My New Entrepreneurs Foundation Year
As the workshops end, graduation party antics fade, and members of my cohort finish their placements, now seems like an appropriate time to take stock of all of the has happened in the past year since joining the New Entrepreneurs Foundation.
Rather than simply documenting a chronology of events that have happened, I have extracted some key learnings that have stuck out from the mass of information sent our way as part of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation course, and that have taken residence in my long term memory bank, since late 2013. As opposed to hearing my life story, I will restrict these lessons to a business context. And of course, many of these won’t be wholly original, but rather those that have passed my internal filter of worth repeating.
Execution > Idea
The world is full of “good” ideas. With half an ear to the ground/ half an eye on TechCrunch you can come across ten-a-day for the rest of time. And with the back of an envelope and a view on the world, you too can create some, if you’ve not already. However pulling it off becomes the really difficult part.
This is why ideas shouldn’t be guarded in secrecy. With the proliferation of information in the world, and the low barriers to setting up a company, it is plausible to assume that someone else has probably come up with the same idea as you have, and is possibly taking steps towards implementing it. If no-one has yet, then they will soon enough, and rather than keeping it stored up in your head, it’s better to get moving, and start testing.
An app for loyalty cards? A subscription box for mens toiletries? Tinder for shoes?
I’ve heard versions of these ideas on several occasions throughout the year. Which probably means that such companies will/do exist, as enough people evidently see them as problems worth solving. It just goes to show that people are having similar pub conversations, and are willing/ able to take action.
Talking with smart people/ actually trialling it with target customers is the best way to develop skills/ techniques to execute on the idea, and increase the likelihood of success. Equally, undertaking projects that will allow you to develop skills to get a competitive advantage over others working on similar ideas is what will ultimately determine success or failure.
Scalable operations are key
There’s a big difference in having 100 customers and 10,000 customers. Establishing operations that scale (how to keep track of who receives what email, teaching other employees your processes, interpreting user behaviour on your site) is paramount to building a company that will smash the competition.
Working at my host company, Tutorfair, that is making the bridge has given me a fantastic insight into how establishing certain rules, practices, and what data to capture, early on will give you definite advantage going forward. It’s obviously more important to focus on getting traction in the early days, but picturing what you want your company to look at scale will guide some key early choices/ structures that you make.
Only start something you’re (really) interested in
As part of my NEF year, I felt I would get the most out of it by setting up a business in parallel with what was being taught in the course, and so Greg Drach and I worked on an idea through the latter half of the year. As side projects go, it was great.
We learnt many new skills that we otherwise wouldn’t have, and felt fully engaged throughout all of the learning opportunities. However, ultimately the sacrifices needed to thrive as a company were too great. When it came to working on weekends at first enthusiasm, and the program, pulled us through, but eventually it felt that we were doing it “because we had to”. As soon as the fun was being sapped, the days were numbered.
Both of us knew that we were not wholeheartedly passionate about starting a taxi tour company – and so if you are evaluating ideas to run with – and you’re in it for the long haul, I’d say go for one that most conforms with how you want to spend your spare time. It has the best chance of longevity.
If you would like to read the story of the company we worked on – you can read it here
Don’t do it all
It’s detrimental to try and do everything.
Attempting to complete lots of tasks on your own results in spreading yourself thin. Of course, having an overview of how a whole system works is a good idea, especially when you want to set something up yourself, but you don’t need to know in intimate detail how each component part works.
a. It’s too much for one person to do
b. Others will find it more interesting (and hence do it better) than you
You have certain things that you are naturally drawn to, and others have theirs. Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers calls this people’s native genius, and the economist in me draws parallels with ‘comparative advantage’.
As someone who likes to maintain control with projects I work on, learning when and how to delegate out tasks has been one of the most critical lessons this year.
Getting others on board with what you’re working on is also a great way to practice working with different sets of people, with complementary skill sets to yours. And will also help you progress in the right the direction, rather than stalling over little jobs that take you 5 hours, and others 10 minutes (for me, this is Photoshop…)
Similar to the point above, but viewed more through the lens of how you spend your time. Being smart, ambitious, and hungry to learn, it is very probable that you will get presented with/ go in search of opportunities to get involved with lots of projects.
He who chases two rabbits catches none
At a dinner I was at, this is what James Uffindell, founder of Bright Network, shared with the table. Making progress with lots of things at the same time is difficult, if not impossible, and so pick one to really go for.
It is of course important to diversify. So keep a number of rabbits in your line of vision before embarking on the chase. Or pay other people to chase them for you. Either way, when it comes to picking your thing to succeed at, choosing one is most likely to lead to success.
Get some expertise
Talking of advice from experienced people, I like this, because it is at odds with what I thought at the beginning of the year.
A friend training to be a lawyer asked a mentor what his one piece of advice would be. The response he got was “become the guy who knows X”. My friend pushed back, only for the sage lawyer to rebut that this is something he wished his younger self had been told.
Going into the year I was hungry to learn as much as I could about each area of the business. It has been great to get an overview of how the whole operation works, but now I am ready to get ‘deep’ knowledge in a certain domain.
Picking this area (it doesn’t have to be too specific) is quite a difficult thing to settle on. I’ve still not really done it. But I know there are some things that I’m content with having a high level understanding of.
I have some friends from the NEF cohort who are “the guy who knows Google Adwords”, ”the guy who knows the food industry” and ”the guy who knows travel“. For them, it is useful that I have made this mental association, because now if I ever talk with someone about Google Adwords/ the food industry/ travel and am out of my depth – I can put them in touch, and they get to exercise their expertise, and help other people out.
How to pitch
My host company were very successful with their funding round this year. There are of course many factors, but I particularly like the simple structure of the pitch
1. I’m going to first convince you that a business like this will exist a few years from now
2. And then I’m gong to convince you that we are the people to do it
Be ballsy with emails
To me, in terms of benefits/ costs, sending cold emails to people that you find interesting/ respect is a good trade off.
Limiting yourself to 5 minutes per email, and taking on elements of Mike’s Magic Email in terms of brevity and relevance to the reader, you can begin interacting with people well above your pay grade.
On the back of some emails, I got to spend the afternoon having beers with the founding team of a VC-backed travel company in Berlin. Details of the emails I’ve sent might appear in this blog in the near future.
You’re only new once
Related to the above, especially if you’re joining a larger organisation, you have probably a month-long window where you can ‘get away’ with contacting people higher the company out of the blue and asking to meet with a coffee.
It’s prime time to make connections with movers/ shakers, but after a few months, asking for a random coffee without the excuse of being new, just sounds a bit… weird.
“Live in the future, and build what’s missing”
This is just a quote that I remember. It neatly sums up an attitude of thinking about the fundamentals of a problem in search of a solution, rather than simply copying and iterating other companies’ ideas.
But I also interpret it as a reminder that the fantasy world of how things ‘should be done’ might be at odds with what people actually do in the here and now, and so, unless you have deep pockets, it is important to keep things ticking over with customers’ current behaviour.
Where I am now
11 months into working at my host company, I’m very happy. Though I can’t yet define myself as “the guy who knows X”, I have found areas in the business that I enjoy, and have the freedom to build out these elements for the company. The experience of starting out there when day-to-day there would be 4 of us around a table, to now sprawling across many desks in our co-working space has been great learning experience.
There are doubtless many more lessons to be learnt, and chapters to be written, but focusing on personal development, and helping others along the way, will be at the core of what I continue doing.