Doing the right deal

Throughout the history of deal-making, folks have conceived of successful negotiations as being the ones where they “won.” Now, of course there is a place for adversarial negotiations, and of course there are times when it’s critical that you look out solely for your own company, but the types of deal that typically constitute the foundations for an early stage tech company, will usually function best when they function as a win-win long into the future.

 

For any early stage technology company, establishing the right structure and commercial basis for collaboration with key partners is critical. Attempting to use an imbalance of leverage, power, or information in closing a deal that favours you and cements a long-term partnership, is akin to building shaky foundations under a high-rise in the pacific ring of fire. It might look beautiful on the warm sunny day when it’s finished, but it’s unlikely to weather the storms. This is as true for a corporate as it is for a start-up, although both parties can be equally guilty of not always seeing this.

 

A long-term win-win is not always easy to structure, and there’s no simple solution for how to achieve it, but openness, honesty, and frank communication are a good place to start (I remember that from my wedding). If both parties genuinely understand the other’s hierarchy of intended outcomes, structuring is made considerably more simple, as is running a conceptual stress-test to see how it will handle any future tectonic shifts.

How early is too early: knowing when to engage your customer

“But we need to develop 3 phases of prototypes, go through accelerated life testing, and get 10 patents granted”. Or so go the usual protestations against early market engagement. The value of bringing partners and customers into the conversation at an early stage is often trumped by fear. “They’ll steal my technology”. “It isn’t advanced enough”. “They won’t understand it”.

There is only one thing that you need in order to commercially engage with companies; a proposition. Something to spark their interest. Let’s say you live in a very rainy country and I’ve invented the umbrella (which for some reason, no one else has figured out). If I approach you and tell you that I’ve got a solution to the downpours that blight your every day, do you think you’d be interested in talking to me? You bet you would.

What happens next? I find out what size umbrella you would like, what colour, and how much you are willing to pay. Because there’s no point in me spending 6 months and spending all my savings on an umbrella that is pink, made of wood, and costs £100 when what you wanted was red, plastic, and costs £50. No, the smartest thing I can do is make sure that I am developing the desired solution to a real problem, before I invest a significant amount of resource in doing so. Moreover, customers may be more open about the value of a solution when they’re encouraging you to create one (as opposed to negotiating over price).

Now, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of solid IP protection or reliable performance data. My point is that these are not prerequisites for starting a conversation with the company which will eventually use or distribute your technology.

These early conversations can significantly reduce market risk for emerging companies and their investors. They validate that a valuable problem is being solved. They help to shape the technology development path so that solutions are compatible with supply chains. They demonstrate demand for what you will ultimately be selling or licensing. All of this helps to avoid uncommercial development, something critical for young companies with short runways looking to maintain a competitive advantage.

Life is beautiful: in memory of JP

JP had all of the energy and passion of the entrepreneur.
He was also a lovely man. Full of good cheer and resilient enthusiasm.

Being an entrepreneur and trying  to grow a business is a fight.  There is fun in it but at times the going is hard and the struggle all consuming. JP was up for it all and I admired him for that.

In his passing there is reflection. It makes me think how much is sacrificed in the building of a business. Without that struggle it would be hardly worth the effort. It is the struggle that defines and makes us. But in those quieter moments that can be so hard to find, we remember that there is so much more to  life: so much to wonder at, to discover, to experience, and to love. As JP’s skype profile put it: Life is beautiful.

Start Small

A CEO we are working with asked me today about how large a deal she should look to do with an agricultural foundation that could become a big partner. As her company’s technology solves a major problem for them, she was aware that there was the potential to do a big initial deal but her instinct was to start small.

 

I think she was very right.  We had a situation with another company for which we had opened a discussion with one of the largest surface materials companies in the world. We started by talking to one division, but other divisions within the company got wind of the technology and wanted to broaden the scope and raise the budget of the initial engagement.

 

Potentially very encouraging news, but as the scope widened, more stakeholders would be needed to approve the project and it would need to be synchronized with the work plans of more departments. What had been lined up as something relatively clean and straightforward was getting unwieldy and looking less and less likely to actually happen.

 

In the end, we were able to get back to the scope we had originally wanted ­– a modest project that could be both readily signed off and quickly executed. With the data generated from that first project, the internal champion we had nurtured within the company was in a much stronger position to set up larger projects for our client.

Creating International Currencies

Currencies enable commerce, acting as a recognised standard unit of exchange; they are closely associated with nation states – usually being either created or controlled by governments, within their (geographic) spheres of economic and legal influence.  What is interesting about the early cryptocurrencies is they have been able to address very large communities –  crossing many national boundaries in the process – and although we have seen certain countries seeking to dissuade the use of cryptocurrencies (for example China and Korea) – the growth of the populations ‘using’ (in the widest possible sense of the word) continues.  In this respect cryptocurrencies are functioning much like the multinational currencies of the past, for example the Spanish Real de a Ocho or the Bohemian Thaler, transcending national boundaries in their use as a medium of exchange.  What is also thought-provoking in this comparison is the Real and Thaler were made of gold and silver respectively – which many would recognise as having tangible value during their period of dominance – versus cryptocurrencies which would be considered ‘intangible’ under most classical definitions.

I conform to the view that, having moved away from being based on a tangible commodity, the value of modern currencies is defined by their ability to enable exchange – and thus those with the most developed usage networks or economies behind them are the strongest currencies (not necessarily from an exchange rate perspective, but from a longevity perspective).   In order to maintain the value of a currency, a government must ensure it is linked to a strong economy and is well used (both domestically and internationally).

Adam Smith and Tokenisation

This brings me to Adam Smith, who put forward the following roles of government:

  • Defence
  • Justice
  • Public works and institutions

Why? Because like national currencies, cryptocurrencies are also governed – and there is a compelling argument to view the relative value of cryptocurrencies and cryptotokens on the basis of the governance regimes that manage their use creation and use. These mediums of transaction can be apportioned value in line with their relative merits, when compared to Smith’s framework.

Defence of a territory (within which a currency operates) is the first responsibility of the state – and equally it should be the first consideration of those seeking to develop new cryptotokens.  If the environment within which the token is used cannot be defended, the token will lose its value (both as a store of value and as a mechanism for enabling transactions).  But what are we defending from?  There are a number of things that immediately come to mind:

  • Better substitutes e.g. cryptocurrencies with lower transaction costs – something that Bitcoin is frequently exposed to
  • More ‘attractive’ environments for use e.g. Coinbase versus Mtgox (more attractive security, in this case)
  • (Public knowledge of) poor integrity e.g. on the fork date of Bitcoin Gold, it was well publicised that the codebase does not offer protection against replay attacks (amongst other issues)

For the developer of a cryptographic token, the first question that should be asked is ‘how do I ensure the use case for this token is defensible in the long term, as countless other tokens will likely be brought to market to address the same use case(s) I am addressing if I am successful?’

The second role of government is the delivery of justice.  In the days of yore, justice and defence were intrinsically linked – on the basis of manpower availability.  A community’s ability to defend itself was proportionate to:

  • total manpower
  • its approach to defence
  • its technological capacity

Manpower and science would grow in permissive environments – think of the first Persian Empire’s reputation for legal process, scientific advance, and military might.  Contrast that with the fall of the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years later, which was a divided state with clearly distinct (and often marginalised) groupings in the population – often conflicting with the state’s own laws, which were poorly enforced.

So how is this relevant to the development of a cryptotoken?  Bitcoin was not the first form of electronic currency (see Chaum’s ecash for the first successful implementation) – but it does have a strong, simple governance model which ties the ‘miners’ into the model and incentivises them to behave in line with the community’s needs.  For a token to be successful, I would suggest developers consider a number of points (in line with delivering ‘justice’):

  1. Incentive mechanisms – how does the governance model encourage adopters to move to using the token?
  2. Dissuading poor behaviour – for example rent-seeking – is there a methodology that prevents free-riding or market abuse?  The token developer should consider their own potential role here (see the change in Ripple’s value in May 2017 when 55 billion of retained XRP were placed in escrow with a defined plan for their use)

Both of these points are congruent with how ‘laws’ operate within a nation – they either incentivise or dissuade behaviors.

Smith’s final role is that of public works and institutions – Smith advocated these for the facilitation of commerce and trade.  The time has now gone where a token can be created as a standalone, without a defined use, and still be attributed value.  Token creators must think as much about facilitating the use, as the use itself – for example:

  • Is the token launched such that speculators can engage with it in a secondary market via engaged exchanges?
  • Does the token creator provide ‘the market’ for the use case? For example, the Bristol Pound has a use case because Bristol has onboarded its consumers and retailers – but David Coin has no use case – I have no consumers nor suppliers prepared to use it.

Cryptotokens are, to my mind, the best current example of Metcalfe’s (and Beckstrom’s, and Reed’s, and Sarnoff’s) law on the value of networks.

Taxation

This brings me onto the second part of this blog:

How does the state pay for its functions, and what does this tell us about how cryptotoken communities can pay for themselves?

The simple answer, to my mind, is: tax.

A nation state taxes its citizens and economic operators, and the purpose of this tax revenue is the delivery of the functions of state.  Of course, the state must be aware:

  • Of Frédéric Bastiat’s comments on the state
  • Of the impact of rent-seekers
  • That if a ‘tax’ model is implemented to provide revenue to enable its functions, this is not done in a way that alienates its users (/citizens).

There will always be a temptation in any token-enabled environment to implement a simple tax model – 1% of all transactions, for example.  However, history has already shown that a simple levy is not the most effective approach – and in fact any modern tax system is used to both encourage and dissuade activities which, whilst legal, are considered more or less attractive to the population.  They can also be extremely complex (the US Federal Internal Revenue Code has 9834 sections; there are over 100 HMRC tax manuals) – which represents the extent to which the modern nation seeks to bestow benefit for certain activities, and discourage others.

The creators of cryptotoken(s) should bear these points in mind – as the governance model applied at the establishment of a new community have, to date, been shown to be difficult to change without significant disruption to the underlying population.  Recall the warnings not to transact in bitcoin for a number of days either side of the Bitcoin Cash fork.  Whilst mechanisms have been built into many cryptotoken models, I do believe these will continue to evolve in the coming years.

Closing

Closing any deal is an event created by a process. The event itself involves getting the deal over the completion line. It is no more than the summation of a process that starts once a degree of mutual trust and interest have been established. Opening is a fluid mix of sparking interest (i.e. potential but still unsubstantiated fit and benefit) and relationship building. Relationships matter as they create access and provide the agency that gets things done and the medium through which information and insight is channelled and processed. Importantly, they also allow us to understand first hand what is important to an individual and an organisation. That is where empathy starts. In dealmaking, to deal is to empathise; to be able to imagine things from your counterpart’s point of view. Empathy is not simply a matter of adding another invaluable perspective, it is that soft intelligence that can lubricate the process, help smooth the bumps, and resolve the thorniest of issues. While creating ‘an opening’ is a prerequisite to selling, it is not in my book selling. It is a skill apart and a high value one at that when there is a significant degree of complexity and multiple players involved.

Determining the degree of fit, and the business case that may emanate from it, is a critical stage. The more thorough the work here the greater the probability that subsequent activities will progress smoothly. This is an evidence-based stage characterised by information sharing. The more structured this process, the better. Have a plan of what to share, with whom, and importantly, when to share. Building the business case – the ultimate measure of fit – in particular should never be presented as a fait accompli. Rather it is a very deliberate process. Agreeing a methodology (i.e. how value can be evaluated) is important because sellers are often guilty of presenting benefit cases that underestimate adoption costs while buyers may try and inflate them. The best form of persuasion (i.e. selling) are ‘facts’ messaged and presented in a manner that is compelling by virtue of being irrefutable. That is the subtle art of ascribing meaning to facts.

The basis of all sales is arbitrage: the buyer pays x for something potentially worth a multiple of x.  For the buyer that is the difference between cost and value.  This is where IP based propositions that are a multiple better than the incumbent technologies should be at a major advantage. The higher the multiple the greater and more transformative the potential value. Of course, the imperative here is transparency. Indeed ’radical transparency’, to borrow an acquired phrase, makes absolute sense. No bullshit required. Just detailed hard proof that for many of the companies RIG works with can only come through a period of collaboration. To fall short of ‘showing the value’ is to sell your technology short. Falling back on persuasion, however articulate and passionate the advocate, is a poor substitute for empirical, substantiated, indisputable, shared and accepted evidence of value. In this stage at least, the best way to sell is simply not to.

Beyond the core challenge of agreeing a methodology for establishing value, there is always an extensive list of associated ‘issues’ (not least those related to IP) that must be worked through before a closing event becomes a possibility. Failure to identify or anticipate an issue will delay ‘the close’ or lead to premature attempts to close a deal that is not yet closable. An apt metaphor might be borrowed from my boyhood:  compare this final stretch to building a model airplane of the type that predate the machines that you can order on Amazon and that are ready to fly straight out of the box. For the plane to fly the build had to be completed to spec and the little engine perfectly calibrated. Everything had to be just right, which took a fair amount of checking and tinkering, otherwise the plane failed to take off or crashed shortly after take-off. The most important tool was a comprehensive checklist.

The critical challenge of agreeing commercial terms is the penultimate activity before ‘the closing event’. This essentially involves trade-offs between cost and anticipated value. The buyside argues cost (and if procurement gets involved it will almost inevitably try to divorce cost from value as is their brief) while the sellside must stick to the language of value. To fall immediately into a pricing dialogue dominated by arguments around cost is to be seduced by the dark side. Instead frame your arguments using the language of value. How challenging this negotiation is primarily a function of how well you have executed the preceding stages. Though you will be frequently told otherwise, there is little in truth that cannot be anticipated or established before the negotiation to ratify final terms. An agreed methodology to evaluate value will at the very least enclose the discussion within parameters that make reaching agreement easier. The result we get may in part be down to our planning and negotiation skills but in much greater part it is down to leverage. Leverage is power and that power is found, created, built, adjusted, and understood as the process unfolds from first contact. In sum, the most skillful closers are those who know how to create leverage and use it to shape their counterpart’s decision-making, so that they seek in their own interest, terms that closely resemble the ones the closer set out to achieve in the first place.

 

From electricity metering to cookie cutters

A common trope in the smart buildings and energy efficiency technology space is that there is no cookie cutter approach to effectively manage energy in buildings. It’s a statement that speaks to the myriad of factors that can affect how individual buildings operate and how one technology solution does not fit all sizes.

A few months back, an energy management and smart meter expert from a global consultancy was in our office to discuss big data approaches to energy management. In particular, we were discussing the growing significance of circuit-level data in the built environment.

As our conversation went on, we began speaking about his native Australia and funnily enough it turns out his sister-in-law has carved out quite a niche market in selling cookie cutters (I’m not using a metaphor here). Lisa set up Cookie Cutter Shop in 2013 having identified a significant market opportunity.

We thought it’d make an interesting post on our entrepreneur’s viewpoint page. Unfortunately, I didn’t get an all-expenses trip to Australia, but I did have the pleasure of speaking with Lisa…

How did you identify that there was a market for cookie cutters in Australia?

In my previous role as the owner of a bricks and mortar kitchenwares specialty store we were constantly asked for cookie cutters that we didn’t have in our small range.  We would try to assist customers to find what they were looking for and couldn’t find many of the items from our Australian suppliers or other retailers.

You’ve now built up quite a significant range of cookie cutters. How did you go about sourcing these and developing relationships with suppliers?  

Trade events are an excellent source of new ideas, inspiration and networking.   Particularly if you can attend trade events that are not in your local area then the opportunities for you to meet with new suppliers that could bring something unique to your business are almost limitless at the larger shows.  It was at our first trade fair in Frankfurt that I discovered the diverse and unique range of cookie cutters available from Europe.

How have you made your brand defensible in the market?

We have targeted a niche product within the huge retail category of baking and cake decorating.  There are many online businesses selling cake decorating supplies with a small range of cookie cutters but our main goal was to have the largest range of cookie cutters available from the one place in Australia.  If we don’t have it we will do our best to assist our customers to find it.  We have also more recently partnered with a manufacturer in Spain to make our own custom design cookie cutters so that we can offer cutters that are perfectly suited to our market as well as being the best quality.   As well as the largest range and excellent quality products we pride ourselves on the best customer service which assists us to retain our customers.

What do you see as your biggest challenge?

During these first few years the balancing act of adding new cutters to our range whilst not going overboard has probably been my biggest challenge.  I have always loved cookie cutters so every time I see a new shape I want to be able to offer it to our customers.  We need to balance the cost of our inventory and its storage whilst growing the business and brand.

The other challenge is that our products are reasonably low cost so we need a certain volume of orders to meet our fixed costs.  Keeping our fixed costs low is very important and has also been challenging.

Do you think your business model can be exported to different markets in the world, or did this work only in its particular Australian context?

I believe this model could certainly be exported to other markets in the world.  Especially those markets that don’t have an established network of larger cookie cutter suppliers.  There are certainly opportunities as we are sending many international orders each day at the moment.

What’s the most interesting cookie cutter shape you’ve seen out there?

This is a hard question, the most interesting cookie cutter shape.  The most interesting for me are the really detailed and intricately made cutters like our lighthouse cookie cutter or Cologne Cathedral.  These cutters make cookies that don’t need any decorating because they just look so beautiful with all the embossed details.  I also love checking out antique shops for vintage shapes.

 

The other interesting set of cutters would have to be the ninjabread men. They are a bit of a hit with customers also.

And lastly, what’s your favorite home cooked meal?

At the moment with a fussy 3 year old in the house, my favourite home cooked meal is anything that she will eat without too much bribing!  Seriously though I think my favourite home cooked meal would have to be a simple roast pork with ample crackling and apple sauce.  It has been my favourite for as long as I remember so it probably has some sentimental value also.

In regards to home baking I am enjoying experimenting with some of our Christmas cookie cutters this year and making some delicious vanilla butter cookies spiced with Gingerbread spice.

A conversation with Ffion Rolph, Rapid Innovation Group Project Director

RIG’s summer intern, Nadya Kelly, sat down for lunch with Ffion Rolph, RIG’s project director. Over some pizza and coffee, they discussed Ffion’s time at RIG, technology interests, and gender issues.

NK: How did you end up working for RIG?

FR: Honestly, I came out of university, and like most people, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a couple of ideas. I’ve always been into politics – I studied it at university and had been working at the Welsh Assembly for a while before I came across RIG. A friend knew someone who worked here. I decided it looked interesting and after meeting Shields a few times, it seemed like the right fit.

NK: What did you want to do as a kid, and how does working at RIG square up to your first aspirations?

FR: When I was younger, I was (and still am) really into sports. I wanted to be the first female Formula One champion. I’m a bit of a speed freak. As I got older, I wanted to be a barrister for a while, but I’ve always had a strong interest in science and technology. I feel like at RIG, I’m really engaging the geekier side of my personality and getting to indulge that.

NK: What do you say when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do?

FR: I tend to tell people about the tech and the specific challenges that I’m working on at the time. I find giving examples really helps. Most of the time people find those technologies interesting so it’s a great starting point!

NK: Do you enjoy having a broad scope of work at RIG or would you like to delve further into specific companies that really interest you?

FR: Deep down, I am probably a generalist. I really like variety but sometimes it can be rewarding or even essential for RIG to develop an intimate understanding of molecular level science. We have to get to know the industries in which we work, inside out. I enjoy new challenges, learning about new technologies, and maintaining the possibility of getting involved in many different fields.

NK: The natural next question is what are your specific interests in technology, and what do you think is particularly interesting right now?

FR: At risk of sounding cliché, energy is a huge challenge facing the world right now. There’s an emphasis on finding solutions for energy generation but that really is only half of the puzzle. Now we have a variety of renewable energy sources generating intermittent energy, there will be challenges to do with ensuring supply if we are to successfully transition to a renewable grid.

The automotive industry is really what is driving things forward in terms of battery storage but I think there’s also space for other solutions that might be more geared towards grid-scale storage; things like Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). I think that the energy storage challenge definitely needs a bit more attention and funding over the next decade or two. Once we match storage with generation, we will have a complete solution.

The other thing I think is probably water. I’m going for the big themes! We’re always told that the world has enough food to feed itself two or three times over but that we just can’t distribute it. With water, we will have to address increasing shortages otherwise we face significant political and humanitarian consequences.

I think people are starting to become aware of the issues around meat and how much energy it takes to create one serving of beef, for example. People are starting to think about sustainable farming, how we distribute food to the areas of the world that need that food. We might be looking back at subsistence farming, which is how agriculture started. So I don’t think food is so much of a problem, but water, especially with climate change, is going to become a very scarce resource, so making the most of the water that we have, being able to reuse it, treat it efficiently, to use less energy when treating it, is going to become very important. So, what’s interesting today is working with the technologies that address the treatment of water and the energy required to use it.

NK: Do you enjoy a particular part of the process of helping companies to grow the most?

FR: I think because I like learning a lot about new things, the first few months – which are all about having conversations with experts in the market, learning about why or why not a technology might be interesting, becoming an expert in that sort of space – is always very satisfying. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you’d love doing that kind of thing. Once you’ve got enough knowledge of the market to understand how the technology might succeed, it’s very exciting to put together significant commercial deals either with a large internationally recognised partner – the Veolias of the world – or to get involved in direct sales. There is a certain excitement involved in sales and a sense of achievement in completing any deal, so I think that’s probably where I would look to focus in the future. I’ll still retain the intellectual curiosity but I think putting together relationships to deliver technologies that make a sustainable and meaningful difference to people’s lives is fairly exciting.

NK: Given a good idea, do you think your experience at RIG means you would now be excellently placed now to become an entrepreneur?

FR: Definitely, and I’d like to think if I came up with an idea for a company and there was an opportunity to do something then maybe I could build that within RIG. I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else. If I started a company tomorrow, I would grow it by following everything that I already do at RIG to the same principles. I would love to be able to do that one day. I mostly want to own a restaurant which is still being an entrepreneur but a bit more on your feet!

NK: Do you think there is a gender issue at RIG? Is it problematic?

FR: I think when you look at the company, yes, it is easy to think that there’s a gender problem because there aren’t many women, and all the equity partners and directors are male. I don’t think, however, that there’s any lack of desire to hire more women. We would really like to have more women on the team; we’d like it to look 50:50 at least.

While RIG has its part to play, there is also a societal challenge around getting women into STEM subjects and careers. We still want to do everything we can to change that. I play an active role in recruitment: I place vacancies for grads and interns, and the ratio of applications that we get is really five-to-one male to female. So, while we want to hire more women, when the pool is so biased, it can be difficult. That isn’t to say that we don’t make a concerted effort to hire women but it does highlight part of the challenge faced by RIG and companies like it.

So yes, there is a challenge around gender at RIG but the company undoubtedly has several feminists, including men. Everyone, including women, can be guilty of internalised sexism but RIG is definitely an atmosphere where those notions can be challenged. People are very open to new ideas.

NK: What’s been the most challenging thing for you at RIG?

FR: Learning to understand that not every company we work with will succeed. Obviously, what we are interested in is building companies that solve macro-challenges, global challenges. Some of those companies may grow to be very big but Shields has always said we’re quite good at keeping companies going or maintaining a reasonable rate of growth, but that’s not why we or any of the entrepreneurs we work with are doing this. It’s a cliché but it comes with the idealism of entrepreneurs: they want to either ‘change the world’ or build huge financially successful companies. I still do and will always find it difficult when we stop working with a company. There are many reasons why: the company stops being successful; we discover that there is no market for its technology; or there is a technical issue which cannot be resolved. Regardless, it always feels a bit like a break-up.

I’ve worked with a few technologies which, on paper, sounded great. There was one which had a great story… We were setting up conversations with global players across a number of industries. Things were progressing well but once we started testing programmes with some of these potential partners, the technology did not perform as expected. That was sad and it’s fair to say I found it tough.

NK: How do you address the subtle diplomacy involved in dealing with clients?

FR: I think you have to be fairly emotionally intelligent and have a good deal of empathy. I think you have to remind yourself that even though it may be clear that the market is saying one thing (i.e. it challenges the entrepreneur’s views), you have to imagine that if you had developed the technology over 3, 5, 10 years like some of our clients, it would be like your child. If someone tells a parent their child is naughty or does something wrong, the parent doesn’t take kindly to it. It might be a weird analogy but I think you know what I mean.

All of us want to see the technologies that we work with succeed, but it’s all about how you deliver messages. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day. We have the same objectives but the honest feedback is not always what people want to hear.

It is important to appreciate they (our clients) are experts in what they do; visionaries who’ve developed something entirely novel. They’ve seen an opportunity, they’ve developed a great idea, they’ve built a technology. That requires a great deal of capability so you have to be conscious that some of their objections are quite valid. It doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes frustrating!

The draw of a silly assumption

On paper it might make sense: hire a commercially minded executive who has ridden the tiger at a fabulously successful growth company, who has been there and done that, and low and behold the same result will transpire. Unfortunately, this will rarely happen in practice (at least not in the formative stages – see below) yet it is an assumption that in the sweaty heat of entrepreneurial aspiration is alluring.  It follows a predictable path in how we seem to process success and failure. If a project or indeed a company is hugely successful it is all down to us; if it fails it is because of someone else or some external factor. The ‘us’ part in business (most especially in the mythologising realms of entrepreneurship) tends to be reduced to the individual ‘hero’ leader and while individual agency and inspired leadership are critical, this is the most demeaning of fallacies to co-workers – as if they were simple appendages in constructing success. The art of building the successful venture company is a team sport. There can be no leader without a team and no team without a leader.

Of course, if we bet that hiring the battle-hardened veteran (the ‘grown-up’ as some VCs might put it to shepherd the innocents), will put the world to rights then the odds are high that a mismatch is on the cards. No matter how brilliant the manager, if the product sucks there is no salvation. If the new manager has led a team that grew from 20 to hundreds and built revenues from a few miserable millions to tens of millions then it will matter not one jot if that difficult-to-find first market has not been found.

In truth, growth managers who know how to build a company are valuable. They matter but they only matter once the company has located itself in the slipstream of a market that will pull it from being a start-up to a venture scale company and beyond. Before that, there is nothing to build on. All too often the ‘been there done that manager’ is hired too early. Their experience and competence has been forged in harnessing and exploiting the demand unleashed by locating a breakthrough market. Their expertise is in scaling – in driving and underpinning growth with structure and process. Their challenge is not the pioneering and discovery work that must always be undertaken and which so often limits the growth prospects of aspirant company.

Competent growth management will determine the parameters of a company’s success. They enable the scaling process. But they are not the answer to finding strong organic growth or to addressing product design challenges. That is not their role.

 

First impressions of life at RIG

It’s the end of week two working here for me at RIG (well, it was at the time of writing) and it’s time for me to give a little bit of detail to what I’ve been up to, what I’ve learnt, and first impressions of the company.

It’s started as a little bit of acronym bombardment, full of TAMs, IPPs, OEMs and IPOs and a healthy dosage of blockchain chat from David. Slowly, I feel like I’m getting accustomed to how things work in the office, small company culture and RIG’s careful line between scrupulous professionalism and the informality fostered by the no rules, less job titles and meritocratic culture. A session on RIG’s unique business model went a long way for helping me to get my feet, and, along with sitting in on a few calls and process meetings I’ve been well informed by all on the overarching picture of how exactly RIG executes their whole range of varied tasks for clients; as Ffion described it- how RIG gets to be the commercial branch of start-ups in practice. Besides from gaining better insights into what everyone else does (including, importantly, what James has been doing as a member of the jury on a murder trial), I’ve been given my own overarching projects to carry out- a client project and an internal project. It certainly hasn’t been a slow acclimatisation to the task- I’ve certainly been flung into a market validation task for the client project just like everyone else does regularly, which involves a lot of intense googling, Linkedin (and Viadeo (?)) searching, and occasionally translating into French, but it’s pretty great to be given the freedom and responsibility to take charge of what I’m doing here and (hopefully!) create a valuable piece of work by the end of it, where I’ve had a chance to really get to grips with all aspects of the tasks execution.

What’s struck me quite a lot is both the breadth and depth in RIG’s remit- Simon may develop a very in depth understanding of banking regulation system in Romania for one client; but as well as the variety that comes with swapping to different subject matters, such as suddenly becoming an expert on non-invasive diabetes diagnostics technologies, he also gets to dictate and execute a varied range of different tasks for each client: whether it be closing client acquisition deals, deciding routes to market in a new geography or applying for grant applications- which are just a few of the tasks I’ve seen people working on this week.

After this fast-paced start, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to my project over the next six weeks, and learning more about the business and tech people at RIG are excited by- hopefully picking up some more acronyms on the way!