SMF George Fowkes runs The Clear Alternative, which provides interim director expertise to clean technology companies to catalyse their start-up and growth phases. George’s early career was in new product development for Cambridge technical consultancy Sagentia, and management consultancy at A.T. Kearney. Conversations with investors while raising finance for The CarbonNeutral Company in 2001 gave him the idea for a company that would bring commercial and project skills to clean tech ventures, to accelerate their development. This became The Clear Alternative in 2006.
Before I start I wanted to add to Chirag’s post by nominating David Hansson, the founder of software company 37Signals, as the international grandmaster of ‘CARD’. And in fact most things about getting a business started. I think he has written a book but his speech at Stanford boils his whole philosophy down into one irreverent hour that you can laugh along to on your way to work.
If I had to summarise the very best of what I’ve seen in the past 12 years of getting ventures started for people, it would be the following:
Find a complementary partner
Most people think that the expression ‘better to own a share of something than 100% of nothing’ came about from raising money. That may be true, but it’s even more relevant right at the beginning. To get any new organisation started is such a huge amount of work, requiring so many judgement calls and such a very wide range of skills, that even an engineer with an MBA cannot do it on their own. You can’t be world class at everything, and it’s lonely flying completely solo.
If I think of the half dozen really successful serial entrepreneurs that I’ve met – the people who have built and successfully sold more than one business – almost without exception they work with a business partner. That partner doesn’t just fill a skills gap with their co-entrepreneur, they also fill what I’ll call a ‘character gap’, as follows.
Everyone has a number of aspects of the business that they can’t help preferring. It could be sales. Or the numbers. Or building the team. It’s very difficult indeed for an individual not to give these preference – it’s part of their character – so stuff gets missed. The partner has an innate preference for different aspects of the organisation. Their first thought on Monday morning is quite different to their co-partner. And so most of the bases get covered. That’s why you see sales people paired up in business with accountants, marketeers with ops people, Myers-Briggs introverts with extroverts, and so on.
So my point would be to find someone who’s quite different to you that you can trust implicitly and make them a significant partner in the business. And even (especially) if you’re married to them, sign an agreement that at least covers what happens if things don’t work out.
Touch the market early and often
With the very rare exception that essentially comes down to luck, it is not possible to bring a successful new product or service to market without first exposing it to the target market. To compete against better-resourced incumbents your product or service has to not just work, but fit the way its users look for, assess, buy and use the thing.
For the product itself we need to bring the alpha and beta-test principle common in software development to our own business idea. How to do this depends largely on the nature of the product, but everybody should be able to find their own versions of customer and competitor interviews, pitching the concept to friendly contacts in the target market prior to development, lending prototypes to prospective customers, offering ‘no-regrets’ deals for early buyers and so on, as the feedback from this user experience is essential. The next proof point is the one where customers actually part with their cash for the product. Hansson is right that this cannot come too soon and, in general, almost any way to bring early revenue into the business (that does not distract from the main development effort) is a good idea.
Closely linked to this, especially in B2B markets, is that your product can only be successful in the context of the buying patterns in the target market. Every market has its idiosyncratic way in which solutions are sought and evaluated, buying decisions made, price and delivery negotiated. And if you’re not compatible with the time of year, use of OJEU, ‘Plan A’, Environment Agency regs, contract management or other trivial necessity you won’t sell any product to that sector. The least costly way to master an industry’s buying patterns that I have seen is to get an industry veteran on the board.
Have a plan
It is true that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, but keeping a plan (i.e. a list of milestones/targets and dates, with associated responsibilities and costs) updated on a regular basis confers many benefits. First, putting the plan together forces you to think about priorities and risk. What’s got to go right, and cheap ways to stop things going wrong. Second, it’s a fantastic communication tool. With a plan everyone can see where the effort has to go. Scope creep – possible the worst enemy of the pre-revenue business – is easier to keep at bay. And finally, it enforces realism. Not all milestones will be met. The insights from ‘why not’ and ‘by how much’ make achieving future targets more likely. And achieving targets is an essential skill to keep investors putting money into a business. So put together a plan and keep it with you. If you have to keep changing it, at least you’re learning!
None of this covers seed funding, getting an office, or marketing, recruiting and financing on the cheap, which will have to wait for another day. Or be picked up by another blogger.