Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Where the river stands still.

Brand vision
Why StartUps should think about what won’t change (and why customer research is flawed).

As an entrepreneur or strategist, at some point, we will have thought long and hard about how future change will affect the business. But is change as important as not-change?

Jeff Bezos offers us this piece of magic.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …”

Most brand development work I’ve been involved with started with the here & now and then looked at how things would change. Generally, the fact that the here & now might also be the future was perhaps sometimes assumed…but not really explored. No surprise really: we are bombarded by change propaganda by the Self Help Industrial Complex, which exhorts us to ‘embrace change’. But Bezos asks us to embrace What Won’t Change. Change is positioned paradoxically as both a threat and an opportunity for betterment.

But often advantage lies in exploring what others have not explored. So I applied the What-Won’t-Change exercise to my own StartUp concept.

I know that the structural change in the economy will continue.
I know corporate life will be less interesting to more people.
I know that people will want more control in their lives.
I know that therefore there will be more and more StartUps and small businesses.
I know that many of the people who found these StartUps and small businesses will be smart, eager to learn and keen to put time and money resource against things that improve and grow their business.
I know they will look to the internet for this, not to corporations who would traditionally have served these needs. They now expect the internet to do these things.
I know affordability will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.

Thus, I will focus on helping the new legion of StartUps and small businesses with an online service that is highly affordable.

But I think Bezos would say most of the points on my list are not knowns; they are assumptions. And he’d be right. Let’s look at what he knows for comparison.

“[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

His knowns are pretty much indisputable. My list is not like his list: it is full of assumptions and therefore it is disputable. Most business decisions though are made against assumptions. The entrepreneurs task is to make an assessment about the probability of those assumptions being correct, based on the facts and information you have, or can find, and – let’s be honest – the instincts you have. That’s the best you can do. And it’s often good enough if you’ve done that task thoroughly. I’m sure Bezos thinks the same way. He doesn’t only build a business around the knowns but also the probables.

This does raise a bigger point though. Some people will demand that you prove the case. I’ve had many clients ask for definitive proof. But you can’t prove it. You never can. Reality isn’t about knowns. The consumer will never tell you want they want in the future. Because, guess what, they don’t know. They don’t think about it. That’s your job. Their job is to get on with their lives.

If you’ve ever actually done face-to-face research, you will see up close and personal that weaknesses of any research method. People are disinterested or over-enthusiastic or guess.

There is no method that can tell you what you want to know about the future. Whilst some methods are better than others, all research is looking in the rear-view mirror, as the saying goes. Even the idea of simulated tests or MVPs can’t avoid this. Their use is in guiding your understanding of the probable. They can’t give you certainty.

In fact, it’s a more informed decision if you focus on what you know about now. When you get too far into change and the future, you too start guessing. A lot. It’s hard not to slip beyond smart assumptions and into flights of fancy. As the T-shirt demands: Where is my light sabre?

When you are a StartUp, you need to be pragmatic. You design for the future but you do it from the here & now. So perhaps the Jeff Bezos StartUp lesson is: Focus on what you know and what you kind of know and leave the future to sort itself out.

How every StartUp can be creative.

brand creation exercises
brand creation exercises

5 ways for any team to be creative.

I was with the tech guys of a StartUp recently. They retreated into their shells when I started asking about the brand concept. Once I’d got their confidence, the told me they couldn’t do that stuff – they were not creative, they were programmers, they were rational.

There is a mystique about creativity. The creative industry, myself included, often reinforces this, and why not? It is in its commercial interest to do so. But everyone is creative. Including our programmers.

Part of creativity is about seeing patterns and opportunities, about not being intimidated by the weight of a problem. The more experience you have of problem solving the easier it gets. I’m told that’s why at Harvard Business School they make students work through three case studies every day. Repetition gets the brain to see patterns, which creates efficiency and the illusion of excellence, even genius.

Broadly speaking though, most smart people can gain that experience and whilst some will do it better than other, most can do it.

In my experience, most of the people who are called ‘creative’ use reference points. Sometimes, the more remote that reference point is, the more inspired the idea becomes. It was Picasso who said: Good artists copy, great artists steal.

He also said: All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. Kids don’t self-edit. They just say what’s in there.

Clearly, as well as an excellent drawer and colourer-in, Picasso was a veritable quote machine. What I don’t think he talked about is what we might call the politics of creativity. Let me put that into a quote so I too can get onto Brainquote.com:

Creativity is as much the force of will to convince others to make something, as it is the force of the idea.

It isn’t easy getting an idea made. Good creative people know this. They know the guy on the other side of the table is sometimes intellectually lazy, or worried about his job, or just bitter and will give it two seconds thought before rubbishing the idea. It’s not about the idea, it’s about them. Good creative people have strategies to overcome that. It might be shouting, or belittling, or occasionally patiently explaining, but it always involves being stubborn for weeks and months until the thing is made.

(That doesn’t mean they don’t adapt and listen to other people. Knowing when to listen is key to getting it made, and being able to hear the ideas that will make it better elevates the idea further.)

But the act of coming up with ideas in the first place, I still believe anyone can do.

Our brains are designed to solve problems from birth. I’m involved in a lengthy anthropological study my wife calls fatherhood and anyone who has observed children slowly learn how to solve problems would surely accept the universality of creativity.

The personality traits that drive creativity exist within us all – like curiosity, puzzle solving, being right. They might need fine-tuning and they might need a pat on the back/kick up the arse. But they are there.

Then there are the thinking-structures that come from experience, the ways our brains see patterns. Whoever you are the more your do it, the better you get.

I accept that there will still be degrees of quality. Some people have a better combination of the experience/confidence/conviction thing. But everyone has it to some degree. Given the right framework any team can make a good start to most problems, meaning asking the right questions.

So how can you and your team be creative?

Here are five suggestions to make anyone creative.

1. Do like Picasso and steal. Look for influences and examples you can build on, from anywhere. Business, novels, music, art, science, The Simpsons. The build might not be immediately obvious but if you know why you like that influence you can create parallels that will take you somewhere: they did x so what would our equivalent be? Use anyone or anything that has a distinct way of thinking or doing. What have they done we think is cool? How would they approach our problem? So…how would John Lennon think about sales? As daft as it can sound, it works.

2. Structure. Don’t just dive in. Work out a structure beforehand. Start with the broad, exploratory themes and then get more precise. Get to principals before you get to the detail of execution. Define the headline questions and then figure out which questions need to be answered before you answer the headline ones. Let that shape the conversation.

3. Make sure everyone says something. You want everyone to put it out there. So give everyone space to talk. Get people to write down thoughts so it is not only the loudest voice that gets heard. Or get them to draw it. Whatever makes them comfortable expressing themselves. If some people are not joining in, make them the critics of everyone else’s output to begin with, until they find their positive voice. People find it much easier to criticize than to create so use that to strengthen ideas. Also, have a laugh. People talk more when they are relaxed. Play a game. Get some cookies. People say more with cookies.

4. Time. Spend a decent amount of time on it…and let people know how long you’ll spend doing it. People relax more over time. Be clear they are in there for a while: even the most reticent will say something eventually. If you are running the session, go silent. It’s amazing how others will want to fill that quiet.

5. Figure out how to agree as a group. Any suggestion is a worthwhile suggestion but you’re going to have to come to a precise agreement at some point. Fudging the solution is worse than having no solution at all. So before you start, spend quality time discussing what you are trying to achieve in the session and then agree the judgment criteria. If some criteria are more important than others, weight them. Use this to score ideas 1-5. Many people don’t like scoring ideas but the way it works best is to use that score to prompt a debate, not to give you the answer.

So having said all that, if there’s one take-away for any StartUp it is: if you want to get creative, get some cookies.

The power of the Unexpert.

Brand conviction

If your StartUp is going to do something original, you’ll have to ignore experts.

There’s a wonderful story I heard recently. In 1929, Werner Forssmann, was a medical intern in Germany, interested in heart conditions. Reading a periodical about veterinary medicine, he came across a photograph of a live horse with a tube inserted into its leg and pushed up to its heart.

He wondered if the same could be done in humans to help with cardiac resuscitation. He asked his supervisor, the expert in this story, if he could test his hypothesis with a live experiment. He was refused on the grounds that it would kill the patient.

He did it anyway with some comedy caper shenanigans. He asked help of a nurse, Gerda Ditzen, who declared heroically that she would only do it if she herself were the patient. He agreed but then, with a sleight of hand, tricked her, placing the catheter in his own arm after anesthetizing her. After no doubt much chuckling, they got x-ray proof that he had done it.

And because of this Unexpert, we now have modern cardiology, something up to a third of us will be enormously thankful for at some point in our lives.

Close your eyes and put yourselves in his shoes. You are 25 and that loud and slightly frightening boss you have has told you categorically not to do something. You did believe you were right but now he’s questioned you. What would you do? Imagine how hard it would have been to ignore the expert.

Despite being fired, reinstated, then fired again, and later being a fully paid-up member of the Nazi party, he was right on this one and won the Nobel Prize in 1956.

In advertising agency life, using what we would call Naïve Experts often proved to be invaluable. Someone who was smart but not necessarily an expert in the field we were working in. Someone who would ask questions we would not think of. For example, we interviewed a zoologist about play in the animal kingdom for the launch of the Sony Dreamcast and we looked into the intelligence of co-ordination and tricks for adidas football.

Having someone smart who has not been brain-washed by the orthodoxy – often your own orthodoxy you create within your StartUp team – can help you see possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise…and that can make all the difference.

The story is also of course a reminder of the need to proactively do to prove your case so the naysayers are forced to pay attention. That’s why MVP’s are so popular but there’s so much more to a business than a MVP.

Putting simple versions of ideas into play that add value across all of the business is ultimately the truer test of a business concept than a single product concept, because people may pay for a product but what they are buying is a three-dimensional brand experience.

But ultimately it is the ability to ignore the naysayers and the doubt it your own mind that is the parable of that old Nazi, Werner Forssmann.

Your Big Advantage over the Big Boys.

business difference

How StartUps can make the most of the blank canvas.

It’s easy for a StartUp to feel intimidated. To think you are not worthy. To look at the big boys with awe, with all their resources, their profile, their confidence, their relationships. You might assume that if they chose to confront you, you’d stand no chance.

But I’ve worked with them all my professional life and guess what? You’d be wrong.

The truth is that their disadvantages might just outweigh their advantages. Corporations are a complex battle of interests, laden with conservatism. They are risk averse…in fact, worse; often they are decision averse. Often the mindset is: doing something new creates the potential for risk, whereas doing nothing avoids that potential…so stick with doing nothing. And in that environment, that’s actually smart: because that’s how the corporation is often structured, that is the reward mechanic and behaviour follows.

There’s some talk about corporations beginning to be more like StartUps. But in all but the rarest of situations, this misses the point. Corporations are bureaucratic because they have to be. They have due diligence and institutional investors, they have heavy structure, processes, organograms…but more importantly they have a hive of people and a culture.

Legacy system buries itself deep within an organization. You can’t unpick it. You can’t alter the mechanics and expect a new mindset. That’s the wrong way round. (Personally, I believe that once an entity becomes a corporation, it creates the conditions for its own demise. But more on that some other time.)

StartUps have no legacy. They have a blank canvas. They are free to do what they want. And this can be the biggest advantage in the world.

But you have to focus on the areas where this blank canvas can lead to the greatest advantage. That’s not going to be product, or supply chain, or sales, R&D or talent.

The two areas they will find it impossible to beat you are:

1. They can’t think as small as you.

2. And they can’t think as holistically as you.

To the first. You can target a tiny but perfectly formed audience. In fact, you must. Not just focus better but show them the love. Find – or create – a gang. Not an audience, a gang. A gang is about belonging, about having something you are anti and about feeling special. Prove to them that you were designed for them and only them. You can grow from here, not by compromising but by pulling more and more people into that gang.

To the second. You can aggressively deliver your brand concept through every element of your brand. Corporations find it so hard to control this, on a practical level and on a human level. But it’s easy for a StartUp once they think not as a business but as a brand that does business. Change the experience people have when they connect, buy, use and share your business so it captures the uniqueness of your brand idea.

As I’ve written before, Airbnb does this as well as any StartUp. But using an existing brand makes the point more clearly and I’ll use the most famous brand in history, Coca Cola.

We are told the brand idea of Coca Cola is happiness. But you know what, it’s not really.
It’s brown sweet fizzy drinks. Which they then use to lay claim to happiness.

It’s a critical distinction. The product drives everything, not the brand.

Take the brown drink away and what have they got? Nothing. The brown fizzy drink is their legacy system. But what if Coca Cola was a StartUp? What if they had the same blank canvas you have?

How can you build a business around Happiness so it lasts forever, not matter what trends there are in product use? Here’s my back-of-a-fag-packet thinking.

Coke should have started to build from Happiness Factory and position themselves as an experience brand.
Happiness isn’t simply about taste and mouth feel, it’s about entertainment. Coke should have bought Pixar.
They should own theme parks and days out.
They should have acquired/built the play-centre ecosystem that’s growing so quickly in Asia.
They should own handshakes, smiles and jokes.
But they didn’t and they are becoming less and less culturally relevant.
(To be fair, their bar was very high….and their Christmas play is good, you have to give them credit for that. And they do lots of great tactical work like this in the Philippines…but I’m making a point.)

The StartUp lesson is: use your blank canvas to create a branded business – not just a brand image – that reeks difference. Then you can slap that big bully right back in the face.

Why StartUps should love Christmas

Brand evolution

How you need to let your brand evolve rather than pivot.

Christmas in China is, well, weird*. Lots of lights, fake trees, fake carols and lots and lots of shopping. None of that Jesus stuff. Just a chance to consume. It’s proof that what was for much of history an esoteric idea is now truly a global, mainstream one. But if we apply this to our various StartUp ventures, the insight is that it did this by evolving. It did not lose its fundamentals, it did not pivot.

You might know this but Christmas started off as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. As simple as that. It is believed he was born around September but the celebration has always been in December. That’s because the emperor who introduced Christmas was a smart strategist and saw that the ‘easy-win’ (something we should always aim for) was a Competitor Hijack. Which meant he put it at the same date as the old world and no doubt old tech festival of Saturnalia (when we worshipped Saturn, something I endorse given how cool it looks). He gave it some new bells and whistles but maintained the bits of the old festival that people liked: the fact that people could gorge themselves and get drunk for days on end, hierarchies were forgotten and everyone went a bit mad. So nothing has changed.

Some people might be a little touchy about this next point (my mum included) but it isn’t the birth of Jesus bit that gives Christmas it’s modern power. The bit that gives this power is the bit that was added on, the bit about the three kings and gifts. This is the viral element, something that creates a dramatic network effect.

Like Twitter, etiquette has been layered around this core concept, where you are expected to behave in a certain way, which involves things like:
1. No matter how grumpy you feel you must be seen to embrace the seasonal goodwill/love-in vibe.
2. Which means that if you get, you give: presents must fill at least one room of a house.
3. No matter how wrong the present is, you must say that it’s the one thing you dreamed of.

It’s a concept that creates the conditions for it’s own stellar success. Everyone has to join in.

That’s the brilliant development in the Christmas concept. StartUp culture celebrates the pivot but this is not a pivot. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a creative extension of the initial concept that then goes above and beyond that concept. Rather than turn your back on the initial idea, it teaches us to delve deeper, stick by our conviction and make the idea work better by identifying an additional delivery mechanism.

This gift-giving bit wasn’t especially important until late on. In the 19th Century writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, in an effort to create drama and romance around Christmas and therefore sell books, begin to celebrate the human goodwill aspect and the role of gift-giving within it. In the 20th Century a whole industry was spawned around it, to the point now where, frankly, we have to question the unhealthy degree of consumerism that now surrounds the event.

I’ve met StartUp teams who have what I’ll call Completion Bias. They expect their brand concept to be complete to begin with, to be perfect from the outset…but don’t know what perfect is so never agree to anything. They are paralysed by Completion Bias. In the real world, brands can only start with an ambition about the kind of brand they want to be and a supporting framework to help bring it to life. The more complete brand will then emerge from the confluence of this ambition and the way people respond to and connect with that brand.

So the Christmas StartUp lesson is figure out the brand now, go through the exercises to give it depth and meaning, but get it out there ASAP and accept it will evolve, that it is not complete. And like that present from your favourite Auntie, as you unwrap it, something brilliant will emerge.

* Yes, it is more nuanced than that. But I lived there for 3 years and can now confirm it is not like the west.

The Questions You Start a StartUp with

brand difference, brand behaviour

Why you should be thinking about your brand idea as soon as you have your product idea.

You have that moment, when a bunch of thoughts, ideas, fluff and anti-matter coalesce and BOOM, your Big Bang. There’s a surge of adrenaline, you stop still and it hits you: This might just work…I’d start with content….I’ll use an API…and I can own the search terms…and if we did x then y would happen…and we’d have a network effect and, OH MY GOD, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!! Quick!! LEG IT!!! How do we build the #*#?in’ thing?

You spend the next year thinking about the product, the broader offer, operations and money.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the world, there’s another over-excited human being going through exactly the same thing. Maybe not that moment, but in the grand scheme of things, when they make the Internet Era start at 1.5 minutes to twelve on the civilization clock, it’s around the same time.

The fact is we live in a world of over supply. It’s too easy to make stuff, especially digital stuff. Whether it is copying or just landing on the same idea, you won’t be alone.

The first questions StartUps ask themselves tend to be about product, or business plans, or traction. But once you have you’re big idea, your first question should be this:

How can I defend it when people are copying me?

The answer to that is to do something that can’t be copied.

The one thing that is nearly impossible to copy is the bundle of intangibles, mental associations and gut feel about your business that exists in customer’s heads. What we call a brand. You can leave that for customers to create on their own or you can try to shape it yourself and that is what we call a brand building.

Brand is difference, brand is emotion and logic, brand is complex, brand is everything the business does. To use Warren Buffet’s vernacular, brand is your moat. There are other moats but they are harder to control yourself.

So once you have the big idea, you should ask yourself: how does my big idea translate into a brand concept?

Once you have a point of view on that (and yes, it can iterate to begin with, just like a product) you should ask a second question:
how does everything the business does deliver that brand concept?

This will result in lots of things in lots of places. The product will change, the offer will change, operations will change. It will be infused with a unique spirit.

So with two questions, you’ve created something that is very hard to copy.

What StartUps can learn from REM

motivation for new companies
Why delusional optimism is more powerful than failure for a StartUp

‘That’s me in the corner.’

When I first heard that song way back when, I was about to set off across Europe with a mate and our guitars, the world at our feet. We intended to hitch around Europe and busk to make our bread money. As it turned out, we got as far as Paris, tried to get a ride down south but, after 15 shitty hours at the side of a motorway and a night trying to sleep in the Gare du Nord whilst being threatened by skin heads with mad dogs, we gave up and decided to blow the last of our money on a train to Amsterdam where we’d artfully relax for a time before heading home.

But we changed our plan, pivoted one might say, and stopped to see some people we knew in Bruxelles, who rallied the boho crowd there and within an afternoon we’d been found a whole house and plenty of great Belgian cheese and beer.

That night, we headed out and for the first time sang ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM. It had not yet been a hit in the UK but we soon realised it had already been a massive hit across Europe. What we thought of as an obscure song drew a crowd of dozens and provided us with a hatful of change, enough to send us out drinking until the small hours. We looked at each other and grinned the grin of those who know that everything IS awesome.

So we decided to stay and not return to the UK. We spent the rest of that summer living the young bohemian dream, hanging out all day at our new friends’ houses, reading, talking, eating, drinking wine, enjoying the wonderful weather; then we’d busk for a couple of hours, playing our five songs, one of which was always Losing My Relision, making enough money to go out drinking again and have some fun. Rinse, repeat, everyday. For the rest of the summer. Oh, to be young.

In the StartUp scene, people talk about the power of failure. I’m sure there is power in failure. But I prefer the power of optimism. It is the – often delusional – power in optimism that keeps us going. Failure nearly sent us home that summer. It doesn’t matter if it is delusional, it matters that at that moment we believe in it.

And so I associate that lyric with rampant optimism, something great is going to happen. And in a way that’s what the song is about, albeit focusing on the uncertainty and occasional collapse of belief that goes hand in hand with hope.

I’m reminded of that as I sit in the corner of another café, and the song comes on my iTunes. I’m a very businessy area, not my usual. The suits talk Important Business and that’s me in the corner, looking like I’m on holiday, shorts, baseball cap, beard. I feel I’m being looked down on, just a little. Everyone talks business and looks business and no doubt feel important. They have the validation of a big company and of big deals.

It’s just me and my laptop. I’m just writing down ideas, thinking stuff through, for free. But you know what, I’m the guy in the corner, the odd one out, the who might just be doing something special, creating it from scratch, full of optimism…and occasional doubt. We StartUppers should revel in our corners, in our outsider-ness.

So whenever I hear those words ‘That’s me in the corner’, a shiver goes down my spine – and yes, a mourning for that life -but I do feel rejuvenated, I’m reminded of the joy and the drive of optimism and now I feel it again. And you know what, as I sit here with no income but with a hatful of creative energy and new ideas, I thank the gods for Buck Mills Berry Me.

What StartUps can learn from our Neanderthal cousins.

Strategy for fears, entrepreneur fears, new business fear
How StartUps need to identify and compensate for their fears.

If you haven’t listened to Seth Godin’s podcast from 2012 on Starting Up, you should. He’s not only a smart man, with some great experience and supporting anecdotes, he’s a really engaging teacher. It still leaves some questions unanswered as far as I’m concerned (and I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post) but he covers much of what you’ll face, from the practical, to the strategic, to the emotional and human.

In episode 12, he talks about fear. He tells us: Be clear and precise on what you fear because it’s that fear that will derail you.

Kennedy was wrong when he declared, like a New Age life guru, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. No. Fear is human. We are hard-wired to be fearful when we embrace opportunity…because back on the savannah (or wherever Neanderthals lived…I’m too busy to check that…), when we went out to find our food, there was always a chance we’d get killed. And that fear, over thousands of years, became part of our hard-wiring. Fear goes hand in hand with opportunity, because opportunity involves risk. The hard-wiring still serves a purpose. Which is good because it won’t go away soon.

It seems to me Seth Godin is not saying rise above fear or challenge fear, or anything as dramatic and heroic as that. He’s way too practical and real for that. He’s saying: plan for fear, have worthwhile insight into yours and deal with it strategically.

For me, a lot of my experience is in pitching to win big pieces of business. You need to be right. You need an answer for everything. In short, it needs to be complete and you need to be the one saying what is and what isn’t. If they disagree, that’s fine, it’s just a difference of opinion but you have to show that at least it’s all been thought through. And I’ve been the so-called expert in the room at my discipline so that puts me at an advantage.

So what I fear is not having the answer, of being seen to be still working on it, of making it up as I go along. But Lean StartUp thinking tells me I have to embrace incompleteness, or at least a recognition that things will need to change and I must get the idea in front of people – generally strangers given I’ve just moved here – for them to pull it apart.

Added to that is the simple truth that as an entrepreneur, you don’t know it all but at this stage you are doing it all. You have to get the best answers you can get despite your ignorance. So you know you’re walking into a conversation with ideas outside of your area of expertise.

I fear incompleteness I guess because somewhere in the back of my mind I think it makes me look ‘less’; less proficient, less likely to succeed, to attract belief, support and so on.

The StartUp lesson – from Seth – is to really be honest about what you’re fearful of, and that includes your own – and your partners if you have them – very human, very real personal fears – and then plan for them and find a way to compensate.

Where does that leave my fear? At the moment, I’m going to attempt to pre-empt the failings of the idea, be clear on everything that’s bad about it, what areas will probably change, what is still being worked on. That’s the plan anyway but it might not be that smart a thing to do. In fact, I might be making that up as I go along.

The StartUp Planner Giant Wall-chart

Start Up Planning, Project Management, time management
How less is more for any StartUp

Napoleon attempted to do one of the most ambitious StartUps in history.He wanted to create a European Union – run by France – 150 years before European countries volunteered to sign up to this plan voluntarily (only it ended up being run by Germany). He should have achieved it. This was one of the strongest StartUps ever. He had the vision, he had the strategy, he had the team, he had the resources….but it turns out he didn’t really have the project management plan to pull this all together.

Not that I’m trying – or indeed would want – to compare myself to Napoleon but I’m now struggling with the same issue. It is enormously difficult to do all the things that need to be done. And what makes this particularly dangerous is that by trying to complete 10 tasks I’m more likely to fail to complete Task 1. When one plate begins to wobble, you chase that and then they all start to wobble.

Let’s put this into perspective. I’ve run big projects, helped set up businesses before. I’m not an idiot. Anyone who gets to senior positions in the agency world is usually pretty competent. Hell, I’ve even adopted a boy from Ethiopia and if you’ve ever been through that kind of process you’ll know that makes me a professor of logistics. But there are more plates and fewer plate spinners.

So here’s what I’m doing about it and maybe this can help other StartUps.

I’m working on a UNIVERSAL project management plan. Sometimes we think we have a plan when we really only have a partial plan. l was involved in starting an agency whose birth was reliant on winning an enormous pitch. So creating an agency and pitching at the same time. It was chaos, people walking out, break-downs…horrible stuff. One of the things I did was to create a several dimension plan (somewhere between four and six dimensions for the physics buffs out there) that covered not only all the elements of the pitch process – like brand concept, overall marketing model, big idea creation, manifesto sizzle edit, campaign executions, rollout, distribution model, various platform mock ups and so on – but also the operational build of the agency itself.

I’ve just realised that what I’ve been doing this time round is partial plans. I need to include the big stuff and the small stuff and the tiny stuff – and put clear timing against it. It’s always a good discipline to work back from a deadline date.

For me that means work on product development, brand building, design, marketing plans, networking, cash flow, web design, ecommerce…and probably a few more besides. I also have the family logistics that I need to plan in…visas, Employment pass, Xmas travel etc.

Within this plan I need to FOCUS better. I’ve just listened to a podcast with the founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo.com who has published a book about getting traction. They worked on one marketing platform at a time, seeing each as a distinct stage in their traction getting plan. Exhaust SEO, then move to Reddit ads, exhaust that, content marketing, print PR, TV PR, business development.

Marketing textbooks would say this is wrong. And my recent career has involved building multi-platform marketing ecosystems for my clients so this seems counterintuitive to me. But now I’m in the grime, I can understand the practical value. I need to go away and think that through…

Finally, I’m learning project management plans also have a human element to it. The more I talk to people, listen to podcasts, read up on stuff, the more efficient I get. The ‘we did this’ or ‘you should talk to x, he knows about that’…this helps you both create the plan and work through the plan. So I’m on it, I just need a bigger piece of paper.
Start Up Project management

Starting up is hard to do

StartUp worksspace
Why StartUps need a proper desk

I think it was Neil Sedaka who said starting up is hard to do. Or was that breaking up? I’ll assume for the sake of this post he was talking about a tough StartUp he’d been involved with. Because starting up is hard…but in a good way.

After the coziness of salaried employment I’m sat here at my new (temporary) desk. Kind of alone. But then again, no politics, no power plays, no sulking. Other than my own. And being alone teaches you a hell of lot.

I know it’s obvious but because you’re alone you play all the roles. An old friend of mine started his own thing, just him, all alone. But he’d literally play all the roles. He’d answer the phone and say ‘I’ll see if he’s free’…even the client’s joined in: ‘would you like to take that back to the office and talk it through’. I think they liked him so much they wanted to – subconsciously at least – give him the respect of being a ‘proper’ company.

So I’m on my own and doing everything. It’s not like I’ve never done this before. I’ve been involved in three stand alone attempted StartUps and three within an existing business (still counts in a way). But there was always a team from the off. Now I am the team and there’s loads to do, much of which I’ve never done before.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Comfort Zone Theory, there are three stages as I was taught it:
1. Comfort
2. Stretch
3. Break

A few days ago, I was talking to a guy who has a great little StartUp, already operating, already proven. They’ve done a great job but he is pretty much petrified about visible marketing/PR, the stuff where they have to be seen to say something and even perhaps show a face, rather than SEO etc. SO he keeps putting it off.

In a StartUp you’re constantly being pulled out of your comfort zone, having to learn new stuff, both hard & soft skills. We all have to develop new coping mechanisms to make sure we stay in the Stretch Zone and don’t slip into Break Zone. After we got him to drink more beer I think he began to relax.

Hell, I’m even trying to learn some coding…I thought it was going well until I pressed save and nothing happened. That was at midnight. But at least I got my ‘beta’ site up and running, for now just something that I hope proves to the local authorities that I’m serious about this business and I’m not hear to sponge (on what exactly?! It’s costing me an arm & a leg to stay here with no income!). I’ll talk about the website development in a subsequent post.

Also – and this feels symbolically significant – I took on some pay-as-you-go office space at Collective Works. Having a workspace away from the kitchen table at home is good. But perhaps it’s greater value is the network effect. Normally, in an office, it just happens but not now. The stuff I’m confortable with is the product development, the business plans, the website and the content dev etc. etc…as valuable as these are though, I’m beginning to suspect that the network is going to be at least as important. And guess what, I’ve been rubbish at it. (I’m in good company: check this great piece on this from the excellent James Altucher.)

However, in pay-as-you-go space people don’t really talk to each other. What I’ve come to realise is that I need to get out of my comfort zone and force a network, I need to be proactive and make it happen. Now I’m asking pretty much anyone and everyone out for a coffee/drink. So this is going to be interesting…can I carry it off? So far it’s going OK and I’ve realised that:
1. You need people to bounce stuff off. Two brains are better than one. And other StartUp types love to help out, it’s in their blood.
2. Despite not working together, you, effectively, pool your skills. They teach me about SEO, I teach them about brand development.
3. You are energised by all these other StartUps trying to make it happen. That gives you momentum/ a kick when you need it.
4. Someone always knows someone else you should meet. So within a matter of weeks you have a network you can barely keep up with.

So the lesson for any StartUp is to force a network: get some office space, ask people out for a drink, email people you’ve never met, ask Person A if they can introduce you to Person B, sit in the right bar at the right time. Look it might not be the golden key but it’s got to improve your chances.