just-arrived

There are a few, a very few, that keep building start up companies, even when they have either, had their teeth kicked in, a moderate success or a global home run. Most it would seem, fail completely and drift away, which is fine and normal for a very tough game. But a more worrying trend seems to be for people, who have built one reasonably successful start up, defined by profile, impact on market, growth in revenue and people, but no exit on horizon, to not build a second.

Often to be fair to these people they get taken out by their investors as they have not achieved the holy grail of the successful exit or some sort of end point event. But rather than gathering their strength, new found experience and leading another charge into the entrepreneurial trenches they are often seduced by established venture capital companies, incubators, industry/government bodies, anything but doing it again. The choice to do this is often brought on by the syndrome of being able to take money off the table early, even before their start up has played out completely. They have been able to invest in other brighter players as they go along, seen inside the minds of the bankers and I assume get used to a level of lifestyle. That makes it difficult to contemplate betting it all on the next big idea and going back to the world of zero.

This is less of an issue in Silicon Valley, as the numbers play out given the volume of start ups there, here in UK/Ireland the numbers do not stack up. We need every experienced entrepreneur to stay in the game and build again given there are so few capable of doing it. The PR machine does not help, building these people into industry spokespersons, they get invited to attend numerous events globally to tell their war stories and so the guru status builds. Given the nature of the technology business, often still young people at this stage, I can see how easy it would be to lose sight of the reason they built their first start up …. to win.

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So many articles in the broadsheets about people leaving London and their reasons why, some real and some spoofed for comic effect. It stirs up many emotions in people, given the pressures of modern life and the increasing ratcheting up of costs of sustaining a family and a young business in London. I moved here in 1976 from NI and lived first in Guildford a commuter town in Surrey, then Belsize Park in North London, mixed with time in Silicon Valley off and on since 1987. Now I am back in the countryside of Wiltshire, I have built start-ups in both London, Silicon Valley and in the rural areas of the UK, so I think have an interesting perspective.

So let’s get real the better opportunities for creating a team, cutting deals and getting funded are in London, simply by the volume of people, networks and funds to plug into. In my last start-up we were based in Clerkenwell and by that stage of my start-up experience knew how to slipstream all the players that created opportunities to make a name for yourself. But of course if you are less experienced and maybe never going to be the number one or two in your global market space, it can be the opposite, a more daunting, alienating place where you feel you are not at the party.

There is definitely an inner game feel to London and some just do not ever get the invites to the inner sanctum of top-level VC funding and all those cool Pitching events at Downing Street and the Palace. That, if it is happening to you, even though it is all around you in London can make you feel like a failure. Very few actually make it as a tech start-up in London, although from all the column inches, blogs and networking events devoted to the space it is difficult to see through that veneer. My calculated guess is that 98% never get funded beyond family and friend’s rounds, of which only 30% of the 2% that do will survive and maybe you will remember 3 brand names that did win in 10 years time.

It’s a tough game and takes real stamina, resilience and experience around you to make it, and that is without taking into account the negative macro events that can wipe you out like Lehmans and the periodic UK/Global market crashes every 5/7 years. But of course if you were looking at the start-up world in a logical and reasoned basis you probably are not suited to the crazy world that we entrepreneurs inhabit. Yes you must really believe as a founder beyond all the negative pushbacks that you are right about your product/service and must keep the idealist attitude alive.

So you can fail in London too, and it is why most British start-ups fail in Silicon Valley as well because the competition there is even more fierce and the money game even more aggressive than in the UK and most are not tough or experienced enough to compete on equal terms. But you are in Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin, what chance do you stand cut off from Boris’s gleaming Tech City? Well it depends a lot on what level you are playing at, what your goals are and how you set about creating your own networks.

There are great start-ups out across the UK and Ireland, bright people with bright ideas, but the thing that defines a winning company is the drive to reach the goals that are set day one in the business plan. If you are out to build a global company at some point you are going to have to go where the big deals are being done, be it London, New York, Frankfurt and San Francisco. This does not mean that you have to move the whole company from the low-cost base you might have established but it does mean a lot of travel and nights away connecting to the networks that open the door to enterprise clients and the funding that follows those early big name wins.

It requires a concerted effort as well not just dipping in and out every 90 days as I see so many companies doing, the people in the big city networks won’t take time with you and create that continuity of connection if they do not sense your committment to the cause. There is no easy or quick way of doing this, the hours day and night have to be put into this programme. If you are lucky you may find key experienced champions in those networks that like you and your company and will get alongside in accelerating your access and growth. It is certainly a lonely thing to do on your own and it never does any harm to have someone watching your back on the circuit when travelling and running hard.

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I saw this slogan “Youth and talent are no match for age and treachery” on a tee-shirt recently. It prompted me to ponder whether young people coming to London, our fine Capital city would find this to be true of their entrepreneurial experiences. Imagine it you have been to London for a few meetings, on the whole are getting a warm reception to your ideas and are being advised if you want to scale you need to be in London. You are from Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast, Manchester, Leeds, Dublin and Bristol as examples, big enough places to have a thriving start-up scene where you have made a major impact, but not on the scale of an International city like London. The other point being these cities/towns are small enough for the network to know and have background knowledge about who you are likely to be networking and doing business with.

You land in London, managed to get enough money together to cover the first 6 months rent/deposits and find yourself in the backwoods of London because it is staggeringly expensive, so either a shoebox bed sit or sharing with some other young people who may or may not be from your business world. But it is all very exciting, maybe even slightly scary and adrenalin filled, but you have confidence so you hit the circuit you have read about on-line. So many meet ups, difficult to judge which one or where in the city to spend your time and funds to attend, never realised it was so big. You find some, larger than life on-line but when physically there very lean pickings on numbers of connections, or lots of service companies wanting to sell you something. The good ones you find in the end, as your funds are rapidly diminishing, but here you are one of hundreds of dynamic big play companies that seem to know everyone and have people from all corners supporting them.

How can you make any impact above the noise and you ponder whether you need to raise money for marketing, something you swore you were never going to do. Now as you head is turned a little, the big deals not coming as fast as you would like, cash flow going to be a problem, then they appear. A friendly face, a few drinks maybe that you are grateful for given you can’t believe the prices even in outlying bars, and someone who is taking you seriously at last and really thinks the plan has legs. Perhaps we could meet to discuss this some more, say in a weeks time, come over to my club, ¬†office, boardroom, lunch, my goodness these people seem like players. Maybe even some of their contacts have been on TV or linked to Westminster, perhaps I have got something, I was beginning to have doubts. But surely they have been here for years and would know the good from the bad, nothing to lose in talking to them some more, so you do.

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It is all very comforting, they think you are great and use terms of corporate business that you have heard once maybe but don’t really understand. They over a few meetings ponder whether it is so strong an idea that you need to raise a lot of money to give it the best chance of succeeding globally. You were thinking low hundreds of thousands they are now talking millions, but again they do this for a living surely they must know the reality of this. You are now in a turmoil , the plan had been to eke out an existence, get a few big name trials under way, and then build on that experience to hone the product. Now this is all much more exciting, less pain, faster progress perhaps off the back of the funding, which they in their smart suits and fancy offices say will be highly probable given the timing of the market.

Your gut is telling you something, a boy/girl from x city just landed in London and they want me, gosh they have already introduced me in passing to the business man who built something major. A name I had never heard of but it all sounded familiar and he was so well dressed, he in turn was impressed with my idea and wished me well. Then they produce contracts, many pages of contracts, clause 29 A etc, and whiz me through it, because whoever reads the detail of contracts and they want me to take it away to ponder it for a week so as not to rush into anything. So you do and having cleared your head the next day from the drinks they supplied the night before you begin to read, lots of detail, commitments, warranties, financial jargon, you begin to get that sinking feeling about how big a deal this all going to be and it is all riding on you.

So you read it again even more slowly, using Google to check the terminology to make it slightly clearer, now you see they want money from you up front to be retained as they put it, to act for you in this fund-raising process. You were sure they said at one point they had the money, a fund surely not looking out for others to invest, and my goodness the amount of money they want per month and a major cut of the money raised. Must be some mistake, the lead guy you have a great relationship with over the last few months must have sent the wrong type of contract, he knows we are a start-up with limited funds. So you ring him to check and after a roundabout conversation about how they have already started the process and had positive feedback from quite a number of interested parties, he while laughing and smiling all the way, says of course they need to be retained that’s how these things work.

They were sure given you are the brightest of the bright and worldly-wise you of course understood that, as they would not have invested so much of their partner’s time in this due diligence process. Which you know does cost money in its self as you will be aware, but we were willing to waive that as you were an outstanding opportunity but he had still to do great work internally to convince the rest of the partnership. So he hoped given all the time and thinking that had gone into this and enhancing your reputation on the circuit it would be only a small step to you signing this off. You are caught cold and don’t want to seem as if you are not part of the big game and a potential player and play for time by offering to come back to them in a few days with a decision which you are sure will be fine.

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And you are shell-shocked, you can’t believe after all this time thinking they were going to fund you and work together as a team to build out the company, that they actually want money from you to fund them. How could you have misunderstood you really like the people and think their experience and contacts would be amazing and the thought of going back to square one again with out that weight and support is so depressing. Maybe you were being naive,¬†maybe this is the way business is done, they have spent a lot of time on you, surely they don’t do that with lots of companies. So the pressure builds and before you know it they have called and you have agreed to meet them to move the process along and you are in the boardroom with two senior partners all smiles and positivity.

The answer to all this is you are not alone, this is the business that this world lives in day-to-day, they are sellers of their services, always there, and as they say “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. Yes they will trawl through dozens of deals, feigning surprise when most of them back off at the mention of retainers and fees because that is the world where it is how they exist. Never mind if and when retained they can actually raise the funds from their network of private wealth clients, angels and small funds. These are the good ones, real offices, partnerships and track records, beware even more the out-and-out con men that have no intention of doing any real work but are there just to fleece you for every penny you have, and they exist wherever there is money on the table. If it seems too good to be true it generally is, all entrepreneurs get desperate at times, the answer is not to give in to that pressure, desperation or conversely positive hype that skews your thinking. Even if you don’t lose money, it is the time spent and opportunity cost that hurts.

There is very little glamour in London, plenty of hangers-on and fair weather friends, it is all about learning the game, hard work and setting priorities, even then very few come out the other end smiling. But it is a learning experience and will ground you for many things by taking on the challenge. So don’t shy away from it, or retreat to the small ponds, rather embrace it with an open mind and get street wise quick. Better still find your own trusted network and home team…. as it is going to be a long game.

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It all starts so well, swimmingly in fact, you as the young Founder/CEO blazing a trail with the latest technology making a major impact in the market. So you have a founding team, perhaps with engineering, operational and financial skills to match and balance your business and marketing bias. Seed capital provided by a couple of names in the industry that have helped not just with the money but really opening up the network. They in turn after some key wins have introduced you to a particular venture capital company and you have closed an A round giving you the rocket fuel to enter the US market.

You have filled out the board room, one of the private investors, a representative from the VC, a Chairman like figure that the VC recommended with long experience of your sector, an experienced VP of sales from one of the established brands, and of course your co-founders. The board meetings are purposeful and you are learning lots of new stuff, even more so at the dinners and lunches that follow as you bond with the board members. So it all feels good, they are great support, you can ring them up any time to pick their brains and of course they are beginning to learn a great deal more about you, your ambitions and capabilities.

You are running flat-out managing the team and company during the day, catching up with the administration and contract detail in the early evening and hitting the event circuit for product exposure later on. This gives you little time to gain a perspective on where you really are, how committed people are internally and what conversations are going on about your company elsewhere that you are not directly involved in. As Andy Grove at Intel said “Only the Paranoid survive” well he was talking about a bunch of things to do with change, but it is a good line to focus on. At some point come hell or high water things will change and you better be ready for them.

What you have to understand is that you as Founder/CEO are on your own, despite the appearance that you have all these people around you that are seemingly becoming friends. In business you have acquaintances, fellow board members, maybe colleagues, but let me assure you no real friends. The reason being people in this particular adventure have vested interests, keeping their jobs, supporting their families, growing the share options, enhancing their shares, flattering their reputations and most of all limiting risk. Now that might come as a shock, you have started a company with these people, won the early deals together, travelled in economy together, built event stands to the wee small hours together and shared many a dinner and drinking session.

But when the day dawns when the company hits a major blip and it will, the pressure will build and when it does, strangely you will find that the buck stops right at your door. So what is the point I am making here, why am I in some way stating the blooming obvious, yes you are in charge. It is easy to lose sight of it, that’s why, you have all these players around you, a buzz of interplay going on. An adrenalin pumping speed of movement, which makes the silence that accompanies you at last when on your own at midnight, wondering what happened, wrecking your brain for the solutions, even more deafening.

Even if they all in the end do turn out to be great people and continue to support, just be ahead of all of this, be prepared, build your own trusted support team and be slightly cynical throughout …. Just in case.

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In the technology world that we play in there is a tendency for the teams we manage to be on the young side. That in itself is cause for caution in how we treat them, as often they are not fully formed yet as people. I know this will go against the grain of the US vendor numbers led system, in which the turnover of people is seen as part of the competitive machine. Now that is not to say there are not some really good cultures to be found in that setting but on the whole from my experience it is more about the company than the person in most cases.

From the time in my late twenties when I really had enough experience under my belt to handle most situations in management, it was clear to me that people are fragile in their early to mid twenties and easily broken if not treated carefully. In the hyper competitive sales world it is easy to crush people with a careless word or line that is ill thought. You don’t in most cases even remember saying it, while they the recipient ponder and agonise about the meaning and implications for days. Communication that is clear as to the message and well thought out is imperative, even more so if it is constructive criticism of performance rather than praise. But even in the positive role it is very important to balance the messages so that the team member can gauge what is real and not real and can understand the level they are at.

This does not negate you being demanding of performance or driving hard in a competitive race to win against the opposition. The team say 20 strong are all going to have growing pains inside and outside the business, and they will bring them with them to work. So you have to manage in the round, walking the talk, a bit like the old factory foreman that knew their people intimately from being close to them on the factory floor and out of work as well. Some management can be learned in books and on courses but the handling of people comes from learning mostly on the job, being sensitive to changes in mood and temperature on the shop floor so to speak is one of the great skills.

Often body language rather than what the team member is saying will be a stronger clue to the mood of the moment. People nodding, head down and eyes averted may not be gaining the acceptance of whatever you are trying to put across, no matter the verbal protests that they are. Reinforcement of messages is always needed remember they are not you, perhaps they need more time to assimilate, but when they do, blossom off the back of it. Others will have little patience for the message being laboured, quicker on the uptake, but maybe less prepared when implementing.

That is the joy of management it is so diverse, if they were a bunch of robots with no feelings they could get a machine to manage them, not you. That is why to get a team or a start-up company purring on all cylinders is one of the great things to achieve in life, just like any sports team that is flying at the top of their game. But it is a responsibility that has to be taken seriously, in the high stress environments we operate in, you have their lives in the palm of your hand and that should never be discounted lightly.