Lessons from sporting comebacks for business startups

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time. Yet, if you have had a setback, a comeback may seem impossible to you. Life is full of stumbles, no matter who you are. Financial problems, health issues, loss of a loved one – they may visit all of us. The challenge is how you overcome your setback. How do you dig in and hit back?

It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you down into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have changed their minds and backed out of a deal, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.

Of course, we all love those great sporting comebacks when a team or individual looks down-and-out on the ropes, the scoreboard showing the game is over yet somehow they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them.

What are the lessons startups can take from the great sporting comebacks in terms of resilience, mental toughness and handling pressure in the moment?  Let’s look at a few of the most memorable turnarounds in sport, and then the lessons to takeaway for startup thinking.

Recently, we’ve had Barcelona pulling off the biggest Champions League comeback ever to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain. Faced with a 0-4 deficit following the first leg in Paris, Barca won the second leg 6-1, with three of the goals coming from the 88th minute onwards.

The New England Patriots became Super Bowl champions again in February by fighting back from 25 points behind to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. In an extraordinary finale to the most challenging season of his career, Tom Brady inspired the Patriots and confirmed he was the best quarterback the sport has ever seen with a fifth Super Bowl crown.

Back in 1981, Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley when Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second Test team to win after following-on.

Further back, the result Charlton 7-6 Huddersfield, in Division 2, 1957 wasn’t an end-to-end ding-dong. Ten-man Charlton trailed Huddersfield 1-5 with less than 30 minutes on the clock. And just this weekend, Exeter were 0-3 to Yeovil with two minutes to go in League Three, but scored three goals in two minutes to earn an unexpected 3-3 draw.

All memorable and some with global attention, but for me, a local rugby game is the greatest sporting comeback of all time, and helped shape my thinking on startup recovery lessons.

Local rugby clubs capture the spirit of community, everyone coming together for something they love. The effort and commitment is there to be seen at the ‘grassroots’ of the game. It’s here in the junior teams youngsters get their first taste of the great game, teaching children the core skills of rugby whilst developing valuable life skills like teamwork, sportsmanship and respect.

Rossendale RUFC are based in Rawtenstall, just up the road from the market, with a club house and pitches nestling in the scenic hillside, with stunning views looking down the valley to Manchester. On March 4 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable fightback from a 0-28 points deficit, against Kendal, in a National League 3 North game.

In a classic game of two halves, Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win, and maintain second place in the division. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly against their Northern counterparts, going in at half-time with a 0-21 deficit, and it seemed all hope was lost when Kendal scored their fourth try of the game shortly after the break. However, Fraser Lyndsay scored Rossendale’s first try and his first of two in the final half hour giving his side a ray of hope. Alex Isherwood, Nick Flynn and Curtis Strong added three more tries, as well as three out of five conversions from Steve Nutt, ensured victory was snatched from certain defeat.

At 0-28 down, generally speaking there’s no coming back. But the belief in the team and never say die attitude, once they scored, kick started the most remarkable sporting comeback I’ve ever seen. It was an 18-man effort with the substitutes; there was no one player who made the win, it was all of them, together.

Rugby is a physical game – the former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of humour and camaraderie in a rugby team – Gareth Chilcott, on retiring in his last England game said I’m off for a quiet pint now, followed by 17 noisy ones! Just half a session then Gareth?

Comeback stories like this are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own comeback in the face of adversity. For me, the passion, team spirit, togetherness and winning mindsets in rugby rise above anything I’ve ever done and taught me more about teamwork, effort, humanity, drinking and tomfoolery than anything else I’ve experienced. If you meet someone else who’s played rugby, you’ll probably like them and get on with them. Like Frank Menduca from Adelaide.

I went to the World Cup 2007 tournament in France with my son James, the highlight being England 23 Australia 17 in the Quarter-Final in Marseille. Memories of raw French steak, ham & cheese toasties and fine Belgian lager for breakfast, Welsh fans with ‘Fiji’ taped over ‘Wales’ on their shirts supporting Fiji in the Quarter Final versus South Africa. And an encounter with Frank Menduca, an Aussie bear.

Resting for a beer after the game with our group amongst a noisy throng of England fans on one of the many street bars, a posse of Aussies hulked around the corner. Cue Waltzing Matilda from the England fans. Jubilation versus despondency. One of the Aussies, the leader of their pack and a huge man mountain caught my eye and pointed a finger at me. You’re for it now dad! said James, moving slowly so as to hide behind me like Simba behind Mufasa!

The Aussie man-mountain came up to me, at least six inches taller than me, something I’m not used to. He stared intently into my face. Then let out a wail and a cry We lost, I need a hug! and embraced me as a long lost relative. Mayhem broke out again, as around twenty grown up men embraced each other. Man love. You had to be there.

About three hours, ten pints, a giant hot dog eating competition (individual and relay – well done James, second place behind Frank’s son) and a raucous singing competition later, we parted. Ten yards down the road, the Englishmen broke into the apocryphal Rolf Harris anthem. Tie me Kangaroo down sport.

But back to comebacks, and Rossendale’s recent victory 31-28 from a 0-28 deficit. How did they find the physical resolve, the mental tenacity, the resilience to recover from a scoreboard of defeat to one illuminating victory, and how can we take this lessons into our startup thinking?

Hold a clear vision The Rossendale team has a clear purpose – to win the National League 3 North, which sets the direction for each game. Winning and losing in sport is very clear cut, but when you’re down in a game, the vision has to be clear enough that the team can pursue it as a focus to clear the mind.

Composure Nothing gives you more advantage over in the heat of the moment as to remain composed, focused and unruffled. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire for – what do I need to do? It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience.

Get a new plan You’re way off your original plan, so you need to reframe with agile thinking, developing a revised plan to accomplish your goals as the situation changes. An agile plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are progressing forward. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

Don’t doubt yourself Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a plan we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome. Dare to believe you can be the best.

It’s never over until it’s over Even when the position was seemingly hopeless at 0-28, and 26-28 in injury time, Rossendale believed. They didn’t give up. The moment you accepts defeat, it’s over. For another example of this – watch the you tube video of British athlete Christine Ohuruogu beating Amantle Monsho in the 2013 World Championships 400m final. With 100m left she was 10m adrift, with 10m left she was still behind, but on the line she caught her competitor and won gold.

Face reality You have to stand still, take in the moment and acknowledge that things aren’t working as intended and made changes. As Einstein said one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Difficult as they can be, changes are sometimes necessary. The cumulative impact of several small improvements is usually greater than finding one big change – because often there isn’t a big thing to find.

Focus on yourself When the chips are down and the team needs to produce peak performance levels, it has to be automatic. Top sportspeople always report that the victory was earned through training and practice. When things are tough it’s tempting to focus on what the competition are doing to be ahead but instead it’s important to focus on yourself. Compete with others but focus on you.

Leadership The role of leadership in a crisis is to be the catalyst. Ground everyone emotionally, get heads cleared, and look everyone in the eye. Then go for it. Once the spark has been fired, everyone needs to join the movement so that the fire spreads and takes hold. There’s a point at which a critical mass is reached and the team as a whole mobilises. The power of the doubting Thomases is replaced by the power of believers that it can be done.

Play on the complacency of the opposition There’s something else worth remembering. Teams lose when they think they’re already won. When Manchester United won the European Champions League in 1999, scoring twice in the final two minutes to turn around a 1-0 deficit, the Bayern Munich players were already celebrating. When Christine Ohuruogu won her gold medal, Amantle Montsho thought she had won and eased up on the line. Complacency often kills victory.

So Rossendale’s First XV bounced back from likely defeat to an unlikely victory. For a startup, there are many lessons from this remarkable turnaround as outlined above. Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. Live in the solution, not the problem.

Beating the odds: winning a World Cup sweepstake & start-up success

Life is all about polarity and probability, making a choice between things that are not within your control versus the things that you feel are within your control, and those things that just happen, against the odds. I’m in that mode of thinking now that we’re into the second week of the 2014 World Cup, and I’m having mixed success in a number of sweepstakes I’ve entered. I’m holding tickets for:

  • Germany: Sitting pretty, started thinking about how to spend the cash
  • Iran: I knew this anyway, I’ll go and buy a scratch card instead
  • Russia: Hope for best, fear the worst
  • South Korea: Keep an eye on them, they’ll be back in 2018
  • Holland: Keep hold of your ticket

What do my chances of scooping the various sweepstake pots look like at this stage? When it comes to the odds of winning a sweepstakes, there is always good news and bad news. The odds of winning are never in your favour, but the joy of taking a chance and the sweetness of victory, however sporadic, makes up for it.

But have you ever wondered what your odds of winning sweepstakes really are? To determine the odds of winning sweepstakes, you simply divide the total number of sweepstakes entries by the number of entries you’ve submitted and by the number of prizes being awarded. But of course, it’s not as simple of that, while multiple entries do increase your odds of winning, the odds of any given entry winning are so small that this effect is rarely significant.

But of course the key is that you don’t have a 1:32 chance of winning the World Cup sweepstake. 32 teams, £32 with £1 for every team at random, but unless you get one of the top four teams, in reality you’re horrifically ripped off, so 28/32 means you’re fodder and bank rolling your colleagues.

It was the same in the recent McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstake, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, where with every purchase you got a peel off sticker comprised of two stamps. These stamps gave either an instant prize, or a space on the Monopoly board. For spaces on the Monopoly board, if you collected all the properties of a single colour, you won a prize.

What were your odds of winning a prize? There were 600 million game stickers issued, thus 1.2 billion game stamps, or individual attempts at winning. There were 135 million food prizes and 16 million instant win prizes in the sweepstake. The odds of winning a prize were thus 1 in 8, or a 12.5% chance.

If you won a prize, it was probably going to be a food prize, an 11.25% (1:9) chance.  So what does this mean?  Well, comparing the two probabilities, 89.4% of the prizes will be food prizes. Hope you’re hungry. In fact, 4 out of every 11 prizes allocated will be a medium friesSince there’s a 12.5% chance of winning an instant prize, and a 11.25% chance of winning a food prize, that means that there is roughly a 2.6% chance of winning one of the other instant prizes, or 1:38. Worse odd than my World Cup sweepstakes!

But let’s get to the real fun. Here’s the secret to McDonald’s Monopoly. Many people assume that all the spaces are equally likely. This means that almost all the game pieces are entirely worthless, and only one game piece from every set is actually tantamount to winning the prize. It’s easy to get a hold of some of the worthless properties. They’re outstandingly common, most with a 1 in 10 or so chance of popping up.

So much for World Cup sweepstakes and McDonald’s Monopoly, they’re just a bit of fun, but what are the odds of success in a business start-up? Everyone knows that launching and living in a start-up is risky, but few appreciate just how the odds of success are stacked against you.

Recent research from Paul Graham, founder of start-up programme Y Combinator, showed that 37 of the 511 companies that have gone through the Y Combinator programme over the past five years have either sold for, or are now worth, more than $40m. Most entrepreneurs would view creating a company worth $40m as a success (unless the company raised more capital than that), and on the face of it, 37 seems relatively impressive. In fact, however, the number tells a scary and depressing story.

This number suggests that a startling 93% of the companies that get accepted by Y Combinator eventually fail. Not all companies that sell for less than $40m are failures obviously, but a high percentage of Y Combinator companies end up being worth zero. A company accepted by Y Combinator, therefore, has less than a 1-in-10 chance of being a big success. More alarmingly, the companies accepted by Y Combinator are only a tiny fraction of the companies that apply – their acceptance rate is 5%.

If we use the 5% rate, we can estimate that Y Combinator has received about 10,000 applications for the 500 companies it has chosen. Assuming Y Combinator has a modest ability to pick winners, the odds that a company applying to Y Combinator will be a success are significantly lower than the odds of success of the companies accepted into the program.

If only 37 of the companies that have applied to Y Combinator over the years have succeeded, this is a staggeringly low 0.4% success rate. Put differently, only one in every 200 companies that applies to Y Combinator will succeed. The reality is that Y Combinator probably misses a few winners, so the actual odds are probably slightly higher.

What this tells us is that any entrepreneur or investor is deluding themselves into thinking that start-ups are an easy way to creating success. Indeed, acclaimed Harvard Business School research by Paul Gompers et al, and Vineet Nayar, tells us that 75% of start-ups fail. Give me that World Cup sweepstake ticket for Iran instead!

So, you have the perfect business idea. You can’t believe no one has thought of it before. Or, if someone has, he or she doesn’t have your vision, skills or passion. You are convinced this new business is the key to your successful future, how do you increase the odds of your start-up success?

1. Create a sense of purpose More than an idea or a vision, a start-up must be driven by purpose.  People like working for start-ups not because of the salaries, but because of the excitement involved in pursuing a purpose, one that challenges the status quo and promises to change the world.  That often creates the feeling that a start-up will succeed irrespective of what it does; it will survive because of the way it does things.

2. Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs tend to develop rose-coloured world-views, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs. To convert your passion into tangible business value, emphasise a business strategy that makes financial sense based on a compelling story, covering how the elements of your business will come together in a way that is cashflow positive over time.

3. Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an inner phenomenon, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the marketplace. To turn your passion into profits, emphasise the addressable market, always think about your business relative to the customer, and execute on your market opportunity by placing a priority on your customer’s experience and perception of value.

4. Develop an MVP, perfectionism slows you down A core component in a start-up journey is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a start-up can work on tuning the engine.

This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question. Many founders have a hard time keeping things moving due to a desire for perfection in every little detail, delaying making important decisions because they feel the circumstances weren’t optimal. This ultimately stunts growth, it is often more important to make a decision promptly than it is to get it perfectly right.

5. It’s about learning, not profit What’s important is the willingness to evolve by learning about customers. The evolution takes place in small steps, pivoting from one plan to another, evolving from customer discovery to customer validation. If you’re climbing Mount Everest, which is pretty much what you’re doing when you launch a start-up, you won’t be able to see the peak from base camp, you navigate your way one step at a time, focusing on how to climb the mountain facing you, thinking and rethinking your strategy at each cliff along the way. The minimum viable product is that version of a new product, which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning with the least effort.

6. Put people first Start-ups provide the most important management lesson that it’s people who make companies, not the other way around, and only start-ups that realise that will be left standing.  That’s why implementation of ideas such as employee first, customer second increases the probability of success.

7. Be agile, jog fleet-footedly The most important demand on a start-up is flexibility – a flexible structure, flexible markets, flexible solutions. Many start-ups begin with one idea, shift to a second and then move to a third before they succeed. For example, PayPal started in encryption and Flickr in gaming.

No amount of planning can anticipate the unexpected twists and turns of reality. To succeed, a new venture needs both iteration and agility. Establish an ongoing process for translating ideas into actions and results, followed by evaluation. Test and adapt your concept as early as possible. Work on continually improving the fit between your big idea and the marketplace.

8. Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision, and holding off until then, often makes the difference between success and failure. A farmer knows when to sow and when to harvest. When he plants rice, he doesn’t think about the price he may get, but when the crop is ripening, he will negotiate the price.

Adopt a ‘So What?’ mind-set, and map out implications of alternative optionsA core pivot will touch every aspect of your business. Map out what the redefinition looks like across process, profits, costs, brand, team structure, culture and more before putting your final vision into motion.

9. Create governance mechanisms It isn’t necessary to define roles and responsibilities in a start-up, everyone must be prepared to do anything for success. People usually get excited by this, but to navigate through the turbulence, governance mechanisms are needed. They don’t create rigidity, but maintain financial discipline, with quarterly and monthly reporting. This may seem superfluous when revenues are hard to come by, but it’s imperative to have them in place in order to stay capital efficient.

10. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes Learn how to say ‘no’ more. Commit selectively so you can focus on your core business – ‘stick to the knitting’ – instead of getting distracted at every opportunity that comes by. The most successful entrepreneurs I know are laser-focused. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in getting to a ‘business as usual’ model.

11. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 20,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions and creative pivots come when you pull yourself back. But more than that, delegating responsibility empowers the team, by giving and expecting accountability you create a team that rises to the occasion and often thinks of solutions you would not have considered.

12. You can’t beat the odds The ability to scale a start-up is about market timing and beating the odds on risks with both a relatively high likelihood of occurrence and major consequences. These risks can sink a start-up, the survival of your venture depends on your ability to identify and mitigate the ‘killer odds’.

The thing that makes these issues so deadly is that there are so many of them. Individually, they may seem manageable, but collectively, they represent a true challenge for any entrepreneur. For example, suppose you manage to distil your world down to just five key risks, and you think you’ve eliminated 90% of the risk in each category:

  • A 90% chance that you’ve identified a genuine market need
  • A 90% chance that your addressable market is as big as you believe
  • A 90% chance that you can actually implement your innovation
  • A 90% chance that you can figure out how to sell it for more than it costs you to make it
  • A 90% chance that you have assembled the right team

You might take comfort in the fact that any one of these risk factors presents only a 20% chance of sinking the company. However, the probability of surviving all five risk factors (making an assumption that the risk factors are statistically independent of each other) is: 90% × 90% × 90% × 90% × 90% = 59%

Surprising, isn’t it, five factors, each mitigated by 90%, but an outcome of just 60% of success, just a notch above 50:50. However, if there are another five key risk factors, again each mitigated by 90%, then the chance of success is just 35%.

The key insight here is that a start-up that is good at managing individual risks has a marginal chance of surviving overall. Generally speaking, the odds are stacked heavily against the average start-up, which is why the rate of failure is startlingly high – 75% according to Harvard academics. There are strategies and tactics you can follow to increase the chances of success, but perhaps the odds of winning my World Cup sweepstake aren’t too bad after all.

Lessons from being a dad for a start-up business leader

Being a dad is just like running a start-up business – you set the direction, nurture and adjust as required, and always have one eye on the future as well as today. Often the kids are more of a challenge than a business, but sometimes not. Father’s Day yesterday brought this clearer into perspective for me.

Father’s Day was inaugurated in the United States in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd to celebrate her father, the Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, a single parent who raised six children. Sonora wanted to recognise her father, and to compliment the existing Mothers Day celebration. She original suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, but the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June, which is now fixed in our calendar.

It did not have much success initially. In the 1920s, Dodd stopped promoting the celebration because she was studying, and it faded, but in the 1930s Dodd started promoting the celebration again, raising awareness at a national level. She had the help of the Father’s Day Council, founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers to consolidate the commercial promotion. Americans resisted, perceiving it as just an attempt by merchants to replicate the commercial success of Mother’s Day, but the trade groups did not give up, and today Father’s Day has become a second Christmas for the men’s gift-oriented industries.

I’ve been a father for more than 23 years, and have two children, James and Katie, now threatening to leave the domestic payroll but clinging on, and I have loved every messy, noisy, chaotic minute of it. But when it first came to my attention that there were these beautiful, cute, little people dependent upon me, I was deeply scared by the prospect of fatherhood, unsure if I’d do a good job, worried I’d fail and let them down.

I can tell you this: being a father is the scariest thing I’ve known in my life. All of a sudden, I was 29 and in charge of a fragile human life, so precious and dear but so flickering and vulnerable, and I was completely unprepared. It was the most terrifying experience ever. And it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. More rewarding than running a triathlon (well, I imagine it is, I’ve never done one).

I now see a father not as a shaper of clay, but a herder of cats. A father isn’t molding a child into the perfect ideal of a human being he’d like him or her to be, rather he’s nurturing, guiding and loving, as they grow into whatever they already are. So for men who are becoming fathers, and women becoming mothers (because there’s not much difference other than anatomy), here are my thoughts on herding cats, and the parallels to growing a start-up business.  Just know that I’ve violated all of these fatherhood ideas repeatedly, and learned these lessons along the way.

Your first job is simply to be there and love them Of course, we need to keep them safe, fed and clothed, and anyone can do that with a bit of effort. What’s important is whether the child grows into an adult who is loved.  At the end of the day if you can say that you were there for your child, and she or he felt loved, then you’ve succeeded.

For your start-up business, it’s about the shaping, the caring, the loving too, guiding it through those embryonic moments as it takes its first steps. What you do in the early days of your business are important to give it the best start in life.

Your example is more important than your words We often tell our children to be considerate as we yell at him, and so he doesn’t learn to be considerate but to yell back.  My son James, then aged 12, once left me a note asking me to be more consistent.

Being a business leader is all about setting the example, your behaviour, attitude and conduct should be a role model for others to follow. Leading from the front and showing the way ahead is just like being a dad.

A hug is more powerful than punishment A hug accomplishes your main duty (to love), and is more powerful than any punishment. When a child behaves badly, this is a mistake, but what’s more important than judging and punishing is understanding. Empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. What would help you in that situation? Have compassion. Give a hug.

Hugs in business are good to celebrate success, but take an empathetic approach to your business, rather than punishment when things don’t work out.  Talk about the problem, get folks to understand why their behaviour wasn’t so great, it’s about learning rather than retribution, and empathy starts with your example.

Trust them As his dad, let him take risks and fail, and show him that it’s OK to fail. Don’t give him the neuroses of worrying constantly about safety, of making a mistake. He will fail, and your reaction to that failure is more important than the failure itself. You must show him that the failure is just a successful experiment, where you learned something valuable. If you trust him, he will learn to trust himself. He will grow up knowing that things can go badly but trust that all will turn out OK in the end. That’s a trust in life that’s incredibly valuable.

Creating an environment of trust to your start-up is invaluable, a culture where it’s acceptable to take risks, try new things out, see what works. Things will go in a different direction but support curiosity and don’t create a fear of failure.

Let them be who they’re going to be You aren’t in control of that. You might care deeply about something but she doesn’t. You might think what she cares about is trivial, but that’s who you are, not who she is. Let her express herself in her way. Let her figure out things for herself. Let her make choices, mistakes, take care of her own emotional needs, become self-sufficient as early as she can.

A start up needs leadership, it doesn’t need micro-managing, create the vision, values, purpose and strategy, let people get on with stuff within the framework you’ve set, don’t make it claustrophobic, give folks space to breath and grow.

Engage Take walks and have talks, gaze up at the stars with them and wonder about the moon. Listen to their music and dance with them. Ok, maybe not. Pack it in dad! Do puzzles together, bake cakes together, get into their blanket forts, pretend to be a Jedi, tell them stories you made up, sing badly together. I’m good at that.

Each moment you have with your child is a moment in time, and then they grow up and move away, and start to become their own person and figure out who they are and get hurt and need your shoulder to cry on, but then don’t need you anymore. In the end, fatherhood is being there until they don’t need you to be there, until they do again.

Engagement is business means ‘being there’, having an intimate relationship with people in your start up, which recognises them as individuals, not just workers.

From bloke to dad I found this transformation exciting and it seemed the next logical step in my life. I felt I’d done my share of pubs and larking around and was ready for something more. Of course becoming a dad helps the process of growing up because you are forced to acknowledge that in the eyes of this small being, you are in charge.

Responsibility for your people, taking a paternalistic perspective, is a vital element in securing the growth of your start up. Your decisions inside the organisation have a direct impact on their lives outside of the organisation, recognise and accept this.

Tired and testy In a universe far, far away, people sleep all night. I know this, because I was once of this tribe. Then I became a parent. Babies cry when they’re hungry, when they’re too hot, too cold, need changing or a cuddle. I recall pacing the bedroom at 4am with both kids in the early days as they howled the place down.

You spend the first two years helping them to walk and talk, then the next 16 years telling them to shut up and sit down. Like all aspects of parenthood the key is patience, unlimited patience. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never run out of patience or felt I couldn’t cope. The thing is, it takes a while to learn.

You need patience with your start up, there will be similar sleep deprivation experience and times you doubt your ability to cope. The thing is, it takes a while to learn here too.

Handle with care I held both James and Katie a lot in the early days. As a man, it’s easy to feel useless around a new born. I mean, it’s not like you’re built for breastfeeding. A more primitive instinct I’ve yet to experience and it made me feel more like a bloke than downing a pint in five seconds ever did. Cuddling is good. At first, though, you’ll feel like a clumsy, clueless ape-man, petrified of picking up your own child in case you drop them or pull a tiny arm off by accident.

With your start up business, you need to be gentle, hold it close to you, shape and nurture, give it a cuddle too, look after it and help it enter the world.

Have baby, will travel When James was first born, I was scared to leave the house with him on my own, I mean a pram was a difficult vehicle to navigate and it held such a precious cargo. Tackling a zebra crossing became an epic quest, a trip to the supermarket made Neil Armstrong’s jaunt to the moon look easy. And as for the park, well, Bear Grylls, eat your heart out.

However, you get used to it, and the first holiday to Whitby was great fun, even if he didn’t like the feel of cold wet seaweed on his feet, The only way to learn is to get out there and try.

With your start up business, it’s all about getting out there too, talking and pitching to potential customers, don’t be scared about the new journey, it’s all part of learning and finding out what works.

Offloading your offspring I’ve not always found it easy to leave the kids for an evening. The first time we left Katie with a babysitter was a disaster. We fretted about her throughout the first course, rowed through the second and were home before pudding.

Katie was happily asleep when we got in, but I woke her anyway just to make sure she hadn’t slipped into a coma. Like most new parents we raised imagining the unimaginable to an art form.

After a time, your start up is starting to walk and talk, and you have to let other people have a part of it, and trust them with it. You have to leave it on its own for a while to start to find its feet.

The sky’s the limit Of course, I’ve got a dad too, and I’ve often been minded by the saying ‘by the time a man realises that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong’. My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me, and taught me that I could do anything and be anything I want to be.

We never know the love of a parent until we become parents ourselves. I get my ‘always go the extra mile’ sense of determination from my dad, if you’re going to do something, do it right. Then do more.

The attitude of ‘keep going, never stop’ and pushing yourself to reach beyond your expectations is needed for your start up. Believe in yourself and your potential, and make business as usual a stretch based on unreasonable demands on yourself to create something very special.

James is now 23, Katie is 19, and both are bright, funny and argumentative in a positive sense. These days the separation anxieties are all mine. I love it that I can now admire them for real rather than imagined achievements, congratulating them for the tuneless recorder solo never came easily to me.

I like it that in many ways my job as a father is done. They have a clear sense of right and wrong, an inner self-belief as to where they are going in the world, and an emotional confidence that I never had at that age. I also quite like it that they think they know more than me. Even though they don’t. I’m not old, I’m retro, and I am always fundamentally right, and they know this.

Being a ‘business dad’ in a start up business is a similar journey, with the emotionally highs and lows, hopes and dreams, self-doubts and pride. Like a family dad, the job is never really done, you’ll always be there.

Now my kids are able to see me as a person as well as a dad. They know my strengths and weaknesses almost as well as I know theirs. Then again there are still some weaknesses I try to keep hidden. Such as writing sentimental pieces like this. But, luckily, as no one in my family ever reads a word I write, that shouldn’t be a problem!







Cake Invest – a recipe for technology start-up success

One of the companies I’m working with, Cake Solutions, has a passion for software development and working with start-ups. Start-ups are ideas rich, cash poor, so we’ve devised a business model that works for everyone – Cake Invest is the brand, the model we call ‘The Catalyst Process’. Check out the web site, and apologies, I’m not quite in the Daniel Craig class and no Oscars shortlist this year, but maybe next year… http://www.cakesolutions.net/cake-invest.html#.UIagoIVt0gM The goal at Cake Invest is simple: help great people with great ideas build great software.

Despite a promising idea, many technology start-ups are doomed from day one and it’s often because they don’t have the right processes needed to turn technology insights into a great product. Success isn’t just about a twist of fate, timing or a game-changing new idea, start-up success can be engineered by following the right processes from both a business model and software development perspective, and that’s what we nurture at Cake.

A start-up by definition, demands innovative cutting edge solutions that fulfils the vision of the founders, and provides a competitive and commercial edge (faster, cheaper, scalable). They cannot be limited to a narrow scope of technologies, they need the right tools for the job. Cake is experienced in developing new software that is scalable, enterprise level and innovative. Cake is not limited to a specific number of technologies, our expertise is broad enabling us to choose exactly the right technology for the project.

So what’s special about how we work with start-ups? Well, it’s Cake’s start-up process and technology product development model, ‘The Catalyst Process’. The three-stage Catalyst process puts passion building great technology applications at the heart of the product innovation, but also stresses the importance of business thinking and business functions inside the same box. The Catalyst model seeks to systematically reduce risk to technical start-ups for both entrepreneurs and investors, and thereby improves the success rate of innovative technology product start-up businesses.

This three-stage process is as follows:

  • Stage One: We evaluate the opportunity, impartially determine the best technical stack and architecture using the latest and most appropriate technologies and techniques, and offer an early indication of resource requirements.
  • Stage Two: Cake’s own development team build a proof of concept model, which confirms the technical solution and provides a very basic application to begin the customer feedback process.
  • Stage Three: This stage sees the completion of the application to v1.0 and its on-going development with frequent releases. The agile development process adopted requires daily integration with our clients and demos every two weeks.

But it’s not just about the technology behind a start-up, Cake Invest provides an intensive mentoring and business support experience to help super-charge software innovators with their start-up product ideas.

Throughout the period start-ups work with Cake Invest, we provide the following support:

  • Access to a team of experienced and highly regarded software developers
  • One-on-one mentoring from start-up mentors
  • Legal support services
  • Collaborative office space in our office to work alongside the Cake team
  • Exposure to seed investors

I’ve found that out that over the course of working with Cake, participating entrepreneurs hone their business thinking alongside the technology thinking – working on product-market fit, pacing development milestones in tandem with their customer acquisition strategies, understanding their financial model and those vital cashflow dynamics.

In addition, the entrepreneurs will discuss business strategy and share lessons with some of our other start-up client ventures, while really ramping their networks – and sharing a beer, – the core emphasis is building great software, learning and the expansion of a network of peers, advisors and financiers, but it doesn’t hurt to have some fun too. We designed Cake Invest to be the start-up accelerator program we wish existed when folks in the Cake team started on their own venture.

New start-ups today need only a little funding, but they need more help and support than ever before. They need a community of inspirational technologists and business mentors who have the badges and scars, having struggled on their way to a big success, legal and accounting services that don’t cost precious cash, and opportunities to meet and pitch investors.

Besides the business and technology conversations and insights into new ideas, we’ve also learned about the folks themselves, their experiences and how they think, how they’re finding life in start-up land, the psychology of entrepreneurship. It’s early days, but experience and success to date auger well. Of course we’ve had a failure too.

At Cake, I’ve learned about agile, Scala, spring frameworks and functional programming, but most of all I’ve seen what tech entrepreneurship looks like at the coalface. We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. Here are my 10 thoughts and reflections after living with the Cake Invest team and the start-up folks:

1. You can start a business without first having an idea. Just go into a market and observe the gaps and the points of customer pain. In that gap or pain, you will spot an opportunity, come up with an idea, and launch a product. Don’t jump onto a bandwagon thinking you can do something better than is currently being done, find open, uncontested market space.

2. The only thing that matters in the first phase of setting up a business is taking an idea into a proof of concept, getting customers, and then getting customers to pay. This means you don’t need a logo, a website, or a finished product. You need the capability to craft your proposition into a prototype with a story. Storytelling is your key weapon when starting out, build a following, and talk with them.

3. Entrepreneurs are confident folks, but often put off what they are most afraid of – failing. Some get their heads down, work hard and build a product for 6 months, come up for air, only to realise no one wants it. They ignore the reality that the purpose of a business is to create customers. Lose that fear of failure and put it at the beginning of your journey, think about it as an experiment. Lose fast, quick and cheaply.

This is a key point. At a business’s inception, resources are limited, and the best content for a business plan is real-world data based on testing aspects of the concept. These experiments need not be complex. You want simple, iterative tests that are easily measurable and let you know whether you are winning or not.

4. Entrepreneurs are often headstrong, yet lonely, work in isolation but thrive in a community with like-minded others. Find a place to share your setbacks, failures, and successes, and create connections. Be part of a community, get connectivity, and folks will help push and pull and reshape your idea, and make it better. Look at the impressionist painters in Montmartre. The Cafe Guerbois, near Manet’s studio became the gathering spot for Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Pissaro, and the movement was born and flourished.

5. Folks who make excuses about not getting results deflect and bury their head in the sand, but typically suffer from a lack of desire. They are kid themselves, but in reality, just don’t want it bad enough. Those that want it are endlessly resourceful in building their first business. Most hurdles are mental barriers, self-created, if you want it bad enough you’ll find a work-around and make it happen. Go back, reinvent, learn and adjust. As Edison once said, ‘I’ve not succeeded yet, because I’ve not failed enough’.

6. The most important skill for an entrepreneur is salesmanship. I’m not talking about the slick gift-of-the-gab salesman with false charm and perfect white teeth, I’m talking about people who can actually ask for money. The question ‘Would you pay for this?’ is a surprisingly difficult questions for entrepreneurs to ask, but you get feedback – you either get the deal and customers pay, or what you need to get customers’ wallets open in the future.

7. Your social and educational background, age, gender, race, and geographic location have nothing to do with being successful. I’ve worked with circus performers, French-speaking body paint artists, dog walkers, chemists, engineers, shy Serbian developers and students. All of them built their own business model and launched a company. The most successful to date was a student from Sheffield working from his parents’ garage.

8. Picking a business you are passionate about is not as important as being passionate about the process of building a business. Along with passion, it’s about graft. There’s no doubt technology entrepreneurship is becoming its own kind of celebrity – the story of Facebook was portrayed in The Social Network – but the reality is as Eric Reis said: ‘Entrepreneurship is not cool, it’s not sexy and it’s totally uncomfortable. It’s boring and gruelling, and that part is never part of the movie.’

9. Think big, and then double it, then you can go anywhere and do anything. The concept of the ‘Big Hairy, Audacious Goal’ is vital to unleash your thinking. Once you’ve made the decision to start, you’ll see dozens of new opportunities open up that never existed when you were standing still. The hardest decision is the decision to get started. Think and create your business model and how to monetize, don’t spend time working on detail that quickly becomes irrelevant as you find our what the market needs, not what you think it wants.

10. Quit talking, start doing – once your mind-set is reprogrammed to do stuff, you become unstoppable. You lose the uncertainty and reticence that ‘I don’t know how to do that’, this becomes irrelevant – I firmly believe that anyone who wants it bad enough can do this. They can work out what to do starting from scratch. Learn from others, borrow successful models and add some disruptive thinking – for example, look at iTunes and the Bit Vendor Model – how can you take this model into an existing market and create new value?

A start-up is an experiment, we need technology development practices geared to the start-up context of extreme uncertainty. The Cake approach maximises the chances of success, building a great product with enough features that increase the odds customers will want it. It avoids the handing over of a big cash sum day one and hoping a successful product will emerge.

Focusing on the user experience enables the investor to measure conversion. Everyone is aligned, collecting user metrics means investment decisions are based on measured user behaviour, and support the ‘pay as you go’ approach. Making incremental investment, proportionate to projected customer value based on releasing early, releasing often manages the technology and financial risk in tandem.

More technology start-ups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of the technology or product. The agile investor model starts with lots of small experiences, filtering out failure and expanding investment upon success. It means stop selling start listening to your target customers – chase customers not sales revenue. It also enables the search for the right business model. At Cake I’ve found that serendipity happens, and that innovation is anything that isn’t business as usual.