Tag Archives: Entrepreneurship

Do you need an MBA to be an Entrepreneur?

Do I need an MBA to be an entrepreneur

By EIBF President, David Falzani MBE

Since the MBA first materialised more than a century ago it’s been intrinsically linked to business career success.  After all, the programme is designed to prepare professionals for senior management positions within business, so it’s little wonder that many of those with MBAs have gone on to have wonderful business careers. You would therefore be forgiven for thinking that an MBA would be an invaluable – and even necessary – tool for launching your own business.  However, the answer to the questions ‘do you need an MBA to be an entrepreneur’ is a little more nuanced than you might initially think.

In today’s fast-paced digital business landscape, starting a business is easier than it’s ever been.  Start-ups are everywhere, and guess what? The vast majority are not led by people with MBAs.  Most people with that entrepreneurial fire tend to ‘learn by doing’, usually picking up useful advice from mentors and role models along the way.  Depending on their type of business, some of them may even enrol in educational accelerator programmes such as the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub which is aimed at engineers.  If these entrepreneurs do take on an MBA, it’s usually after they’ve completed their first foray into the world of business. That’s not to say an MBA can’t be hugely advantageous, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.

When MBAs were first established, they were not really geared toward entrepreneurship. They were, and still are, a primer for business. They were designed to whet the appetites of candidates and equip them with the basic tools and knowledge needed to go on and thrive in their business careers, in whatever role they chose. However, like business itself, the MBA is always evolving. The past 15 years in particular have seen the MBA change considerably, now offering lots of entrepreneurial options that could easily set somebody on the path to launch their own enterprise.

Twenty years ago when I did my MBA, which spanned Europe and the USA, things looked quite different.  The European portion of my MBA had no exposure to entrepreneurship as a subject at all, whereas the USA portion not only recognised entrepreneurship, but dedicated a separate branch of teaching to it that covered specialised techniques and approaches to business.  Of course, things have changed today.  So, if you are considering an MBA and have that entrepreneurial fire within you, know that there are MBAs out there that will fully support it and arrange their teaching around it.  In fact, most MBAs will have a leaning one way or another depending on the schools that are providing them, and the electives that are available – that’s why it’s crucial to pick the right course at the right institution, and entrepreneurship is no exception.

While it probably doesn’t hurt to have an MBA, with the wealth of knowledge it brings, don’t let the fact that you don’t have one (or don’t have the time/resources to get one) hold you back. There are countless ways to quench that entrepreneurial thirst, from entrepreneurship programmes at universities to local business groups that let you liaise with successful business leaders.  An MBA is a valuable asset, but it’s far more focused on the bigger picture.  You might even find that you learn more from an MBA once you’ve tried your hands at business. Whether you win or lose, the experience alone will be enough to prepare you for an MBA, in the same way we recommend a few years in industry first for those thinking about an MBA as part of their career development.

An MBA is a fantastic educational experience that can provide a great career boost, but if your sole objective is to start your own business there’s probably a better route you can take in 2020.  For example, I’m a trainer on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business UK programme that runs out of Oxford University.  Each year it attracts 140 brilliant small business CEOs and very few of them have MBAs.  What they do have, however, is a huge amount of support and business advice from mentor figures and people taking part in the programme.  Similarly, there are many regional programmes specifically for start-ups, often run by local universities or business schools.

For example, at the University of Nottingham, where I’m a professor, we have a start-up Lab for new businesses, and more than 50 entrepreneurs in residence who are available to mentor, support and run workshops for young aspiring business leaders. While higher education qualifications are still very much valued, there seems to be an increasing appetite in entrepreneurial circles for raw, ‘learn by doing’ experience and the kind of knowledge that can really only be passed down from one successful business person to the next.

With this in mind, it’s safe to say that an MBA is most certainly not a requirement if you’re looking to start up your own business. By all means view it as an option, but know that there’s a wealth of support, advice and mentorship out there that could get you to where you need to be far more effectively and faster than an MBA.

If and when the time is right for you to do an MBA and you are a professional engineer considering an MBA, you can apply for a scholarship towards your study. Visit our MBA scholarship application page to learn about our £500,000 annual Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarships.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

How 4 professional engineers used an MBA to change their careers

The MBA is a highly desired qualification by both young professionals and employers.  Not only does an MBA equip the student with a wealth of business and leadership skills, it  shows clear signs of an individual’s focus and ambition as well as an adventurous spirit – leaving a secure job to study for an MBA requires not only funds but courage.

MBAs benefit individuals, employers, and the economy. Although it is essential to hone skills in specialist areas, businesses are keen on hiring MBA graduates because they have a deeper understanding of a range of business practices that enable them to be more strategic and agile in their thinking and problem solving.

The MBA opens new career opportunities, helps students to gain better insight into their motivations and goals, and connects them with inspiring professionals who can support their career ambitions long term.  Taking an MBA is a major financial commitment and because of their prestige, the cost of attending the top international schools is high.  Consequently many students seek scholarships to support their studies.  For over 30 years, the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarships have been awarded to professional engineers who have clear leadership potential.   Today, there are 365 SMFs who, collectively, have been awarded £11 million in scholarships to enable them to acquire skills that help UK businesses succeed and the economy growth.

In this blog we introduce four Sainsbury Management Fellows who have used their MBA skills and experiences to steer their careers in new and exciting directions.

Engineering a Finance Career in Green Energy:  SMF Chris Gifford, Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada

After gaining his engineering degree at Oxford University, SMF Chris Gifford started his fulltime career in the power generation sector. He worked throughout the UK and internationally helping to operate and maintain the control and instrumentation systems of fossil-fuelled power stations.  He progressed into a commercial role, analysing the financial performance of the power stations, which gave him a deeper understanding of business and a desire to pursue his career in a business direction.

Chris decided that he wanted to work in the cutting-edge transition from fossil-fuel to green technology in a business and finance capacity, but he realised that he needed additional business skills to secure a top-level position in a leading company.  Because of his engineering background, prospective employers tended to pigeon-hole him as a techie. Chris knew that gaining an MBA would enhance his skills and make him more marketable.  The MBA, which he undertook at INSEAD, provided not only the vital business skills needed for a career shift, but accelerated an improvement in his interpersonal and leadership skills.

Today, Chris is the Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer at Vancity Community Investment Bank in  Ontario, Canada where he uses his combined engineering and business skills to assess the viability and robustness of complex renewable energy proposals from businesses seeking finance, eliminating the need for the bank to use external professionals to carry out additional assessments.  In addition to identifying potential problems, Chris recommends improvements and efficiencies that allow important renewable energy projects to be funded.

Chris’ engineering background is a major asset in his role.  He explained: “My engineering skills are typically applied to evaluate whether businesses trying to access financing have fully understood the complexities for themselves.  There is a bias for optimism and sometimes blind spots when it comes to risk assessment; I provide an objective and pragmatic view on how likely a project is to succeed.”

Switching from a Technical to Management Role:  SMF Dere Ogbe, Shell Corporate Strategy and Portfolio Consultant, UK

SMF Dere Ogbe was appointed Senior Strategy and Portfolio Consultant at Shell after graduating from London Business School with an SMF-sponsored MBA.   He credits his MBA for galvanising his career in this new direction and says he now has the ability to lead both technical and commercial strategy projects.

Before taking his MBA, Dere was a Senior Operations Excellence Engineer at BP Exploration. This was a technical role which involved implementing best practices to drive continuous improvement across joint ventures in Europe, Middle East, and North Africa. This involved cascading business decisions into technical requirements and this gave Dere an insight into how commercial choices drive project design and operational requirements.  This awareness, coupled with the knowledge from courses such as Managing Engineering Projects, sparked his interest in business management.

Dere sites a number of ways that the MBA has helped to transform his career: “It has given me the necessary financial, strategic, and commercial skills to quickly analyse problems and propose possible solutions. The programme also enhanced my data analytical and leadership skills. Also, I feel very comfortable leading a wider range of people with different technical and commercial expertise.  With these additional skills, I can jump into projects and get up to speed quickly.  The part of my job I especially love is the challenge of thinking on my feet, rapidly uncovering the critical factors and, with the team, creating a roadmap to solve the problem.  The MBA has had a transformative effect on my career and leadership skills.” 

Billy Comes to Life Through Engineering and Business Talent: SMF Rob Deering, CEO, Billy, Australia

Before business school, SMF Rob Deeming gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nottingham. After graduation, he spent five years as a consultant at Bain & Company where he developed practical skills such as problem-solving and collaborative working.  This role gave him the time and freedom to decide what he wanted to do longer term.  He said: “It was an incredible place to start a career. The level of learning, skills development and personal support available in consulting is second-to-none.”

Rob took his MBA at Harvard and says that it gave him both personal and professional perspective: “It opened my eyes to new career pathways, in particular, those which combined his engineering and business skills.”  Since graduating, Rob has lived in both New York and Sydney where he has built several tech-driven businesses, including three start-ups.

The most recent entrepreneurial venture is a technology company, Billy, which addresses the fundamental challenges of caring for seniors, while allowing them to remain in their own homes as independently as possible, on their own terms. Billy uses a series of Internet of Things sensors to identify patterns of behavioural routine for seniors, and shares this information through an app, in real time, with family members and professional carers. Billy can read all the activities of daily living using smart analytics to determine patterns in routine and identify changes before they result in medical emergency.

The future is exciting for both Rob and the company; Billy is growing in size and reputation and is now in 1,000 homes across Australia and the USA. Initial feedback shows that customer confidence is high and there has been a reduction in hospitalisations in the households where Billy is installed.

Winning an SMF scholarship enabled Rob to undertake his prestigious MBA, which gave him the skills to follow his entrepreneurial dreams.

Engineers with Business Skills Transform UK Industry: SMF Ian Peerless, Operations Director, ExRobotics, UK

SMF Ian Peerless and ExRobotics Colleagues

Ian Peerless’ route to an engineering career began at the University of Southampton, where he graduated with a First in Civil Engineering, after which he spent a year with British Leyland in a mechanical engineering role.  The hydrocarbon industry in the North Sea was booming and he was keen to move into that sector, so gained a Petroleum Engineering Masters at Heriot-Watt University and shortly after graduating joined Shell as a Petroleum Engineer and enjoyed an international career for five years.

However, he reached a ‘crunch point’ in his career, as is often the case with young engineers.  At this point there is a choice; to work up through the ranks of a company as a pure engineer or to diversify and move upwards in a different direction.  Ian chose the latter. His interest in business management led him to the MBA, with a scholarship from SMF to attend IMD in Switzerland.

The MBA gave Ian the credibility required to step into a management role; a role that would otherwise been out of his reach. He was one of the first engineers to benefit from the SMF scholarship programme, and proved that having engineers in management roles throughout industrial companies is extremely valuable.

After the MBA he joined British Steel, where he gained a wealth of management experience. He worked in Business Development, Sales, Operations, and finished as the number two in the Business Strategy department reporting to the main board.   After 15 years with British Steel, Ian was enticed back to Shell, where he was a key member of an internal consultancy group.  He travelled the world advising, coaching and facilitating leadership teams on project management and contract strategy.   When that project was completed, he set up an independent consultancy, IPKA where he continued to perform a similar role to the Shell position, but with different oil and gas companies.

In 2010, Ian took on a Shell contract to develop an oilfield robot. He gained extensive knowledge of this specialist robotic niche which led him to form ExRobotics, a company that is tackling the problem of oil and gas operators being sent into hazardous, harsh, and remote locations. The robots can be permanently stationed at those locations, removing people from harm’s way as well as cutting costs and reducing lost production.

Summing up the benefits of the MBA, Ian said: “The MBA gave me skills that I still use in my work. In particular, the ability to understand a business, its markets, its competitive position, and to turn that into an action plan for success.  Furthermore, the MBA made me understand that if you combine the strengths of individuals and create a motivated team, wonderful things happen. The MBA not only changed the direction of my career it also changed my industry.  The combination of my life before the MBA (technical) has been combined with my life after the MBA (management) to create ExRobotics.”

How to Apply for the Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA Scholarship

If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as one of the stepping-stones towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could become one of our successful awardees –the individual scholarship is £50,000 and we award ten of these every year.

What is an MBA? – by EIBF President David Falzani MBE     

Benefits of Studying for an MBA

The MBA has been around since 1908 when the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration was established in the USA. Across the world today, the MBA is the watchword for business career success, and prospective students are spoilt for choice as to where and how they study – from the world-leading schools like Harvard and London Business School (which was the first UK business school) to virtual online schools, from full-time courses to part time study.

MBA programmes prepare professionals for senior management roles in business.  Typically, MBAs are taken by those who have already been working for several years, but that’s not always the case.  Some people go straight from their first university degree to study for an MBA degree and this is the beauty of the business school offering; there are options to suit everyone.  This includes MBAs at premium business schools, like LBS or Harvard, and, for want of a better term, ‘mainstream’ business schools.  Courses are available either full-time (30-60 hours per week) or part-time (one or two days per week) and there are Executive MBA programmes for senior corporate executives and managers who study whilst working, and sometimes their study is partially or fully funded by the employer.

Requirements to Study an MBA
To study for an MBA, you will usually require an undergraduate degree.  Most MBAs require a 2:1 or above, but there are some that will accept 2:2 degrees so long as they are paired with an exceptional application and a set of relevant skills and experiences.  Some work experience is generally required; this being the case most MBA students are between the ages of 27 and 30. One important entry criterion to meet, particularly for top schools, is the GMAT exam score. The Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, is designed to test your abilities across a wide range of areas. A good score will often facilitate entry into leading schools, and each school’s GMAT averages are widely published.

Benefits of an MBA
MBAs expose students to many areas of business including accounting, finance, marketing, people management and leadership skills, and full-time courses do so in an intensive, immersive way that challenges and stretches students’ perspectives and thinking.  The MBA experience often pushes candidates hard – the speed and sheer amount of work faced is sometimes described as a re-wiring of candidates’ brains, such that they can think critically and quickly analyse information, filtering out what is important from the irrelevant. The skills taught in an MBA programme enable you to read, assess, structure and plan rapidly; skills that will enable you to find innovative ways of dealing with big problems.  An MBA graduate also gains an up to date and razor-sharp ‘tool kit’ to apply to any business challenge. These aspects are some of the reasons why the MBA has become so highly regarded by employers.

People from all walks of life want to gain an MBA qualification in order to improve their understanding of business and to accelerate their career.  Developing your business skills is not only good for your personal and career growth, but it is also good for companies and organisations and essential for the economy – enhanced knowledge and skills leads to better solutions to problems which can increase productivity, as well as transform products and services that affect people’s lives.

If you are at that pivotal point in your career where you want to learn more about business and the decision-making processes, it’s important to know that as valuable as the MBA is, the programme is not a final destination, it’s very much the start of a longer journey.  In an MBA you will be introduced to many facets of business and gain a foundation that enables you to confidently delve deeper into areas of interest across a range of subjects as you need to.  Because of this solid framework, when you are back in the world of work, it will be easier to go deeper into subjects that are needed in your job. You will be able to understand business issues and explore them at a level you were unable to do before your MBA.

A Wealth of Choice of Business Schools
Every year thousands of professionals start their search for the right business school for them.  At the top of the MBA tree are the premium schools – these are equivalent to Ivy League ranked universities, which often have long histories, coveted brands, outstanding facilities and attract the best staff and candidates.  The institution’s brand, the quality of faculty and quality of student admissions are all perpetuated by each other, creating an institution designed to offer the very best environment for business education.

Gaining a qualification from a top international business school will open new opportunities.  However, their prestige and resources mean they command high fees – some can be as much as 10 times more expensive than mainstream business schools.  On the upside, their brands add considerable value to the graduates’ own personal brand, giving them an additional asset when they go back into the job market.

There is fierce competition to secure a place at the top business schools – because their brands are so revered.  Unsurprisingly, these schools are often 7 to 10 times over-subscribed for places, so getting-in requires some real work.  Candidates must be very driven and highly organised to maximise their chances. Having access to the necessary funds also helps – some will seek assistance with fees by applying for a scholarship (eg through charities) to supplement their private financing arrangements.  Many candidates have a risk profile that allows them to take on loans, confident that their future income growth will resolve any debt soon afterwards.

There are many fantastic mainstream business schools that do not cost the earth.  More and more, universities are developing high-quality MBA programmes.  Excellent business education is on offer but, being newer into the MBA market, these do not have the same historical pedigree and reputation enjoyed by their premium counterparts.

While those who attend the mainstream business schools may not come away with quite such a prestigious brand to append to their own, they receive a rounded business education (perhaps with less of the heightened level of induced stress that the premium schools engender into their programmes) and can use their new skills to further their career goals.

The Enduring Power of the Alumni
Apart from the new skills propelling your career prospects and salary (it’s not uncommon for business school graduates to double their pre-MBA salary), there is a huge ‘hidden’ benefit.  During the MBA, students develop a network of peers that become long-term associates and lifelong friends.  The business school Alumni is a powerful asset – because of their shared experience, members will reach out to each other when they need help or advice at any stage in their business career, whether that’s as a senior-level employee or as an entrepreneur.

MBA – A Cause for Celebration!
The tremendous success of the MBA is a cause for celebration: the diversity of schools (some offering campuses in several countries as part of the curriculum), programmes and study timetables allow many people to attain business education in a way that suits their ambitions and circumstances.  The timescale over which one can study an MBA has transformed access – there are full-time courses that run from nine to 21 months depending on the school, and part-time learning up to five years. Schools can be physical or virtual.  And, there are prices to fit almost all budgets.

It’s come a long way since its origins in 1908, adapting and evolving to meet the market needs. Accessible, flexible and current – today’s MBA is a truly wonderful platform to boost business education.

If you are an engineer considering an MBA, visit or scholarship page for details on how to apply for a £50,000 award.

 

Keep Your Early-Stage Company on Track

New ideas are thrilling. So many of us are great at starting things; the genesis of an idea, the moment the lightning strikes, that flash of inspiration is pure joy. Taking your first steps into a start-up business are some of the most exciting steps. You are moving at break-neck speed to set up your platform for success.

But, as with all the greatest success stories, eventually, a wall is hit. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, and when it comes to start-up businesses, that struggle often comes in the form of early stagnation. The vision is in your head, the picture of the palace you are going to build is set firmly in your mind’s eye; now you have to go through the potential mundanity of building it brick by brick.

The unfortunate fact is, the majority of new businesses fail within their first year of trading. These failed start-ups are usually victims of common mistakes and misconceptions. Here we have some tips on how to ensure that your early-stage company becomes the success it deserves to be.

Track Your Metrics
On the face of it, this seems like an obvious thing to mention. However, new businesses, especially when low on cashflow, tend to focus mainly on profits and revenue. These are hugely important of course, but there are other data that you should be paying close attention to in order to get a rounded view of performance. Keeping an eye on the following will also ensure that you catch potential pitfalls before they happen…

Customer Acquisition Cost: How much does each new customer cost you? This can be easily assessed by dividing your total marketing and sales costs by the number of customers you have had within a specified time period. How do those figures look against your projections and business plan?

Customer Retention: Retained customers are vital for reputation and cashflow. How good are you at retaining business? Is there anything you could be doing to improve customer experience?

Return on Advertising Spending: Is the revenue you gain as a direct result of advertising sufficient for your investment? Advertising is not cheap and is always a gamble. Divide total sales by advertising spend in order to see what kind of return this investment generates.

Profit Margin: Profit is everything in the end. You must keep a very close eye on the bottom line.

Traction and Momentum
Getting things moving is widely regarded as one of the hardest things to do; getting noticed, getting talked about and getting a great reputation out there. It is a grind, but you have to keep the faith; keep pushing forward. You might have to take it one customer at a time, but, as Mother Teresa once said, “the ocean is made up of drops.” Keep pedalling and the breakthrough will come.

Momentum and passion are tough things to keep hold of on your own. Make sure you have other people around you who are happy for you to bounce ideas off them, and who will inspire fresh ideas and enthusiasm. When you are grafting away on your own, it is vital to have input from people who understand the difficulties of the process.

Delegation
As your business develops, so will your workload. You need to recognise when this workload is too much for you on your own. There is no use in running yourself into the ground before your venture has even left it! To avoid this, take a look at the workings of your business and break them down into separate roles. This could be delegated to interns, or even employees if you are in a position to afford them.

Invest Effort in Talent
When a fresh venture is your baby it is really hard to take parts of it out of your hands and into the hands of others. But this transition must be made in good time. It is essential to invest real time and planning into hiring the right people. Do not wait until it is too late and get into a situation where you have to hire fast; this way you will most likely end up with employees that are the wrong fit for your company.  Make hiring the right talent a priority well ahead of when they are required so that you can put the focus, but not stress, into the task.

Under Promise and Over Deliver
This is a good rule of business in general. This rule not only helps you to gain a great reputation but also takes a little pressure off. An example of this is always promising a later completion date on some work than you intend to deliver so that when you do deliver, earlier than quoted, the customer is happy. This also buys you time if the demands of a start-up slow down a project or task for some reason.

Self-Promotion
Don’t work in secret. Many new companies fail because they are too timid, self-deprecating or fear apparent over-confidence in their product or service. With social media being in its heyday, self-promotion is easier than ever, go for it! Also, if you are planning a publicity event or advertising campaign, don’t be afraid to ask for things. Perhaps you can get a free venue for your launch if you promise to promote the venue. The worst thing they can say is ‘no’!

The bottom line is ‘make some noise’. You might have invented the greatest thing known to man, but all you will hear is crickets if the only living thing that knows about it is your cat!

Don’t Overwork Yourself
This is so easy to do. You have to relax a little; tension has never benefitted anyone or anything. We are told from a young age that the harder you work, the bigger and better the results. This just isn’t the case. It is an attitude that will grind away at you over time, extinguishing the flame that once was your initial idea. Many studies over the past decade have proven that sleep, rest and a healthy work/life balance are essential to wellbeing and success. Take breaks, delegate, keep to sensible working hours, eat properly and keep fit.

In conclusion, perhaps the most important thing to do to keep your business on track is to look after yourself first. Keep that positive vision in your head by keeping yourself healthy, happy and inspired.

Cathy Breeze – Steering SMF Communications for 20 Years

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Cathy Breeze took up the role of Director of Communications at Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) around the time that email started to take off in business! 20 years on Cathy is managing a wide ranging campaign that embraces everything from the Annual Dinner and the Annual Report through to social media communications; running an active LinkedIn Group, Engineers in Business; an e-newsletter for Fellows, publications, research projects and a university business competition.

The communications channels may have changed, but the mission of Sainsbury Management Fellows remains the same – to help ambitious young engineers gain the skills and experience that enables them to become business leaders, either in their own start-ups or in blue-chip companies.

Cathy has spearheaded the external communications campaign to raise awareness of the scholarship scheme and attract high calibre candidates to apply for an award, as well as working with SMFs’ Trustees to build relationships with leading institutions such as the Royal Academy of Engineering and EngineeringUK. Cathy has helped to foster many mentoring relationships between Fellows and young engineers and helped the Trustees in the organisation’s transition to a registered charity.

At a dinner to celebrate her 20th anniversary as SMFs’ Director of Communications, Cathy said: “This has been the most rewarding job of my career, and I’ve had some interesting posts. I am fortunate to work with Trustees who have a strong vision for the charity and a commitment to deliver great results. They have inspired my work on the communications front. I very much look forward to our next challenge – raising £10 million to continue the charity’s work. We have already raised over £1.7million, which is a great start.”

Guide to Entrepreneurship – Getting Started

George Fowkes Cropped
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.

Guide to Entrepreneurship – The Idea!

Chirag Shah (1)
Sainsbury Management Fellow, Chirag Shah, is a serial entrepreneur.  A Londoner born and bred from a family of medical doctors, he studied Engineering at the University of Cambridge. He completed his Engineering apprenticeship at Rover Cars where he worked as a Production Manager before gaining a scholarship through the Sainsbury’s Management Fellows to pursue an MBA at INSEAD Business School in France. Following a short spell in management consulting, he started his first business at the age of 28. His entrepreneurial ventures include Trading Partners (a business services company), écurie25 (the largest chain of Supercar Clubs in the world), MarketMaker4 (an internet software company), and Assassin Live (an iPhone application game). He is also active as an angel investor.

Most people think the biggest obstacle to getting started with a new business is coming up with a really great idea. But this generally isn’t the case. Ideas are all around us and mostly come from finding solutions to our problems.
Unless your name is Jesus and you can simply perform miracles whenever you hit a problem, we generally tend to address problems by tolerating them or avoiding them. The key to successful entrepreneurship lies here. Instead of living with your frustrations, take the extra few seconds to challenge the issue and explore how you might solve the problem. The answer could be your business idea!

In my experience, the much more challenging aspect to getting started is turning the idea into a viable business proposition. To illustrate, I’m going to use as an example my 19 year-old cousin – who has half a dozen more new ideas every time I see him. He’ll be a great entrepreneur one day but first he needs to overcome what I call the “CARD-test”. In order for an idea to become a successful business it needs to be Commercial, Aligned with resources, Relevant (to you) and Defensible.

An idea my cousin had when we were 15 was the concept of having a rotating sunlounger. Just like a sunflower, the lounger would turn slowly during the day saving the users from having to get up and move the lounger themselves.

Commercial
Applying the “Commercial” test, the key question is: “can you make money from the idea?” If one manufactured the product, would there be enough sales to offset the manufacturing and distribution costs and still leave some profit leftover? In the case of the rotating sunbed, I’m not sure ‘enough’ users would pay the necessary sum to avoid getting up and turning the lounger themselves.

Aligned with resources
Another idea he had was to build a field of solar panels and sell the electricity, whilst growing some vegetables in the shade. In the right circumstances this idea can meet the Commerciality clause, and indeed there are such implementations around the world.

Alas, for my poor cousin, he does not have enough money to implement this idea nor could he hope to raise sufficient funds from other people given his lack of previous experience as a farmer or energy consultant or similar. So for my cousin, this idea falls down because it is not ‘aligned’ with his level of resources. [A particular frustration of mine, and a reason why I think the green energy movement fails to reach breakthrough levels of adoption is that so many innovative projects very quickly require significant levels of capital to bring them to market and hence remain the remit of larger institutional sources which are inherently more risk averse than your average entrepreneur. Compare this with the Internet revolution where the cost of starting a business is very small and new business concepts dominate.]

Relevant (to you)
As a general rule of thumb I tend to advise budding entrepreneurs to focus on businesses that they actually know something about – by way of their prior work experience, or background, or specialist product knowledge, etc. From the businesses I have seen people starting up around me, I would say your chances of success are less than 20% if you know nothing about a particular product or market, and probably closer to 80% if you have worked in that sector, already have relationships with potential customers, and are familiar with your competition. If you have a great idea in a sector you know nothing about, then getting a job in that sector is a great way to start.

Defensible
Defensibility, or Barriers to Entry as the academics would call it, refers to how difficult or easy it is for others to copy what you are doing. Patenting or copyrighting an idea is an important consideration but don’t assume that just because an idea is patented it cannot be replicated or if an idea cannot be protected that others will definitely copy it. In any case I mention this criterion with lower priority than the others because a business lacking defensibility is not necessarily doomed to fail.

As you will see in later posts, how well and how quickly you execute your idea can play a much larger part towards its success and having imitators can even be a good thing. There are benefits to competition in terms of growing the size of a market that can outweigh the downsides of competing for business. For example, one of my own companies, écurie25 Supercar Clubs, is the global market leader for enthusiasts wishing to share the costs of owning a Ferrari but I actually wish we had more competitors because the sector would grow from the resulting greater awareness of such clubs. And I would rather have a smaller market share of a larger sector than a large share of a niche market.
Now that you have your idea in-hand and you’ve vetted it with the CARD Test, it is time to get started. In my next post, I’ll give you some tips for making sure you de-risk your venture as much as possible before you commit too much.