Posts Tagged ‘MBA’

Startup Opportunity Identification 2.0

February 18, 2010

The difficulty with customers is that they don’t really know what they want until they see it! This creates a nightmare for any startup or corporation trying to build a new product – What do you make that people really want and are willing to pay for?

To find the answer startups have to commit to an idea and  move quickly, and cheaply  through to a Minimal Viable Product .  You are looking for a ‘must have” product. This  requires continual iteration around customer needs. The ultimate test is  getting customers to profitably pay for your solution i.e. a higher lifetime value of a customer to the cost of customer acquisition.

We’ve had three product ideas in our startup before we found the one we’re working on now. Creating a new startup product moves through three successive stages starting with ideas development and finishing in a successful product/market fit.  Currently our startup is trying to get to product/market fit.

Last  week I gave talks to MSc and  MBA Entrepreneurship students on identifying entrepreneurial opportunities (above deck) based on these three stages:

  1. Ideas development – We spent a  very long  time researching and looking for the killer idea. We were trying to find the perfect opportunitya gap in the market between existing suppliers in a new growth market. We went round and round in circles looking for the perfect opportunity. In the end we ditched our first real idea because the customer ROI was weak in the economic downturn. We then,  much more rapidly, came up with lots of new  ideas and committed to one – external website monitoring. Unfortunately research takes time and as a startup without revenues you don’t have time. You have to commit to an idea even if it’s not perfect –  NOTE: there will always be competition!
  2. Product development & release – Without perfect knowledge on customer needs and competition you have to make many product  assumptions. Right from the  start  we were testing our assumptions with potential customers at network events, in meetings, online and during our Alpha/Beta. It’s not easy to get real answers without a shiny product to sell.  A prototype helps. You have  to rely on your gut instinct. During  this feedback we switched our app from internal systems monitoring to external web monitoring. We found potential customers more receptive to this offering. This early engagement process also helped us to develop our sales messages, sales funnel and  go-to market strategies.
  3. Market/product fit –  If you’ve made it this far the really hard work starts.  You’re now looking to make your product a ‘must have’. The challenge is its very hard to be heard by potential customers. You’ need to get the product in their hands! Only then can they make a true judgment on its value. They’ll also compare your product to  substitutes and alternatives in the market. You therefore need to differentiate and deliver a much better product to get them to change! The sales message and product needs constant refining until you have a measured product/market fit. Only the can you pull the sales trigger.

As startup founders we think we know what customers want and the problem they want solving the most. Unfortunately we’re probably wrong. We then  waste huge amounts of time building a product around that  perceived need. It’s hard for many founders to admit their ideas, product and dreams are incorrect. The ideas which formed the startup were based upon a assumptions.

You have to know when to quit an idea, re-form it or find a new idea as assumptions are tested.  Flickr (started as on-line games), Youtube (Hot or Not) and Blogger (project management) are all great examples of product ideas which iterated to a different final product. As startups we don’t have the comfort of time and must move rapidly through an idea, production and iteration. Unfortunately non of this guarantees success but it sure helps!

Valuing an MBA in a startup

February 3, 2010

Over the last week there’s been alot of talk questioning the value of having an MBA in a startup – Giff Constable, Rob Chogo, Jon Steinberg, and Charlie O’Donnell (All stateside and non of whom I know). I’ve an MBA in entrepreneurship, 20 years tech business development experience and now a startup. In my experience an MBA does not teach anything you don’t  already know or can work out for yourself. However it does say something about you as a person. Unfortunately this counts for squat in a startup.   As in sales and in a startup you are only as good as your last months or quarters sales.

“Reach for the sky!”

Why do an MBA?

From my experience meeting other MBA’s Jon Steinberg summarizes  really well why people undertake the MBA:

  1. Value in building a network
  2. Credential – certain employers require an MBA for certain jobs
  3. Need a break from work
  4. Career change

For me it was about adversity, learning and change. Adversity has been shown to be the number one  driving force for successful entrepreneurs. I don’t have a first degree and dropped out of  college. I’d been stuck on an educational ledge ever since. Some of my close family and friends strongly advised me against doing the MBA, particularly in entrepreneurship. Yet it was one of the best years of my life. I loved every MBA minute!

Experience v’s an MBA

During my tech career I’ve built significant profitable customer bases three times from scratch. It ‘s been an amazing experience with great highs and the occasional low.  In my last employment I grew a remote managed services business unit  into a highly profitable multimillion dollar Global business winning customers like Richard Branson’s V2 Records. Building customer bases from nothing is not easy. I’ve found building a company even harder.

There is much an MBA does not teach you. It does not show you the many practical skills needed in business. In particular skills like sales, marketing a small business, attracting resources – the list goes on..  There are  so many skills needed  to run a startup.  Given the choice real small business experience wins hands down over an MBA in a startup. However sometimes we forget that an MBA is an academic qualification. I’ve found that my MBA  has brought value to our startup.

We like difficult challenging times

Some of us perversely put ourselves into difficult and challenging positions where the odds are not good. It’s often not a comfortable place to be. However we keep going back there! The MBA is deliberately tough. It was challenging for me not having the educational experience and understanding from a first degree. The first semester was the hardest. Its like a bootcamp. They give you too much work. It was an especially hard as my mother was diagnosed and died of cancer during the first semester – all part of life and doing an MBA!

Does an MBA bring value to a startup?

After so many years at the practical coal face of business development the MBA has definitely helped me see things differently. I now look at decisions more objectively. It has brought a greater understanding of internal business structures and holistic competitive markets. Was it worth the $10,000’s of dollars it cost? Plus all the living costs and lost savings –  probably not. Would I make that decision again to do it – defiantly!

An old serial entrepreneur friend of my said that ‘a startup is an MBA of life.’ And he is so right. Nothing can prepare you for a startup. It is unlike anything I have ever done. It messes with your mind and body. We all know you didn’t need an MBA to start as business. So why do it? For me is it’s about exciting new adventures where you push yourself to the limit and learn new tricks. This could be doing an MBA, starting a new challenging job or having a startup. Keep learning and pushing your own boundaries. Life is boring otherwise. And why have a boring life! You only have one of them ;)

Yeah I know I’ve got an MBA, so I’m bound to be a bit bias. However on balance I highly recommend an MBA for those that have something to prove and love challenges. If your heading to startup ville and not moving up the career ladder in the same company an MBA will probably set you back. It will cost you lots of money and if your doing it to change career will put you back years. But these are  good things. They keep you fresh and hungry. It’s the learning and personal growth that really matters.

The source of entrepreneurial determination

August 12, 2009

My MBA in Entrepreneurship didn’t refer much to  the importance of determination. Yet I believe that being determined is a key quality for entrepreneurs. Since I’ve been immersed in the real world of startups I found this idea to be very true.

Rachel Elnaugh calls it the “pit” which you have climb out and Seth Godin named it the “dip” that you must see beyond. Paul Graham says its “The most important quality in a startup founder. Not intelligence– determination.” (point 5). But what does it mean to be determined?

terminator_fireThe Terminator movie

The Terminator machine has absolute determination to achieve its single objective. Entrepreneurs derive their determination from:

  1. Focus – There is alot of talk in business schools about vision and strategy.  A vision brings something to aim for. Laurence Peter said “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” With so much to do in a startup it can be overwhelming. Time can easily to burnt on doing things that don’t really matter.  Determination brings the focus needed to work on the things that do matter.
  2. Belief – Because startups have limited resources they have to believe in their vision.  The founders have to be determined  to energise  enough new resources to reach their goal. Mahatma Gandhi,  “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” If  founders don’t believe in what they are doing no one else will and others aren’t going to help.
  3. Committed - There’s is no getting away from it. Startups are hard work . The entrepreneur has to  fully commit and be determined to make the startup work. Peter Drucker said “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”  The entrepreneur has to sacrifice other parts of their life’s to make it work.
  4. Consistency – Most business is based upon trust. Potential customers need to know that a supplier will deliver on their promises and they will be around in the future. The trouble is trust takes time to build up.  If the entrepreneur chops and changes too much this trust will not buildup. Patience and persistence on a single course is necessary. Build momentum through each successive achievement towards the startups overarching goal.
  5. Think skinned – Entrepreneurs are well known for their determination and tenacity. They have to be thick skinned to survive the startup emotional roller coaster. Everyone will give advice and “hundreds of people will tell you your idea is rubbish” says Richard Reed the co-founder of Innocent Drinks. They may even think the entrepreneur is insane. The entrepreneur has to be determined to press ahead if they believe in an idea.
  6. Flexible -  There is no point in flogging a dead startup idea! Once a new venture is started it can be difficult to see the difference between a set back or an idea that will never fly. Seth Godin believes that successful entrepreneurs know the difference between a dead-end and  natural dips. A startup vision and plan needs to be broad enough to accept change.
  7. Lucky – Entrepreneurs need to be lucky people. However, as  Ernest Hemingway said, “You make your own luck”. If the entrepreneur is  determined and locates themselves often enough in the right place where things can happen, they eventually will.

James Dyson is a classic case of determination. In 1983 his new idea was rejected by all the major house hold vacuum cleaner manufactures. He had the focus,  belief and commitment to manufacturer the new idea himself in 1993. During 2005 Dyson took a massive a 20.7% US marketshare compared to Hoover’s 15.6%.

Determination keeps us going when we loose all hope. Its when everyone and everything seems to be going against us. Determination is the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and being human. As Thomas A. Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The Lucky Entrepreneur: How to make your own luck

February 24, 2009

Last week I gave a half day briefing to 30 Entrepreneurship MBA students on identifying entrepreneurial opportunities (see my Slideshare presentation and blog post). Feedback on my presentation was positive and two of the students even put comments on this blog. One of them referred to the need for ‘Lady luck’. Since then I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being lucky and how one becomes lucky.

luckyleprecon1

The Lucky Irish Leprecon & his pot of Gold

Until now I’ve not thought much about luck in life.  I have had a lucky life so far but things can always change. I now need all the luck I can get with a new a startup (50% of startups fail within 5 years) and we are now in a deep recession (depression..!).

What is luck? When asked about the secret of their successes I’ve heard of founder’s or senior managers saying they were lucky. However some people seem to have all the bad luck with many things in life going against them. What’s the difference between these two types of people:

  1. Hard work? A focused and committed effort on achieving a goal reduces the risk of failure and increases the likelihood of success
  2. Random chance? I don’t believe in chance – There is no such thing as chance; and what seem to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny.Johann Friedrich Von Schi
  3. Being in the right time in the right place? Fait, coincidence or destiny you may call it. If you are determined and locate yourself often enough in the right place where thing can happen, they eventually will.
  4. Seeing the positive and making the most of the negative? Those people with the streaks of bad luck in life seem to struggle to find the difficult times, which we all encounter, as ultimately beneficial. It seems unlucky people often wallow in self pity and reflect on the past. Whereas positive (lucky) people see a brighter future.
  5. Being modest about your own achievements and efforts? This is an interesting one.. Lucky people seem often to be modest about their success. They attract other lucky (positive) people around them which results in more luck (success)! But its not luck, it’s a deep understanding of other people . Lucky people don’t seem to have bloated ego’s. Their interested  in others and not in being self obsessed.

At my talk I referred to the need to reduce risk in business. However risk and taking chances can’t be eliminated altogether. You can become paralyzed if  you don’t go for it at some point. ‘Screw it, lets do it’ as Richard Branson likes to say. Luck is about reaching a positive outcome. It’s based upon probability and probability is the assessment of a measured risks. Louis Pasteur said “Chance favours the prepared mind.” and Ernest Hemingway, “You make your own luck”.

I believe there is much truth in these two statements and becoming a lucky person is combination of the five points listed above. Richard Wiseman, head of a University psychology research department, studied lucky people for 8 years and found very similar attitudes in lucky people. I hope luck shines on us all and shines brightly when we really need it, including my little startup :)

3 ways to spot Startup opportunities

February 20, 2009

Our story thus far..

I left employment back in 07 to do an MBA in Entrepreneurship with the UK’s Top Entrepreneurial University. I loved every MBA minute. When I finished I convinced one of my best friends, Simon Oxley, to leave his well paid corporate job with all its benefits to start a business. We really did ‘burn our ships’ as we did not know what we were going to startup in. We left ourselves no choice, no retreat!.

tn-burning_ships

However, we did have alot of experience in the Tech industry and knew we wanted to sell b2b.  We looked around and could see Web2.0 was moving into companies with Enterprise 2.0.

To get involved with this emerging trend we built and launched an Enterprise 2.0 informational website. The website proved to be great experience but did not and was not going to make us money.We decided we wanted to develop software but we needed to work out what we were going to build. Reflecting back I think we spent too much time figuring out what to do. It seems that this is a common problem for startups. We now know what we are going to do with our Aware Monitoring service.

Spotting Startup opportunities

My MBA and on the job learning experiences have taught me many things on what,  how and where to find startup opportunities:

  1. Using prior knowledge – Market experience is a wonderful thing. It brings deep understanding of customer problems; insider knowledge of the competitive landscape; awareness of market changes and there impact’s. This knowledge can be harnessed to identify new and emerging opportunities in a given marketplace.  Warning: care needs to be taken that the opportunity is a ‘gap in the market’ and there is in fact a  ‘market in this gap’. Many market gaps are unfilled because they are a unprofitable. There is also no such thing as the ‘perfect opportunity’ and competition is inevitable.
  2. See opportunities in Change – Change brings opportunity as I discussed with my ‘5 career alternatives for start-up founders during the recession’ post. This change can be driven by technology, demographics or government policies. The famous academic Joseph Schumpeter refers to technological change as ‘Creative Distruction’. However to realise the opportunity these changes bring, startup founders must have the ability to turn a idea into reality. ‘Talk is cheap’ as they say.
  3. Social networks – Even when you’ve found that world changing opportunity that’s only the beginning. An opportunity needs to be tested with friends, soft prospects and real target customers. It must be sold. Because there is no such a thing as the perfect opportunity openness to  new ideas must be maintained. New improved sub opportunities may present themselves as the initial opportunity unfolds. An idea changes as you talk to your social networks and attempt to sell to real life, paying customers.

Our  opportunity search..

By September 08 we had refined all our ideas into four final opportunities. I still think these are good opportunities with great potential and will share them with you. Please prove me right and turn these into a real business. The challenge is not just in knowing where an opportunity lies but in the implementation. Paul Graham of Y combinator lists a ton of opportunities saying ‘imaginative people will take them in directions we didn’t anticipate. .’

  1. Tagging software for unstructured data i.e. photo’s, files, etc (problem: information overload)
  2. Climate change website/portal/Social network (Change: behaviour change forced by the world’s increasing temperature)
  3. Virtual conference platform (Change: forced decrease in travel because of climate change)
  4. Preventative web systems  monitoring (Change: more reliance on web systems)

We’ve taken the 4th option with Aware Monitoring.  We’ve also speeded our pace up. It’s been a neck breaking last four months: we’ve committed to an opportunity; wrote and presented a business plan,; built a prototype; started full development; found a product name (with matching URL); got a logo and now this week we have a Launch page. It starting to feel real and the SaaS market is showing signs of blooming in the down turn :)


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