Loving the Underdog! PART2 – City of creation

April 8, 2011

This is my follow-up post to Loving the Underdog! PART1 – The 800lb gorilla

My startup, Aware Monitoring, was recently invited to a local business club event as an example of a innovative and entrepreneurial company. At the event I was blown away by the growth and leading market positions of the other companies presenting!!

It occurred to me that a strong local business and startup eco-system is absolutely vital to nurture young ‘underdog’ startup companies like ours. Success breeds success. We must all invest in our local eco-system and everyone in the city will reap the rewards.

In this Invest in Nottingham Club video I talk about my underdog
startup and the potential of Nottingham

My startup is based in the provincial city of Nottingham. Our city is the centre of business within our region. Nottingham is well known for its creativity, innovation and of course, Robin Hood. We have some big great companies here including Boots, Experian, Raleigh and Capital One. The city has a world leading biotech cluster and is a UK centre of gaming which hosts GameCity, an annual global videogames festival.

The city has a strong tech community, with social groups such as Nott Tuesday and Geekup bringing developers, designers, bloggers and online entrepreneurs together to share ideas. And we have some great tech companies including Esendex, Prime Principle and Outso.

However the City has a long way to go before becoming a leading cluster for web tech on the scale of BioCity, a Nottingham based biotech cluster. I’ve been extremely impressed by BioCity and the eco-system of companies and people working around it. Several of the companies at the event were based at BioCity. This type of light touch commercial eco-system with small and large niche companies working together seems to work incredibly well.

The ingredients which go to make a city of creativity that forms clusters such as BioCity, Silicon Valley or TechHub include:

  1. Startup facilities – Low cost, industry specific incubators which are commercially supported and run.
  2. Second generation founders - Industry specific founders who become investors and mentors in startups.
  3. UniversitiesThat attract and develop talent from across the nation who then settle locally.
  4. Larger companies – Who’s staff leave the corporate world to branch out their own.
  5. Institutional investors - These are needed to help continue to grow successful companies.

I was blown away and inspired by capability and growth of local companies presenting. This is both the companies that are part of BioCity and the ones who have done it own their own. These events show what can be done locally in a provincial city like Nottingham. The companies demonstrate the resourcefulness, commitment and innovation that founders are capabile of.

In some way its better to be a in city fighting to create something new. It brings people together to focus their efforts on creating something of meaning and value.

My next ‘Loving the Underdog’ post will be Loving the Underdog! PART3 - Why we Love ‘em

Here’s to the crazy ones :)

March 15, 2011

I like this a lot.

Its from the 1998 Apple ‘Think different’ marketing campaign.

See wikipedia for more on ‘Think Different’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Think_Different

My Startup lessons learnt

March 1, 2011

After three years, burning through a pile of cash and God knows how many work hours, here is my startup story from:  (1) Finding an idea and sticking to it, (2) Getting a commercial product out the door (3) And  then iterate/pivot to a product-market-fit (a must have product).

This video was recorded during a ‘Opportunity recognition’ lecture at Nottingham University and kindly filmed by my good friends at Skeleton Productions. These video’s are nicely divided into six easily digestible sections. If you only watch one, see PART3 - ‘Finding the perfect new business idea..’

PART 1 – About Nick Barker, Opportunity recognition and a quiz on famous tech startups that pivoted

PART 2 – Overview the three Opportunity recognition and development challenges. About Aware Monitoring

PART3 – Finding the perfect new business idea, lack of time and search for customer value proposition

PART4 – Building out a product, funding and pivoting the service

PART 5 – Competitor differentiation, lean startups and getting to product-market-fit

PART 6 – Continuous process of iterating and pivoting a product. Learn more about Nick Barker

Loving the Underdog! PART1: The 800lb gorilla

February 23, 2011

I recently helped organise a startup competition in our City. There were five startups pitching.  Several of them are attempting to take on much, much larger entrenched competitors. It seems like madness! They’re competitors are stronger, have more resources and many more customers. But, sooner or later, a startup has no choice. They have to fight the 800 pound gorilla!! Despite the odds, startups can and do beat their massive competitors.

You’ve gotta Love the startup underdog’s sheer audaciousness and courage against the odds!

If a startup is lucky enough to find a gap in the market, they will attract copy-cats. Initially most of them will be other startups. Mostly there’s little point in startups competing with startups, as they both have nothing to loose. Startups are quick to change, nimble and have a low-cost base. It’s almost best to ignore other startups playing in the same field.

With traction and time other copy-cats will be big powerful competitors. With customers and revenue streams, larger companies have the luxury of time. They have power. Startups don’t! If startups persistently compete against big players they will either be acquired or squeezed out of the market. Of course, if funded, the VC’s love the ‘acquire now’ option.

Just today I see startup Slideshare is taking dominant Cisco and Citrix head in the on-line meetings market. At our startup competition the winner Go-Dine is competing against the very well established Opentable. And Annot8, one of the finalists,  is completing against Google!! My website performance monitoring startup is also increasing competing against our much larger competitors.

It seems like a no win situation!!

So how on earth can a startup win against the 800lb gorilla..?

  1. Find their weak points – Often large dominate market leaders become bloated with the fat of large profits. They have not explored new channels or markets. This is when a nimble startup can attack!
  2. Go niche – Much large competitors can be avoided by going deep into a niche market where the play is too small for a large company.
  3. Attack their profits - There is probably a product or service where the 800lb gorilla is making their fattest profits. Attack this treasure chest and weaken their position.
  4. Forget them – It’s easy to get obsessed by the competition. Focus on the customers and their needs, not what the competitors are doing.
  5. Out innovate them – This is making the most of their weak points. Re-define the market! It’s a challenge without significant resources i.e. major funding but it can be done. And when it is, the profit are huge. VC’s love this approach.

Startups have little choice but to stand and flight using their limited resources.  The founders can’t just tuck tail and run when they they’re up against a large competitor. Startups can and do win against the 8o0lb gorilla’s. Just look at Mint v’s Intuit or Dyson v’s Hoover, the list goes on and on. This is the way of our evolutionary economics system. Startups change everything!!

Next post in ‘Loving the Underdog’ series: PART2 – City of creation

Here’s a few good posts on startups v’s bigger competitors:

 

My latest Pitch

February 8, 2011

Here’s my latest startup pitch (kindly recorded by Lucy Hewlitt of techfluff.tv) - its only 2:40 seconds long. My elevator pitch has got alot better over the last year and a half.

I talk about what our service does, how we are different and how our service has been received. Lucy also asks me how we are funded.

After pitching our service 100′s of times its got much better but there’s always room for improvement ;)

You got the love for building businesses?

January 26, 2011

Watching Morten Lund at Geek’n’Rolla it occurred to me that our entrepreneurial future lies in our past. This video is a must see – he’s a very excitable and wacky character. Morten exudes life and Zen. He said ‘I’m an entrepreneur’holic’. He can’t stop building businesses!

I’ve not been doing it myself for 18 years. Looking back into my career, family background, I’ve been building businesses up for about the same time. Of course,  in my career this was for other people’s companies. However, I believe that we can still be entrepreneurial working for someone else.

Please bear with me as I use my past employments to demonstrate the point:

  • NetCare (part of ComputerLand UK Plc) – I took on the job of turning this fledgling IT managed service into something big. At the time I was offered a much more stable alternative position with a higher salary. It seems strange to take a more difficult position for less money but I saw the potential and wanted to build something of value.
  • Novell – I had always dreamt of working for a successful global software company and when Novell offered me the chance I was extremely excited.  At the time Novell had suffered some serious set backs. When Eric Schmidt   (now Charmian of Google) joined and the share price was on the up, I could see this could be a turnaround. It was the chance to help re-build Novell. Unfortunately I was proved wrong. Eric left and the company continued it’s slide downwards.
  • NetMan – This was a niche boutique consultancy. They specialised in Novell and Intel LANDesk. Only eight people were employed when I started. At the time I was offered a job at a much, much larger  systems integrator but felt NetMan had more exciting potential. We did well. The business grow significantly and was acquired by ComputerLand UK Plc. We built something of value.
  • Business Systems Group (BSG) – We made this company  into the fastest growing systems integrator in the UK at the time. I loved being a key part of that growth. I built up several product and service streams whilst at BSG. This included their software support business. At the time BSG had virtually no support services. They mainly sold PC hardware and software. I build their software support service into a healthy and profitable service. I also grow BSG’s Apple Mac business and helped build their software development services.
  • WARNING PLUG = Today, I have my own startup, Aware Monitoring – We have a website, web app, e-commerce performance monitoring service. If it’s down, with error or slow – we let you know! We  started from scratch!  Building it has been intense. What an amazing feeling doing it for yourself!! It’s such an incredible feeling when a major company and new customer says they’re ‘delighted’ with the service. Very different from doing it for someone else..

I love building businesses or product/service streams from very little. For me its the challenge of making something new that was not there before. I look back further into my family history and see a strong heritage of trading in great trading cities like York. Looking closer, my close family have had or still run their own businesses.

Having a startup and growing a business into something real is not for everyone. It’s not easy. It takes great persistence, sacrifice and belief. The more I think about it, the more I realise that building businesses has to be part of you. It’s part of your past and your future. I don’t think you wake up one day and say ‘I feel like starting a business today’. You have to be committed. Really committed – Like Morton! It has to be part of you!!

5 ‘Shocking’ things founding a startup

January 13, 2011

Its been a real eye opener starting-up a new company. We’ve been doing it now for over two years. After many life experiences I try to limit my expectations when going into something new. I believe having an open mind is the best way to enjoy a new experience. On our startup journey I’ve been surprised, and even shocked, by the sheer scale of the challenge and the help you do and don’t receive.

(image dedicated to the memory of Jeffery Walker and his great blog posts)

Startup experiences fall into to camps – the positive and the negative. This is typical of the roller coaster of a ride that a startup is. Lets get the negative out the way first:

  1. Doubt – I still find it shocking how many people doubt your startup. Even when you’ve had some success they still doubt. The most shocking thing is the doubt can come from the closest people around you – family, friends, ex-coworkers, etc. To overcome this doubt I’ve relied on the positive people and startup friends.
  2. Hard work – I’ve worked hard in my career. Startups take hard work to a new level. The shocking thing is there’s too much to do. You can’t possibly do it all. And do a good job at everything. The only answer is to prioritize and work damn hard!
  3. Time – Everything takes much longer than you plan, want or need. In a bigger company, with a comfortable salary, you have much more time to make decisions and get things done. In a startup you have shockingly limited time and resources (money) to make something, sell it and survive.
  4. Startup Karma – Other founders help you out expecting no return. Its surprise and shocks you when it happens. They’ve survived to tell their tale and know exactly how hard it really is e.g. point (1) & (2). They become your first customers or are customers who take you to the next level. It’s like an unwritten code – help other startups, when they really need it. The catch is, startup Karma can’t be forced. You can’t ask for it. It just happens.
  5. Excitement – I’ve had a very exciting career having worked in London for several years, worked for a leading global software manufacturer and grown a outsource service internationally. Having a startup is an even more exciting experience. It’s all-consuming. It’s like being in a tornado – your pulled in every direction. It seems like chaos and changes often and could all come crashing down at any minute. Startups are certainly not for the fait-hearted!

I’ve heard this and repeated it before – startups are a roller-coaster of a ride. This is the biggest shock for me. One minute you feel like you can conquere the world when you win a key deal or a startup founder helps you out. The next minute someone close tells you to ‘get a real job’ or  you miss a vital product deadline. You’ve got to learn to keep a level head and deal with the way it is. Thumbs up ;)

Fun tech vid’s

December 29, 2010

If you’re bored and not seem them before – here’s a couple of fun tech video clips to be enjoyed over the Christmas break:

New Dork – a tech startup, entrepreneur parody of Jay-Z & Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind”

Classic – Mac v’s PC face off!

I also found this very funny Newport (Welsh) version of “Empire State of Mind”:

Enjoy!!

Startingup JFDI!!

December 21, 2010

This month I gave a talk to Nottingham Uni / Nottingham Trent Uni undergrads at Thirsty Thursday. The idea of the event is to ‘Inspire students to run their own businesses.’ I talked about our Aware Monitoring journey from finding the idea to commercialising the service. My underlying message was clear and loud – JFDI (Just Freakin’ Do It!!). But why be so abrupt..?

My JFDI pitch!

If you have an idea or a passion to do something – JFDI. Stop talking! Stop thinking!! Start doing – now!! NOW!! One of the easiest things to do in the world, is to procrastinate. A decision, even if proves to be a bad one, is still a direction. It can be learned from.

My thinking is, if these students really want to do something – they should do it now.  They shouldn’t wait until they have even more excuses in life not to do it. One of my close family members urged me to start my own business when I was 19 years old but I said no. At the time it was the right decision. I did what was right for me and I was not being led by others.

In Bronnie Ware’s wonderful and touching post ‘Regrets of the Dying‘ she talks about people not fulling their dreams:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way.”

If you really desire to have a startup or change something significant in your life, do it now. I take my hat to people like 23-year-old Joel Gascoigne, who gave a talk at our Nott Tuesday meetup group last week, for doing just this. He is now on his second startup project Buffer, a Twitter scheduling app. Joel is living his dream with passion, learning and persistence. He’s just getting on with it – JFDI!!

Me & Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge

November 24, 2010

Last week I attended  Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge (SVC2C). The event brings together Silicon Valley, UK/European entrepreneurs and Cambridge University students to meet, lean and collaborate. I sat in on many of the talks over the three-day Cambridge conference. It was a very informative and enjoyable event with some great networking. My highlights were objectively knowing ‘When is it right to abandon your startup efforts’ panel, remembering your grand Vision after The ‘Keynote Speeches’ and meeting other founders at the Company Showcase.

 

 

Gut feel plus test and measure

The Panel described as ‘When is it right to abandon your current Effort? What scorecard should you use and how should you track progress? Monitoring, measuring and monitising…’ – this caught my eye because its one of the most difficult challenges for startup founders – Knowing when to quit!

Reid Hoffmann,  co-founder of LinkedIn and SVC2C co-chair, reminded us of the need to ‘Fail fast’. That way founders have time to start over again. However the challenge is we fall in Love and become obsessed with our startup. It becomes part of us.

Julie Hanna, Kiva Chair, talked about the need to be simultaneously both passionate and dispassionately objective. Use data to guide you. Of course this is difficult in the very early days with only limited data and a concept. At the beginning ‘Think it through crisply’ Reid said. Jose Ferreira, ‘iterate what you are doing right and wrong everyday’. Ultimately you’re trying to find a value proposition that is saving more money than you are charging. Only then are you onto a winner!

Make a difference

Each of the panelist in The ‘Keynote Speeches’ talked about where they saw their companies successful innovations making a difference in the future.  Mark Littlewood gives a full writeup of all the Keynote talks here. This got me thinking about my own startup and the Vision Simon, my co-founder, and I had when we first started Aware Monitoring. It’s so easy in a busy startup to loose sight of the ‘Wood, because of the trees’.

All the panelist had grand visions of helping to solve educational, health and green energy challenges.  It’s so important to bring real value to others and the world with your startup efforts. Even it they are small! Solve real problems your customers have, bring true value and they will love you for it!

People make a startup

I met some old friends (Martin and Richard from Psonar, Andrew Walkingshaw from Timetric) and new ones (John Snyder from Grapeshot, Adam Kingdon from i2O Water)  at the Saturday morning Company Showcase. It’s aways very helpful to share ideas, challenges and experiences with other startup/company founders. Even in these days of Social Networking, face-to-face networking is as important as it’s always been, thus Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge. Also, well done to Groupspaces for winning the SVC2C competition.

 

When summing up the event Reid said something that stuck in my mind, ‘A startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling the airplane on the way down!’. It’s so true – you have to build your product quickly under pressures before the startup crashes and burns. It’s definitely a rush!!

SVC2C is an excellent event for learning and sharing ideas.  Sherry Coutu, Reid Hoffmann and all the other organisers did a wonderful job of bringing people together.


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