Your Startup Weekend Toolbox

toolboxNovember 2015 was a bumper month for Startup Weekends here in New Zealand. With more events in the pipeline, it’s time to begin thinking about your game plan. Here’s a short primer on the fundamentals.

Team – At Startup Weekend we take you from an unformed idea, through to a working business model with a team that can capably execute on the project. Teams of one simply don’t fly and you cannot scale a business without a good team around you. But Startup Weekend helps you connect with people who bring a diverse range of skills. Be ready to share and engage. Choose your team mates wisely – you may be together a long time.

The Problem – Have you thought hard about the problem you are solving? It’s too easy for entrepreneurs to become infatuated with their own idea and overlook whether or not they are fundamentally solving a point of pain for customers. Get out of the building. You might be surprised what you can learn from potential customers and how this can be applied. Testing your hypothesis is the scientific part of being an entrepreneur.

The Solution – Are you creating a product or service that offers a compelling advantage over other similar offerings in the marketplace? Is the related intellectual property defensible or secure? Research the competition and don’t forget to check for trademark and domain name availability. If you can’t find any competing businesses, then ask yourself why.

Customer Acquisition – Forget about all the startup investment mythology. Your best source of funding is real, live customers, not investors. Ultimately someone has to be willing to pay, otherwise you will sink. Here’s a great article that explains customer acquisition versus lifetime value. Building a long term relationship with your hard won customers is key. Venture funding is not a business model.

Business Model – How does the business deliver customer value on the one hand, whilst generating growth revenues with an engaged audience? Look at where your venture sits in the global context and how it could scale up to something really big. Are you a pipe or a platform? Become familiar with using the business model canvas as a framework for your thinking.

Startup Weekend bundles these questions around a lean methodology and provides experienced entrepreneurs to mentor and challenge you along the entrepreneurial journey. Find a New Zealand Startup Weekend near you and sign up yourself (and a friend).

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and an organiser and mentor with Startup Weekends in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup related events curated by him with New Zealand Startup Digest.

Image credit: Jason Rhode

Sowing The Seeds For Investment

alanAlan Jones is a well known Australian angel investor who was one of the early hires when Yahoo was just kicking off. So he’s been at the forefront of the tech industry since the early days. As a marketing and tech guy he now works with Aussie startups at BlueChilli incubator in Sydney. BlueChilli provides an integrated suite of services to early stage ventures and is part of an explosion of interest currently happening in tech incubation across the ditch.

Alan joined us at Startup Garage recently and provided a very thorough exposition of how early stage companies should be preparing for presenting to potential seed round investors. Key to building a good relationship from the outset is doing your homework and identifying angels that have an interest in your type of business, he said. If you want some more tips on how to reach out to investors, check out Alan’s slide deck.

On the other hand, if you are lean boot-strapping your start-up, you might be able to delay (or avoid) raising funding and consequently drive a better valuation and hold on to more equity. Recently I’ve been tracking some interesting case studies detailing how a variety of different entrepreneurs essentially self-funded. Remember, getting investment is not validation for your product. The best form of validation is actually selling to customers.

Startup Garage provides a series of sessions with visiting guest speakers aimed at informing the startup community in the Capital. The events are hosted by Creative HQ and sponsored by Grow Wellington and iwantmyname.

A Special Event For Entrepreneur Researchers

swrschCompared to many OECD nations, New Zealand underperforms at building great global companies based on smart commercialisation of knowledge. That’s a shame, because we have no shortage of intellectual talent and we also enjoy a fantastic natural resource base.
So we are putting on a very special Startup Weekend event here in Wellington focusing on science and research. It’s all part of our efforts to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Zealand and get more people in science and technology thinking about entrepreneurship as a career. Encouraging a culture of entrepreneurialism and building bridges between the research and business communities are important themes in driving value-added economic growth that we need to underpin our future.
It is a fantastic opportunity for young researchers who are interested in research commercialisation to spend a weekend with some very cool mentors as well as investors and people from across the business community. The McDiarmid Institute and Kiwinet are actively supporting this event. It’s mostly about teaching a lean methodology for developing and testing business ideas, as well as networking with potential future collaborators.

Participants can bring a project of their own that they wish to explore or join another team simply for the learning opportunity. We are looking for researchers from any field plus engineers/developers, designers and business gurus to get involved as well. Who knows where it might lead?

This will be a smaller event than usual and spaces are limited. Sign up for Startup Weekend Science & Research today!

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and an organiser and mentor with Startup Weekends in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Imagination Key To Winning Online Retail Race

shirtsLast week three iconic local retail brands shut their doors in my city. Whilst traditional “bricks and mortar” retailers continue to blame their demise on the growing threat from online, the real threat is complacency in the face of a changing market. But it’s an issue that e-commerce businesses need to be mindful of also.

Listed on the New Zealand stock exchange, Kirkaldie and Stains had an amazing history catering for high-end retail in the capital city. The firm was started in 1863 by a pair of immigrant entrepreneurs and is one of the oldest surviving retailers in the country. But the writing has been on the wall for some time, with ongoing financial losses and flagging share price. Subject to shareholder approval, the company will be acquired and re-branded by Australian retail giant David Jones.

The historic Bank Arcade is one of the few tasteful retail venues in the region. Longtime tenant Rixon Groove was an upmarket shirt and tie retailer and manufacturer that opened to much fanfare in 1991, catering for inner city businessmen and office workers. I often walked past that tiny shop and noticed, unlike its busy neighbours, there was sadly almost never a customer in sight. With the price of a shirt hovering around $200 and fashion trending away from formal attire in the workplace, it’s not hard to see what went wrong.

Shoe retail is sometimes regarded as the most competitive category, but boutique shoe store Minnie Cooper was always a hit with the ladies. Rather than go the way of the other dinosaurs, the business has elected to close its stores and go 100% online. They will continue to face huge competition, but without the substantial overheads of a high street presence. It will be tough, but least Minnie Cooper is attempting to adapt to the changing market.

Online businesses also face challenges and must be prepared to adapt and innovate. Customers online are fickle and have the attention span of a small fruit fly. Barriers to entry are relatively low and very few online retailers have a natural monopoly in their market. So e-commerce properties that fail to remain fresh and relevant have a limited lifespan in cyberspace. Addressing a huge global market is a far more interesting proposition, but shirts and ties all look much the same. Clearly differentiating your product offering against dozens of competitors requires a lot of imagination.

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

Stop Making Sense

headsA recent article in the Washington Post implored society to stop focusing on tech start-ups and begin encouraging more entrepreneurs to start mainstream businesses, because these have a greater chance of both generating new employment and staying the course.

The logic behind this proposition is based on demographics. As “millenial” entrepreneurs come of age, there’s an opportunity to further empower the founder pipeline with better business education and a stronger emphasis on mentorship. Idealistic young people from this generation have a more diverse view on what kinds of businesses interest them and a more holistic understanding of what the art of entrepreneurship looks like in the context of social and environmental responsibility. An overemphasis on tech sector could therefore be limiting because of its somewhat linear narrative.

Much of the mythology around tech start-ups is media driven and does not necessarily reflect the wider tech industry of course. We generally only hear about the success stories of companies that raised millions in funding or had huge exits. We are rarely informed about the 98% of tech start-ups that never get funded or those that crash and burn within a few months due to lack of product-market fit. Moreover, we do not hear often enough about value creation and social equity as measures of performance.

This is partly why I cringe whenever someone suggests we need to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem just like Silicon Valley. There’s more than one way to grow a company. But much of the prevailing wisdom involves companies “getting offshore”, setting up shop in the Valley and networking madly until they score a round of funding. This is not the only pathway. With iwantmyname we proved that it is entirely possible to bootstrap without capital and grow organically, simply by consistently delighting customers.

Furthermore, the Valley is no longer the centre of gravity it once was. The focus is shifting as increasingly affluent Asia-Pacific economies look outwards for investible opportunities across a wide variety of sectors. Our friends across the Tasman already know this and have become very successful at building bridges and welcoming more productive inflows of capital. The face of business investment is changing and it’s no longer defined by slick, white guys in big suits. Making sense of this involves us being able to adapt to the new environment through clearly articulating our personal values as entrepreneurs and as an entrepreneurial nation.

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

A Year Of Global Entrepreneurship?

It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week this week, with a focus on encouraging young entrepreneurs to step up all around the world. Unfortunately GEW seems to have bypassed New Zealand this year – but not to worry – there’s still a great deal happening in the start-up, tech and innovation space.

But lately I’ve become a little less optimistic that we are heading in the right direction in terms of supporting a high tech business start-up culture. Can start-ups really be artificially manufactured and then massaged into life, like characters on a reality TV show? Why are our academic institutions still failing to commercialise publicly funded intellectual property?

Admittedly incubation has had a somewhat chequered history in New Zealand to say the least and the jury is still out on whether intense “accelerator” programmes can work well in a small, distant and (relatively) capital poor market like ours. But who’s calling the shots on public investments in technology these days? Disturbingly, the New Zealand government’s 2015 science investment round still does not even mention a specific category for ICT. This raises questions about priorities, especially given that ICT companies have a demonstrably shorter development cycle than biotech and manufacturing.

The current crop of start-up programmes seem overly focused on creating opportunities for early stage investors, rather than advancing regional economic development. The focus should be in providing local foundations for high value, globally scalable businesses. For example, the most promising of the recent Lightning Lab alumni almost immediately relocated to the United States. But perhaps I’m missing the point? The departure of Lightning Lab itself from Wellington also underlined for me precisely why public servants and executives in suits should never be allowed to meddle with “innovation” initiatives.

Maybe none of that matters, because ultimately it’s the educational and motivational opportunities that are most meaningful. The various initiatives on offer also raise the profile of entrepreneurship as a career option. That’s important because it’s clear that the continuing lazy media obsession with sporting and entertainment “heroes” does little to encourage our young people into business at present.

What is encouraging however, is the fact that techies and start-up fanatics have become a lot more self-organising lately and are just getting on with it. I daresay the majority of interesting tech start-up companies of the future will probably get going in the same old way they have done historically – with a couple of mates bouncing an idea around over a beer and then raising some cash AFTER they get customers on board. Those companies will be thinking global from day one if they are smart. Global entrepreneurship should be the focus all year round.

Want to keep in touch with the best tech and start-up events? Make sure you sign up for the New Zealand edition of the free weekly Startup Digest.

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

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