser isn’t quite as rubbish as they thought it was, all of these things should encourage you and make you want to keep doing what you do.

Lesson 3 – Think carefully about your marketing

It’s pretty obvious, but if you want to get your product or service out there you need to yell about it. People are, by their nature, pretty set in their ways. If they’re using Chrome or Firefox as their web browser, and are perfectly happy with the way it runs, why would they take the effort to switch? Well, for the same reason that they moved away from IE in the first place – someone told them it would be a good idea.

Advertising is tricky though. With some products being stung by the media (and even Trading Standards) for making big claims, which are only supported by stipulations in tiny writing next to an asterisk, consumers are becoming jaded (“Of course Microsoft are going to say IE is good – they keep trying to trick us with that gem”). Microsoft realised that simply saying the new IE is ‘faster’ and ‘more innovative’ wasn’t going to cut it. They’ve had to go one step further, and by admitting previous flaws they were trying to win back trust.

The way in which you advertise your product defines you as a company, and will directly influence who buys it. As an interesting side note, how many of you noticed that in the entire 90 second advert, you don’t actually see Internet Explorer once?

Also, Lesson 3b – Self depreciative humour is a good thing.

Lesson 4 – Have a clear message for your company

In 2012 and 2013 Microsoft underwent a complete rebrand. Alongside IE10 they released Windows 8 across a plethora of devices, in addition to refreshing the look of their ubiquitous Office suite. The message, across the Microsoft range, was that they were appealing to people’s unique preferences. In the IE10 advert, they do this by homing in on our friendly neighbourhood IE-hater’s love of karaoke.

But when you’re starting out with your venture, make sure that it’s not just your customers who understand your company’s message. Particularly in start-ups, but also across all businesses, the importance of making sure your employees and colleagues understand the company’s core values can not be overstated. Communication is key. As a real world example, how many times have you called a customer service department with an issue, and been bounced from pillar to post to get it sorted. How infuriating as a customer is it to feel like the different departments seem to have no concept of what the others do?


So there you have it – whatever your thought about Microsoft as a company, and Internet Explorer as a browser, we could learn a thing or two from them about business. Who’d have thought it?

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