How Long Is Your Runway?

runwayAs a pilot I love it when I can draw aviation analogies and experiences into my entrepreneurial life. Perhaps the most obvious comparison involves the “runway” metaphor.

Most of us appreciate that the numbers we drafted in our start-up business plans are (let’s face it) rather meaningless. How can we possibly predict several years worth of revenue and cost data when we are still testing our initial business hypothesis? We simply cannot – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a plan. Cashflow distress is one of the leading causes of business failure. I’m not too proud to admit that I experienced a “near miss” myself in the past. Here are some tips to avoid a plane wreck.

The good news is that a cashflow crisis is entirely avoidable, if you have a robust planning and reporting process. Obviously, one of the goals of business is to generate a profit, but even profitable businesses are not immune from cashflow problems. If your bill payment cycle is out of sync with your revenue cycle, be wary. If you operate a web-based business, you have a particularly lumpy cashflow because your payment gateway provider may only pay you monthly initially. After a period of trading it is generally possible to negotiate weekly payments. Arrange this as soon as possible.

For other kinds of businesses, the chief risk is aged receivables. In other words slow payers. You aren’t a bank, so why should you loan precious operating capital to your customers?  Which is effectively what you are doing. There’s no law that says customers only pay on the 20th. For consulting or services work, I generally apply terms of 10 working days. Make sure you discuss the terms up front however, so everyone is on the same page. If they can’t be flexible – is that the kind of customer you want to be involved with?

Even if you don’t know exactly what your revenue is in advance, make an intelligent guess based on past experience. But be conservative. A cashflow forecast is quite possibly the one tool that will keep you out of the shit. Figure out your burn rate and balance this against cash on hand and income. That’s how you work out your runway. You should be able to forecast how much cash will remain at the end of each week, at least a few weeks ahead, preferably more. Initially this is tough, but it becomes easier as you collect more data.

Most businesses start out under-capitalised. Provided your business model is sound and revenue starts flowing early, this is not always a problem. But the reality is that under-capitalised businesses fail more often and grow more slowly due to less investment available for growth initiatives. If you are worried about excessive burn rate there are only two possible solutions. Sell more product or reduce outgoings accordingly. Unfortunately salaries are usually the first target, so be realistic with your early employees or co-founders and be clear about what the options are if cashflow drops.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

 

Making Your Startup Weekend Project Shine

sw65Wet weather and some rumbles from the earth were not enough to put a damper on Wellington Startup Weekend special social enterprise edition in 2013. Teams rapidly coalesced around various ideas for social ventures and the hard work of crafting a business proposition in the short space of 54 hours got underway.

As entrepreneurs, what is our most pressing task? The most important role of an entrepreneur is TO LEARN. Starting up a new business is a crazy experiment. You have a hypothesis, you test it out and then you adjust according to what has been learned (or you stop altogether). That is the essence of a scientific approach to customer development and customers/revenue are ultimately the life blood of any enterprise. There is no magic formula apart from hard work.

Startup Weekend offers a microcosm of the venture development process. It’s primarily an opportunity to learn from and network with a wide range of people who you can potentially work with in the future. Most participants don’t walk away with a big prize or a viable long term business. If that is your primary goal, you are probably in it for the wrong reasons.
But here’s a few tips for polishing up your fantastic Startup Weekend idea.

Judging revolves around three main themes. Business model, validation and execution. Do not expect to have perfected any of these by Sunday evening.

Model. Sustainability is the key. Demonstrate that you can potentially offer a product or service that is both financially profitable or sustainably delivers on social objectives. Why would you invest many hours of your valuable time into a venture that cannot feed itself?

Validation. Judges love to see that you got out of the building and tested your ideas on others. Your Mum’s opinion doesn’t count. Talk to strangers in the street, competitors, suppliers, potential partners and anyone who can give you a subjective viewpoint. Get some online surveying going. Where is the demand? Does your idea suck or sing?

Execution. You don’t have to close any sales deals or have a fully functioning web app by Sunday evening (although many teams have certainly achieved extra credit for this at previous events). But if you have a cohesive team, a good story and some kind of “minimum viable product” or prototype concept to demonstrate, that will impress the judges a lot.

Social Media. Finally an extra tip. Startup Weekend is all about knowledge sharing, networking and community. Extra brownie points for those teams that have been actively generating buzz through social media throughout the weekend. If you don’t have those skills yourself, get someone on the team who does and learn from them – fast. Building an online profile is essential for scaling any kind of business – social enterprises are no exception.

Best of luck!

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. He’s also a veteran of eight ten Startup Weekends as an organiser, mentor, sponsor or player and was a judge at Wellington Startup Weekend: Social Enterprise in 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Tech Scene Blossoms In Sunshine State

2013-04-16 16.09.21The annual pilgrimage to the West Island came around a little earlier than usual this year with the opportunity to attend TechConnect, a public conference for tech startups, investors and advisors held in the three main Australian city centres. I attended the Brisbane event and was pleasantly surprised to find a quietly confident and emerging local tech scene with a supportive community backed by real political commitment and publicly funded resourcing. Notably, some of the initiatives also address the opportunity of the national broadband roll-out.

Keynote speaker at TechConnect was Tyler Crowley, co-founder of This Week In Startups, professional pitch coach and advisor to governments looking to develop innovation ecosystems around technology. Crowley’s advice to start-up clusters was simple. Build a tech hub and identify a “documentarian” to champion the cause. He also recommended promoting more tech meetups and nailing down some sponsors to shout a few beers. Seems like we’ve been doing these things already in New Zealand, so it was encouraging to hear this and underlined our commitment at iwantmyname to support our community.

Brisbane’s start-up scene was abuzz during conference week because of recent news that Twitter had bought local company We Are Hunted. The acquisition was essentially a talent grab as Twitter works towards integrating music services into its platform. But such stories will certainly embolden the Aussie start-up scene which has produced a number of shining stars in recent years. Freelancer is a site that leverages the shift towards web-based out-sourcing and which has grown in leaps and bounds. Everyone agreed Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie gave the best talk at the conference and it wasn’t hard to see why the company was forging ahead so well. Barrie is no slouch in the academic area, with several Masters degrees and university lectureships in both network security and new venture development. He was named Australian entrepreneur of the year in 2011.

From taxi drivers to company CEOs, throughout my visit to the Sunshine State I constantly ran into ex-pat Kiwis who’d made the leap across and done well for themselves. A few years back we shared some office space with young upstart Chris Loh who had been working on developing a collective of iOS developer talent. Now he’s based at QUT’s Creative Precinct on the Kelvin Grove campus and just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a cool tablet based gaming system. Tyler Crowley alluded to crowd funding as the next important source of capital for start-up tech firms, mentioning that AngelList recently received SEC approval in the U.S. to offer opportunities to members through a crowd-funding app.

The paucity of start-up capital is a universal conversation topic and Australia is no exception. Venture capital intensity sits at about one eighth of that found in the United States. Odd considering Australia’s $1.5 trillion economy has one of the highest per capita GDPs globally. But why invest in tech, when you can dig wealth straight out of the ground in the Outback? One of the TechConnect speakers had the answer however – “good start-ups always raise capital”, said Jeremy Colless from Artesian Venture Capital, which works with university incubators and tech accelerators. “Generate real value and don’t come looking for investors until you have some customers on board”. That’s good advice.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Talent Attraction Narrative Needed

Creating an innovation economy has many challenges, not the least of which involves locating and securing skilled workers to help build and grow high technology ventures. There is little point in cultivating a tech start-up culture without the fundamental building blocks in place to fuel growth. Tech founders need to be proactive about building a team, as well as extolling the virtues of New Zealand as place to re-locate to.

Recently I received several requests for assistance from aspiring tech entrepreneurs eager to find a technical co-founder for their start-up project. Of course I was happy to help, but I needed to prompt for some basic web based information, so that I could share the opportunity. If you are a tech founder and you value an open approach to enrolling people into your project – please do yourself a favour and start telling your story online!

I probably reach around 4000+ individuals in the New Zealand tech scene directly through my social media channels, community groups and various blogs. My advice to start-up founders is to take a similar approach. Turn up to events, write blogs, tweet, organise and support stuff in your community, if you want to reach the kind of people who can help get your start-up going. I don’t just mean making a Facebook page or sending a Word document around to a few likely suspects. Get creative, if you want to surround yourself with creative people.

You might also need to look offshore. I’ve recently been involved in recruiting a new employee for iwantmyname and we ended up engaging a guy from San Francisco. When you look around at the most interesting emerging tech companies in New Zealand, at least half were established by skilled migrants. So there’s certainly no harm in attracting more people from abroad to deepen our talent pool; but remember we are competing with every other economy around Asia-Pacific. That’s why we need to get our brand values aligned in a regional sense, so we can be clear about what we have to offer.

We began some important work on this last year through the Inspire event with KEA and Grow Wellington. I’m looking forward to continuing that conversation in 2013.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Winning Ways On The Web

Recently a friend asked me how new companies from a remote location like New Zealand can get noticed in crowded markets on the world stage, without breaking the budget. The answer is simple. Build a fantastic product and love your customers madly.

There are other techniques of course, including referral strategies and affiliate programmes, partnering with other businesses where there is the right fit and optimising content for online search. Also work out which social media or social apps your customers like best and hang out there. You notice I didn’t mention actually paying for advertising. Finding the best mix of tools is largely an experiment, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Personally I favour generating high value content that draws in viewers in a subtle way. Search engines get smarter every day and will trash low value content, pushing you down the ladder. Fortunately I love writing about technology and business; but if you don’t – find someone who does ( or invite me to write a guest blog article! )

Internet companies have an unfair competitive advantage over companies flogging consumable goods of course. You don’t have to have a physical presence in market to make sales, scalability is only limited by your ability to manage the technology and capital requirements are minimal. The downside is that the barriers to entry are relatively low. That’s both an opportunity and a threat. It means there’s lot’s of other competitors in your space, but it also means many of them are crap. Don’t become one of those. Pay attention to customer feedback and take away what’s important. You won’t win by responding to every single feature request.

I’m currently burning 3-4 hours of my day working on the customer support side of the business at iwantmyname. We’ve adopted a policy that all employees must spend part of their day engaged in customer support. It’s the quickest way to find out where the points of pain are for your customers and a great way to learn more about the technology itself. It can also be humbling both when you solve a problem for a grateful customer and when you fail to do so – and boy do they let you know! It’s fun riding the long tail, but you need balls of steel and the hide of an elephant sometimes.

Have a safe and happy Christmas holiday and a fantastic 2013.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

 

 

Startup Weekend Gives You Wings!

I’ve always enjoyed those Red Bull ads showing how that fizzy mineral drink gives you a lift. It’s also interesting how Red Bull have successfully leveraged the aeronautical theme in their sponsorships of various high energy sports around the globe such as air racing and Formula One.

Red Bull started from very humble beginnings, but is now a globally recognised brand. It helps a lot that Red Bull tastes good; but building clear brand values is a really important task in any business, including start-ups. You don’t need to own a Formula One team to build a great brand, but you do need a consistent message and a fantastic team that believes in the product and provides superior customer support. I hope that’s what we are achieving with iwantmyname.

This weekend entrepreneurial developers and designers from all over New Zealand will converge on the sunny Bay of Plenty for Tauranga Startup Weekend. I’ve been an organiser, a mentor and a sponsor at these events at various times, but I’ve never actually played on a team. This weekend will be my first Startup Weekend where I will actually be pitching an idea.

We’d love to see a huge turn-out of developers and designers at this event from all over New Zealand. ideegeo Research Limited is the new venture development entity associated with the founders of iwantmyname. We work with young entrepreneurs and help them bootstrap interesting web-based projects that have the potential for global scalability. So here’s the deal…

If you are a developer or designer from outside of the Bay and you sign up for Tauranga Startup Weekend this week – you will go in the draw to have your travel costs to the event co-funded by us. The draw is open to any developer or designer who signs up this week for Tauranga Startup Weekend. Offer closes 5pm, Wednesday 12th September.

All you need to do is contact us after you’ve signed up for Tauranga Startup Weekend, tell us a little bit about your skill set and we’ll talk about how we can help in a practical way. Let us add wings to your Startup Weekend experience!

Building Our Innovation Ecosystem

Innovation, incubation and competitiveness are firmly back on the political agenda. 2011 has been a busy year, with the government setting about reforming publicly funded scientific research and reconfiguring IRL in an effort to drive more commercialisation activity in the technology sector. The government funded trade agency has also been talking up successes from its incubator programme. In the meantime, the recently formed Productivity Commission has quietly begun developing an academic framework to address infrastructural inefficiencies in the New Zealand economy.

In this context, it was unsurprising to see some recent commentary that was highly critical of the manner in which government gets involved in innovation and business. More specifically, Rowan’s comments alluded to some deficiencies in the methodologies being employed by business incubators when advising software start-ups. Notwithstanding the fact that incubators are generalists and lack the huge depth of experience and background of success that Rowan brings to his own web and software ventures, there were some fair criticisms which pleasingly generated a lot of intelligent follow-up discussion.

Where I parted company with this debate however was when the tone shifted towards questioning the necessity for providing events to engage the start-up community. Most readers will be aware that I’m deeply involved in organising such activities in addition to my role as a co-founder of a couple of tech companies. One of these companies is pre-revenue start-up, the other is growth phase and profitable. Being involved in the community is a deliberate strategy which is partly altruistic (because it’s fun), but also good for business. We are only as strong as the people around us.

The government’s moves to redefine how we approach identifying and commercialising high value science and technology based ventures are oxygen for our economic flame; so too are the various contributions made by formal incubators, informal “innovation hubs”, university commercialisation offices and the various business related events and competitions. The Ministry of Science & Innovation’s report on Powering Innovation even talks about “…the creative connection of talented minds across discipline boundaries“. We do not need to emulate Silicon Valley, but we should learn from that ecosystem model.

Around the world, entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as both a legitimate career option for young people and a growth spark in an otherwise dull economy. At a time when youth unemployment stands at around 30% in New Zealand, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity of infusing young people with an entrepreneurial spirit. I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration of the Young Enterprise Trust. This organisation provides entrepreneurship programmes for high schools and counts such luminaries as Rod Drury and Seeby Woodhouse amongst its alumni, demonstrating the importance of a community approach to entrepreneurship education.

Building an entrepreneurial and export focused culture has never been so important as now, with traditional models breaking down faster than ever. Knowledge sharing and relationship building within and amongst our specialist communities is foundational to strengthening our innovation ecosystem. We can no longer afford to operate in silos or to make the assumption that there is only a single approach to building cool businesses that solve real problems and generate economic returns.

A Day In The Life

I’ve been doing a lot of writing for other blogs lately to help promote the Wellington start-up and innovation scene. So I thought it was about time I posted something on GeniusNet for a change. It has been a crazy but exciting time.

We are about to have our first Wellington Startup Weekend, the Bright Ideas Challenge has just drawn to a close and it has been a busy year at Unlimited Potential. We are also working with a couple of young entrepreneurs through our pre-incubation initiative at ideegeo and of course there is the day-to-day operational side of iWantMyName to take care of.

Fortunately we take our community role very seriously at iWantMyName and are pleased that we are now in a position to contribute some time and resources to various tech and innovation events around town. It’s part of our business DNA, so to speak.  I’m also involved with another initiative called 100Plus that aims to deliver an exciting regional technology innovation event in 2012. Early days, but we already have some good partners on board. Watch this space.

Part of the reason the start-up scene has so much energy at present is that our local economic development agency Grow Wellington have put in a huge effort over the last couple of years. There’s a growing understanding that community building and knowledge sharing are pivotal to developing (and maintaining) an entrepreneurial culture. As a society we also need to be prepared to take some risks and make investments in research, science and technology related businesses, full in the knowledge that only some will succeed.

Governmental agencies are sometimes criticised for spending public money on “picking winners”. That’s a little unfair. The alternative approach is not to celebrate our successes. All of us in business need a little inspiration and encouragement periodically, especially in these challenging economic times.

iWantMyName – The Next Steps

A lot of people have been asking me recently how iWantMyName is going. The short answer is that it’s going great! We’ve been profitable this year and have had our heads down working hard laying both the technological and business organisational foundations that we need to grow. The challenge has been in making the transition from a small start-up business to a fully fledged, high growth technology story.

I certainly won’t say that it’s been easy. Everyone on the team has made sacrifices and we even had one or two nervous moments during the early days when we wondered if we would make budget and be able to pay salaries or rent. It comes with the territory. Being a start-up entrepreneur is like being on a mad roller coaster ride. It can be both thrilling and terrifying, especially if you are bootstrapping.

I meet a lot of budding web entrepreneurs and one of the first questions I ask them is, “are you ready for 2-3 years without a proper income?” It can easily take that long to carve out a niche for yourself and get meaningful revenues going. That’s without factoring in the vagaries of foreign exchange rates.

Notwithstanding the challenges ahead, we’ve got big plans for lots more features and fresh content on our New Zealand domain registrar site plus a major makeover of our search functionality across all four of our sites globally. There are also new and popular hosted services being posted almost weekly, so users can have smart one-click DNS set-up on their domains. We’re positioning iWantMyName as a next generation domain and DNS management service with an eye on future opportunities emerging with the new top level domains and internationalised domain names.

In addition, we’ve also started a new venture to advise young web entrepreneurs and share some of the experience we have gained on the journey so far. In fact we continue to be actively involved in supporting tech community events such as through Unlimited Potential, Startup Weekend, PXLJam and Perl Mongers to name but a few. We think it’s an exciting place to be as technology entrepreneurship continues to gain a greater profile as a career and lifestyle choice.

Keep in touch with us on Twitter @iWantMyNameNZ

Entrepreneur Bedtime Stories

“It was a dark and stormy night”. That’s how my Grandad used to begin his bedtime stories when I was a little lad. He was both a technology innovator and an entrepreneur, so hopefully some of it rubbed off on me. There’s certainly a lot to be said in favour of story-telling and narrative as a means of passing on knowledge.

Tuesday this week the Bright Ideas Challenge team from Grow Wellington are putting on Entrepreneur Storytime, an evening of anecdotes and stories from a diverse and successful group of local entrepreneurs. Speakers include Mark Clare – investment banker and web entrepreneur, Rachel Taulelei – founder of City Market and chairperson Wellington On A Plate, also Geoff Todd – CEO of both Trinity Bioactives and Viclink and CreativeHQ chairperson. Other speakers include Trent Mankelow who is a highly successful graduate of the CreativeHQ business incubator and Derelee Potroz-Smith, a finalist from last year’s Bright Ideas Challenge.

I’m particularly interested to hear Geoff’s story since he is a man with a foot in the camps of both academia and business, a rare and important breed of individual that New Zealand urgently needs at present. But it looks like an inspirational lineup overall and everybody is welcome to attend this free event. Registration essential.