Startups are an Experiment

The most interesting technology startups, in my experience, are those who are trying to do something new.

In Europe, prior to the Enlightenment, one group of people who tried to do something new were the alchemists. Classically stereotyped as people who sought to create gold from base metal, they were lampooned by Tim McInnerny as Lord Percy Percy with his nugget of purest Green. His depiction was of a group of people who attempted, seemingly at random, to apply treatments and actions in order to create change.

Picture of an alchemist

The alchemists were swept away, in part, by the propagation of the scientific method throughout Europe. The scientific methods remains with us today, informing the approaches we take to discovery – and arguably creating innovation cycles that are faster than any could have imagined a thousand years ago.

Do you want to be an alchemist or a scientist? I subscribe to the latter approach over the former – and I believe that those establishing startups should view them through the lens of a scientist, treating them as an experiment

What does this mean? To me it means following an ordered process in order to best understand what you observe and maximise your chances of proving your hypothesis.

Think back to school – hypothesis, methodology, results, conclusion (no, I cannot forget!) – and take the same approach. With reference to startups, I would summarise the scientific method as follows:

  • Question – how can consumers and/or businesses most effectively complete an activity?
  • Observe – what do they currently do, what are the deficiencies to the approach?  Coupons in magazines in 2008 – why?
  • Hypothesise – we believe that businesses / consumers would use coupons more if they were online, promoted on single days
  • Create a methodology – build a site, and promote it for those interested in saving money via coupons; get businesses to provide aggressively priced coupon deals on a daily basis
  • Analyse the results – are people using my coupon site?  Is the promotion right, are the coupons offering deals in the right industries?
  • Interpret – yes, people really like daily coupon sites
  • Create a new hypothesis – people are willing to pay a monthly subscription of £15 to access my daily coupon site

New businesses are created by inquisitive minds who ask questions and observe deficiencies. However, just having a great idea (or a hypothesis) does not mean automatic success.

Consider your business – are you sitting in a candle lit room in a pointy hat, creating nuggets of purest green? Or are you a scientist in a laboratory conducting a series of experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses about businesses and consumers? I know which I’d rather be.

To VC or not to VC

My colleague Aaron came in this morning having attended a TechHub event last night.

Wow, and I thought some of my ideas were bad.  Aaron gave us a long description of a series of ‘companies’ he’d met (I put that in inverted commas because I’d call most of them ‘ideas’) – and some of them were truly depressing, and only one did not evoke the question “but…why would you want to do that?”

Most depressing of all is that the majority of these people are looking for venture capital (VC) investment.  Now, I’ve looked through a lot of VC portfolios and worked with a number of the businesses of which they comprise, and I am always shocked by the quality of some of the investments – and it leaves me asking the question “how?”

In reality the answer is all too obvious: many ‘ideas’ chasing too much cheap capital, brought about by low central bank interest rates.  The sad fact is: most of these companies will fail.  Why?  Because a) they should never been offered investment in the first place, and b) the ‘entrepreneur’s’ motivation for taking investment is misguided.

The first problem I cannot solve – if investors make obviously poor investments, and have access to the money with which to do so, then it will continue to happen.  However, I’d rather that entrepreneurs’ energies were put towards creating useful outputs.

The first mistake is for an entrepreneur to take an idea then go out looking for VC investment in the misguided belief that it is the end-state they want to achieve.  It doesn’t exist to boost egos – it’s there to support company growth.  It is no more than the enabler.  Your idea may not even need VC investment – and let’s face it, it may not need the strings that a lot of modern VCs attach to their investments in order to de-risk them (although you could question why they’d need to do this if they, as an industry, hadn’t had their fingers burned making stupid investments in the past).

VC investments in London these days often constrict the very companies they are supposed to be helping through capital.  They use debt instruments and clauses to take over companies and make the entrepreneur do what the VC thinks is right.  Do entrepreneurs really need / want that?  The only time you should be taking VC investment is when you do not need it.  I was taught that lesson by a very impressive US entrepreneur called Tim Wallace.  You don’t need the money, but it will enable you to do things faster than without it.  At the end of the day, if you need something – you are going to get screwed.

A properly planned business will take account of the trials and tribulations it may face – ‘courses of action’ and ‘actions on’ – it will consider all possible options before piling around the local VC community boring the good investors to death with rubbish, or convincing the incompetent investors to part with (what is often) someone else’s cash.

Information is Free, Knowledge is Expensive, Wisdom is Priceless

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to hear some of the speakers from the event “Silicon Valley Comes to the UK” in Cambridge. Several of the speakers talked of the amazing possibilities opening up with the availability of large data sets that effectively index information, language, and the world itself. It got me thinking about the nature of information, knowledge, and wisdom, and my thoughts turned, of course, to the old giant Vafþrúðnir (Vaf-thruth-neer).

In the Old Norse poem Vafþrúðnismál (Vaf-thruth-nis-maul)The Sayings of Vafþrúðnir—the god Óðin (O-thin) comes to the giant Vafþrúðnir in disguise. Both are powerful figures in body and mind, but Óðin challenges Vafþrúðnir not to a contest of strength, but to one of wisdom.

The giant agrees, but it is his hall and his rules. They set the terms of the competition: he who loses the battle of wisdom shall forfeit his head. The cultural implications of this wager are great. Strength without wisdom is useless; the strong fool is as good as dead.

The giant does not know, of course, that he battles against Óðin, and is therefore doomed to fail. But Óðin finds a dauntless opponent in the giant as he crafts riddle after riddle, and must win in a rather sneaky way. He asks a question to which only he knows the answer: What did Óðin whisper into the ear of Baldr when he was laid on the funeral pyre? Upon hearing the question, the giant realises that his opponent must be Óðin, for only Óðin would know the answer to this question. Aware of his error, he concedes defeat.

In the Q&A period after the final session of the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference, one person asked about what skill-set will be required in the coming years of computer-based living as opposed to the skill-sets cultivated in years past.

The first answer came from Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who said that memory and memorizing would no longer be necessary, and instead people would only need to know how to navigate data and find the information they need in the moment. Delivered to an audience largely comprised of current Cambridge students, this answer did not seem to sit well with the crowd.

After a brief, half-hearted challenge from Megan Smith at Google, Andrew McLaughlin of Civic Commons championed the opposition to Hoffman, saying that no matter how readily available information and data in the coming years may become, nothing can match the human being’s ability to integrate and synthesize information into something newer and better. Memorizing, he said, would still be important not for mechanical recollection of facts, but for the pathways it opens up in the human mind that facilitate true growth, unmatched by any program or computer.

The response received loud applause from the audience. Without the processes that real learning initialises within an individual, what purpose do the advancements in data storage and processing actually present mankind? Information has always been free. Everything we know as a species we have learned through observation, exploration, and experimentation. The information has always been there; we just needed eyes to see it, like Newton beneath the apple tree. The effort required to unearth and organise that information, however, speaks to the costliness of knowledge. Knowledge is not just about possessing information, but also about possessing methods and means of storing, processing, and using that information. It requires action. Owning an encyclopedia is useless if one never reads it, much like the uncut pages of the books in Gatsby’s library. Information is just potential, useless unless developed into knowledge, and then used with knowledge. 

And then we get to wisdom. Wisdom is yet another step further, a kind of combination of knowledge and experience that transcends the articulable. Knowledge can be traded, bought, sold, and passed on; wisdom must be developed within each and every person individually. Knowledge is also limited to a specific subject area, whereas wisdom applies across the range of human experience. And that is precisely why no matter how advanced data processing and applications become in the years ahead, they ultimately have nothing to do with the internal advancement of each human being that makes life worth living.

Wisdom will always be our rarest and most expensive commodity. In our quest to explore the applications of data, we must be sure we do not neglect the importance of wisdom and lose our heads like the giant Vafþrúðnir.

Experiential learning: An intern’s perspective of RIG

When I first knew that I wanted to expand my knowledge of entrepreneurship, I felt that the courses my university offered would help me gain a theoretical understanding but that they wouldn’t necessarily give me detailed answers to the questions I had such as:

  • What are the key elements needed for starting a company?
  • How do you identify and approach the right clients for your product?
  • What are the potential ‘surprises’ that could derail the progress of your company and how do you mitigate the risk?
  • How do you position your product in the market so that it is more attractive to clients than similar competitor solutions?

I knew that the only way to learn more was to find a role that would let me actively learn by doing. After looking at RIG’s website and reading through most of the entries on the blog, I realised that completing an internship here was exactly the kind of opportunity I was looking for. I was excited to see that former interns had the chance to work on more than just one project and that they found that working at RIG was a challenging, but more importantly, rewarding experience.

Although this is only my fifth day here at RIG, I’ve already learnt so much. I was allocated to three different projects on my first day which all have varying strategies and I believe will give me the chance to absorb as much information as possible during my time here. Plus, I’ve been given the opportunity to have my most burning questions about start-ups and entrepreneurship answered by some of RIG’s clients who have first-hand knowledge.

Above all, it is apparent that the cornerstone of RIG is its people.  Everyone here is talented; they really use their individual strengths to help the clients and this is evident in the high-quality work they produce. Although this could be slightly intimidating to someone new to the group, it couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a strong sense of cohesion here. Everyone works together to get things done, even when they are working on different projects.

In the short time that I have been here, some of my questions about entrepreneurship are already being answered. Interestingly, my perception and understanding of starting up a business is changing and, consequently, I find myself wanting to know more about subjects I hadn’t previously given much thought to. I know that in these next few weeks I will gain a better well-rounded perspective of entrepreneurship than I could have achieved by learning in a lecture theatre and I am looking forward to seeing where this experience takes me.