Guardiola or Mourinho: who’d be the best tech startup leader?

You couldn’t get a greater contrast in leadership style than Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, a fierce football rivalry currently being broadcasted daily to the world from Manchester. It’s a deeply personal rivalry that encapsulates the best of and worst of modern football as they locked horns recently for the twentieth time in their careers in the Manchester derby.

Pep has the edge over his Portuguese foe with ten victories, while the ‘Special One’ has four wins, with six ending draws. Guardiola has learnt quickly from his first season mistakes with City, his squad have grasped his exacting demands and he is on course to deliver the title playing captivating football. Mourinho has brought a winner’s mentality back to United, but looks unable to thwart Guardiola’s direction of travel.

Mourinho and Guardiola worked together at Barcelona between 1996-2000, when Mourinho was a coach and Guardiola a player, but have been rivals since. In the summer of 2008, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was appointed as manager of Barcelona. He was young and inexperienced, fresh from a successful period leading their B team. Not exactly qualifications for taking the reigns of one of the most iconic sports teams in history, but he went on to win 14 titles in four years.

Pep may not have been the expected choice, but he had new ideas for a team stuck in old ways. Most importantly, he had the courage and the discipline to make those ideas come to fruition, following the ‘total football’ vision of his mentor, Johan Cruyff, who gave the gangly, slow-footed, Guardiola his first opportunity as a youth player.

But it’s not enough to just have new ideas. You need the discipline to follow through when you’re going through the fire. And that’s what both men have: single mindedness, self-belief and mental toughness to do things their way, and simply ignore the brickbats thrown at them.

Guardiola lost his first Spanish League match of 2008, dropping the big named players whilst giving a young Messi his debut. But after the opening week loss, the team racked up a twenty game undefeated streak en route to their first Spanish title since 2006. The highlight of the campaign was a 6-2 victory over rivals Real Madrid, in Madrid.

Guardiola established his philosophy of tiki-taka, despite the dwindling appeal of possession football. By artfully advocating a playing style based on possession, short passing play and attack in which the ball is played forward from defence all the way to goal by means of pinpoint combination play, Barça captivated the footballing world.

He was a perfectionist, he studied his rivals and focused on small details. He used risky tactics to surprise and outwit. His leadership style has evolved to that of being very personal – emotional, motivational and yet also authoritative. Pep has crafted an aura of passionate thinking, discipline to a philosophy and warmth to his team.

Mourinho contrasts this with an abrasive and sometimes sulken attitude that the world is against his, that he’s an animal corned to fight. Mourinho is also a perfectionist, equally passionate, buy is pragmatic and plays to win rather than be overly concerned with style. He isn’t above overt public criticism of his players either.

Their rivalry hit a new level in 2010, when Mourinho was appointed Real Madrid boss. During the next two seasons, as the pair vied for domestic Spanish and European honours, their relationship turned ugly. Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid in La Liga fixture at Camp Nou is the greatest of humiliations in Mourinho’s management career, and put a clear marker down.

Following his departure from Barcelona on a year-long sabbatical, Guardiola resumed his skirmish with Mourinho in August 2013, when Bayern Munich met Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup. Bayern won, and Guardiola scored another victory over his long-time adversary. That’s not quite how Jose saw it though: The best team clearly lost. They just scored one more penalty.

So, both have enjoyed stellar success, leading several teams, but how transferable are their leadership capabilities to other industries? For example, who could make it as a tech startup leader? Who is the more perceptive and innovative strategic thinker? Who would develop the startup culture and talent best? Whose leadership philosophy offers more potential for long-term success in the maelstrom of the startup environment? Let’s consider the key qualities of a startup leader, and assess each.

1. Growth philosophy As beautiful as it is bold, Guardiola has not wavered from his determination to play firmly on the front foot, ignoring the critics who argued that his philosophy was not transferable to the hurly burly of the Premier League. Stylistically, Mourinho has suffered from constant comparison with Guardiola, purists have bristled at some of his perceived negative tactics. Guardiola’s way of playing is now so established that players can be rotated and there is often no discernible difference.

Guardiola and Mourinho may have very contrasting beliefs about the best way to go about achieving success but they share the same obsessive desire for winning and there is little doubt both have overseen marked improvements. But for me, theirs is a one-sided rivalry – where one has moral courage the other shows only fear in putting in the type of structure that looks to enhance his players’ attacking qualities.

Organisations are now becoming more aware of the need to identify the fundamental reason for their existence or their “why”. Guardiola has taken this further by taking a belief system and aligning it to the mission objective, of playing reputation for playing with flair.

Mourinho’s philosophy is to minimise the risk of defeat, Pep’s is to win with confidence and self-belief. For a startup, you have to be bold and push out from your comfort zone into the learning zone to get ahead of the competition and take your own performance to new heights. Best fit: Pep

2. Talent development Guardiola’s skills as a coach have born fruit this season with many of his squad showing huge signs of improvement, younger players such as Sterling and Stones, and established players too, notably De Bruyne, whose game is at a new height. Mourinho has done a similar job in this regard, with the stark improvement from more modest talents in a less naturally gifted squad, and brought about a sharp upturn in performance levels from his tough love.

Regarding youth development, then this is a stick with which Mourinho’s critics have liked to beat him but the irony is that it is the Portuguese who has demonstrated greater willingness to give Academy graduates meaningful game time whereas Guardiola, has, for all the City hierarchy’s eagerness to promote youth, appeared at times to pay little more than lip service to it.

Mourinho has given 1,382 minutes to Academy Graduates compared to Guardiola’s 1,141. Mourinho has maintained United’s 80-year tradition of naming an academy player in every match-day squad; getting regular playing time remains a serious challenge for City’s youngsters.

Yet Pep’s emotion, manhandling and yelling at his players until they see the light of his thinking, is one that would bring more success in a startup. You can’t be a spectator in a startup, you have to be leading the charge on the front line. Pep’s on the pitch in his head, you can see his engagement with the team at an individual level. Jose is more standoffish, less emotional, lacks warmth, and maybe as a consequence, hasn’t created a winning culture to help foster a unified team vision. Best fit: Pep

3. Emotional Intelligence Guardiola is a perfectionist – but no more so than Mourinho – yet has stronger emotional intelligence. Mourinho is more outspoken about individual players, pointing out their shortcomings in public. Pep is an idealist focused on process of playing beautiful football, Jose is a realist simply focused on results and winning football. Pep is emotion, Jose is passion.

The secret of leadership is insight into human potential and understanding of the individual, and Pep is known for understanding the ambitions and personality of each player. Lionel Messi, the world’s best player was called up by Argentina to play at the Olympics much to the disappointment of Barcelona who didn’t want to risk their best player getting injured.

Pep went against the wishes of the club and supported Messi playing at the Olympics because he knew how important this was to Messi and the loyalty he would receive in return from the player. Pep nurtures and huddles with his players, you sense Mourinho creates a more hierarchical ‘master and servant’ relationship. When asked about this kind of situation Guardiola replied We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it. Best fit: Pep

4. Self-awareness Startup leaders live in a state of discomfort, constantly restless about improving – and are comfortable with it. When running a startup, life is constantly in a state of flux – one key hire or departure can make or break a team, one key customer sale can set the month up for success, one flaw in the technology could be a six-month setback.

Recognising this and pressing forward anyway takes a tremendous amount of tenacity, but also self-awareness, being able to take intrinsic and extrinsic criticism with a grain of salt. There’s no doubt that Pep has a stronger jaw for criticism, although he can bristle, and has developed a healthier balance of paranoia and confidence compared to Jose wounded animal personality.

When things are not going well it’s difficult not to allow your emotions to overtake you and influence your decision-making. Your focus needs to remain on want needs to happen to correct performance and the diagnosis of how and why the situation happened and what can happen later. Your influence has to be to add value, not criticise.

Guardiola took a debut season of his own self-doubt and has grown a near-perfect second one. Just twelve months ago Guardiola was at his lowest ebb as City boss, but has carved a near-perfect team from his own self-doubt. He doubled down. Rather than adapt, he was going to go the opposite direction, and apply his principles to the fullest degree possible.

He has placed even more faith in himself. He was even more determined and focused and was ruthlessly decisive. I don’t get a sense of this critical self-awareness and the need for more determination to make it happen from Jose. You sense he’d walk away from the situation. In a startup, you can’t walk away, you simply have to dig in Best-fit: Pep

5. Use of resources Guardiola has built a reputation for helping players raise their game, but he also has a habit of spending more money than his rivals every season. He has already splurged £400m+ since arriving at the Etihad in July 2016. It is irrefutable that he has been able to buy success, working at three clubs, which have been in the world’s five richest by income and spending during his time with them.

He’s not so far from becoming a transfer market £1bn man, laying out £896.6m since starting out at Barcelona in 2008. Mourinho – whose £1.1bn expenditure exceeds that of any other manager – and Carlo Ancelotti, who’s shelled out £970m, are the only two who have spent more. The Catalan has laid out £99.6m a year on average, compared with Mourinho’s £65m.

Meanwhile, after the 2-2 draw with Burnley, Jose was bemoaning his £300m spend at United wasn’t enough to compete with City Best-fit: neither – both work with monopoly money, could they do it with the meagre resources of startup funding?

Mourinho is undoubtedly a successful leader, but not someone you warm too and doesn’t create a sense of loyalty and camaraderie in the team. Mourinho talks a lot, but is he really just saying everything he wants you to hear? His overtly intentional mind games and media distraction strategies have often dogged him. He’s strong, but can be self-indulgent, belligerent and dogged, becoming an isolated figure without affection.

Contrast this to Pep, always ready to motivate, his emotion and connection to his players from the touchline during the game is inspiring. He has successfully turned the team’s formation, tactics and training approaches on its head within a short period of time.

City play the Guardiola way with discipline, clarity and purpose. That would not have been possible without him first sitting his players down and helping them understand what he wants from them and he wants to play. The success they are currently having probably started at the lunch table and not on a football pitch. Creating this understanding, togetherness and trust are the essentials of effective startup leaders. I think Pep’s got it.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: The Lean Startup Conference, San Francisco

The Lean Startup Conference 2015, was a gathering for entrepreneurs, innovators and thought leaders from across sectors in a fast paced, highly curated program featuring the best of the Lean Startup community.

Held on November 16-19 in San Francisco, over 2,000 diverse Lean Startup thinkers and practitioners shared ideas that are shaping the future of the approach to startups, at the 6th Annual Lean Startup Conference.

Renowned speakers – including founder Eric Reis – collaborative workshops and interactive discussions created an unforgettable collective experience at the historic Fort Mason campus. It was a place to pick up knowledge on a variety of aspects and topics, providing some informative research into specific elements of the methodology, and insights and learnings from practitioners’ implementation experience.

The Fort Mason venue was a former U.S. Army post located in the northern Marina District. During World War II, Fort Mason was a key location, with 1.6m military passengers and 24m tons of supplies moved from the port into the Pacific theatre. Today, you still get a sense of the endeavour, enterprise and effort of those times in the fabric of the buildings, making it an iconic location for a conference focused on guiding and growing startup businesses under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

What is the Lean Startup approach? Simply, the Lean Startup methodology is a proven technique to help you achieve and sustain startup success – making fewer mistakes, burning less cash, getting there quicker and proven to deliver more success.

Instead of executing business plans and releasing fully functional prototypes, the Lean Startup advocates testing hypotheses, gathering early and frequent customer feedback and showing ‘minimum viable products’ – early prototypes of your product idea with a minimum feature set – to prospects.

Business plans rarely survive first contact with a customer. As boxer Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head. Forecasting three years revenues ahead is a step into the great unknown – and based on what assumptions?

The Lean Startup approach thus requires a founder to establish and test a series of hypotheses underpinning their business model, and to ‘get out of the building’ and meet prospects to validate their business model by quickly iterating and assessing potential customers’ feedback. This customer discovery process recognises that searching for a business model is the primary task facing a startup.

Fundamentally, you’re trying to determine the problem you’re solving, not what the product is. Validating customers’ interest through early adopters and product usage provides feedback, from which the startup can ‘pivot’ by changing one or more assumptions in its business model. This ‘Customer Development’ process underpins the entire approach – a business model is all about the customer, not the product.

After customer validation, the product is refined enough to go to market. The startup creates customers, using its proven hypotheses to build demand and ramps up marketing and sales resources to scale up the business.

Why the Lean Start-up Changes Everything, an article in the Harvard Business Review by Steve Blank, makes the compelling argument that mainstream adoption of the Lean Start-up is not only attainable, but would provide the basis for a newer innovation based economy. During the conference, the key messages showed how this methodology breaks down the barriers to traditional innovation approaches:

  • The high cash cost of getting the first customer and the even higher cost of getting the product wrong are significantly reduced
  • Long technology development cycles are shortened, based on the MVP approach to product development
  • The risks inherent in founding or working at a start-up are lessened by reference to the customer development process

The lean approach reduces the first two constraints by helping new ventures launch products that customers actually want, far more quickly and cheaply than traditional methods, and the third by making start-ups less risky. The combination of all these forces is altering the entrepreneurial landscape.

Lean start-up approaches and methods have mostly been applied to software and Internet businesses – but it’s interesting to look at other businesses through the lean start-up lens – for example food trucks – especially as they fed the conference delegates!

  • Food trucks are much cheaper to start and can get to market much faster than brick and mortar restaurants.  In many ways, food trucks fit the Lean concept of the minimally viable product.
  • Food trucks can quickly and easily test new concepts, menus and recipes.  In many cases food trucks are being used as lean start-up-like laboratories to test potential brick and mortar restaurant ideas.
  • Food trucks take an iterative approach to their menus and even location based on customer feedback. ‘Build-measure-learn’ is a daily occurrence with food trucks.
  • Food trucks are tightly focused on their customers and interact with them every day.

So, a good practical example on our doorstep every dinnertime.

Great sessions from a number of contributors can be accessed here, click on the name to go to the Lean Conference web site and access the details of their talks and twitter accounts:

Aditya Agarwal Dropbox – managing through hyper growth

David Binetti Dinadesa – lean startup finance through innovation accounting

Gagan Biyani Sprig – focused on product-market fit

Chris Dixon Andreessen Horowitz – an interesting 121 conversation session with Eric Reid

Amy Jo Kim Shufflebrain – focus on early product development

Laura Klein Users Know – great insight in UX

Dan Olsen The Lean Product Playbook – practical guide to product-market fit

Alexander Osterwalder Strategyzer – how to design a startup culture

Frank Rimalovski New York University – insights ion the customer development process

James Warren Share More Stories & Johnson – using stories to share innovation

So over the four days of the Conference, here are my top ten takeaways for startup founders to embrace:

1. Have an open-minded experiment based culture. The Lean Startup describes the startup as an experiment for building companies that are creating new products and services in situations of extreme uncertainty. The key is experimenting and testing assumptions to then use that feedback to evolve your product and ‘fail fast’ if there is no product-market fit.

2. Focus on understanding exactly what your customer values. The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells. Many entrepreneurs focus on building their product without engaging the world. You need focus on understanding your market more than building your product. Validate and talk to customers. Also, make sure you are targeting the right audience so as not to skew your observations.

3. Think metrics, not pixels. There is so much emphasis on design (thanks to Apple!), however sometimes the things that work aren’t the obvious choices from a design perspective, so don’t over-do it. Test everything. Figure out what needs to be measured, then come up with experiments to improve those most critical items.

4. No excuses. Many founders shared some of their amazing MVP stories. My takeaway was that there really are no excuses, you can build an MVP to prove your idea and you can test it on any budget– they were just testing the viability of the idea. As the idea of experimentation matures, there’s a growing swell around the idea that evolution trumps intelligent design. That is, if you can run more experiments to test more hypotheses, and let data decide the winner, you stand a higher chance of being successful with your startup.

5. Eat your own dog food. Use what you are building often and uncover issues before your customers do.  If you don’t use it, why should your customers?  You will quickly identify and fix usability and functionality issues, thus enabling you to show a more polished product to your target end users. Be clear on the problem you are solving, that’s the key fundamental to take from the approach. For me, the Lean Startup is basically the scientific method applied to startups.

6. Nothing is cast in stone. Be willing to change. No emotional attachment to anything you build and no bruised egos when changing a previously stated direction. It is better to change direction early and be successful than to stay the course that leads to a dead-end. Most successful startups end up releasing a product that is vastly different than what they set out to build.

7. Avoid endless debates. Build-Measure-Learn. Try, test, measure, then pivot or persevere. It does not help to spend hours discussing if you should place a button here or there, so try it one way and measure your customer’s engagement. No one decision is ever perfect. This is Reis’ key mantra, the core practice of Lean Startup is to hypothesise, experiment, analyse results (focus on data) and iterate to success.

8. Embrace failure. If we do not want to fall down on the slopes, then we will never learn to ski.  Failures gives us valuable lessons on our quest for improvement. As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, How did it feel to fail 1,000 times? Edison replied, I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

9. Set realistic but challenging milestones. Nothing rallies the team like the challenge of meeting a difficult but attainable deadline, be it an advisor demo date or a set of features in a mini release required to close a potential customer deal. Make it a habit to set challenging deadlines and always reward your team by celebrating these milestones no matter how small.

10. Have a vision and plan ahead. Do not make the mistake of thinking the experimental based approach to hypothesis testing implies Lean doesn’t require you to have a vision. Pivot on the strategy but always maintain your vision. Without a guiding north star, a ship will be lost in the endless sea. What makes a startup unique is the vision of its founders.

With the Lean approach, you get iterative early in the lifecycle of your startup business. You need to be agile in understanding your requirements and even who your customer might be – not so much sell what you can build, but build what you can sell.

The Conference was epic. Sessions ran from 8am to 9pm and there was just too much for me to summarise here. During the Conference I took lots of notes, asked tons of questions during the after-hours 1-on-1 sessions with experts, and received direct feedback from Eric Ries on the final day of the conference.

To close, my ‘top ten quotes’ that captured the essence of the Lean Startup approach that I noted at the Conference, were as follows:

‘Don’t jump from zero to Picasso. You have to go through the reality stage first’ @cdixon

‘Keep the business plan & spreadsheets, leave the fiction writing behind’ @EricRies

‘Your job is not to validate the product, but to validate the problem & how best to solve it’@rimalovski

‘A common trap for startups is convincing yourself there is a market when there actually isn’t’ @ericries

‘It’s like hand-to-hand combat, just run the experiment (see if it works)’ @EricRies

‘Eliminate your ego for product-market fit, it’s the idea you end up with that counts’. @gaganbiyani

‘Put hypotheses into every story to learn what customer wants. No shortcuts. It is hard’. @ericries

‘Innovate your product by getting stories from customers. Hear 100 stories in 100 days’ @warrenjwric

‘Innovation done right = idea -> hypotheses -> experiment -> learn -> act -> repeat!’ @alexosterwalder

‘Innovation is an insurance policy on your company’s relevance’ @dbinetti

Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer, anything else is waste, so the goal of a Lean Startup is to learn what is valuable to the customer. Learning is the essential unit of progress for startups, testing assumptions you’ve made about your business, its customers and how you’re serving them.  Your job is to find a synthesis between your vision and what customers want and recognise you’re providing a solution to a problem.  Just trying to make customers happy does not produce a sustainable business model.



Timing – the key factor in a startup’s success

Startups are literally an experiment, a journey into the unknown, always looking for opportunities to do something better by disruptive thinking and constantly questioning the status quo. They learn from their mistakes and fix them quickly as they continue their growth journey.

The startup organisation is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people and organise them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things.

But if the startup organisation is so great, why do so many – up to 90% – fail? What actually matters most for startup success? Bill Gross recently looked at five factors potentially driving startup success: the initial idea, the team, the business model, the funding, and the timing. Here’s a link to his insightful TED talk:

The number one thing driving success was timing. Timing accounted for 42% of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea – the uniqueness of the idea – came in third. It surprised me that the idea wasn’t the most important thing. Sometimes it mattered more when it was actually timed.

So what makes great timing for startup success? Timing for me is about taking limitations and turning them into possibilities. You can’t wait for timing, you have to create it, give yourself the opportunity. You can’t wait to see what might have happened.

Entrepreneurial founders are fuelled by passion and an insight or a hunch into the problem they are going to solve, but intrinsically startups work on being a bet – and it’s the timing of this bet that seems to be a factor in success. Timing is about judgment, intuition and foresight.

A startup leader has to be comfortable with taking on ambiguity, uncertainty and multiple challenges. What kinds of people chose a life of exploration, challenge and discovery where timing is a decisive factor in the outcomes they achieve? What do you think are the most important leadership characteristics of these ‘explorers’, and how do they impact the ‘timing’ as identified by Gross?

Here are the thoughts about the importance of timing on a startup leader’s actions and behaviours.

Vision A well-defined vision is the compass by which every startup journey is navigated, giving the focus to the direction of travel. Vision, driven by an instinct and with foresight for timing, can be a formula for success.

Flexibility ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ This variation on German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s original quote could not be more true for startups. Leaders of start-ups need to be flexible to alter (or even throw out) plans as timing of product-market fit and market circumstances dictate.

Unwavering belief Every startup revolves around taking risks, but again it is the timing of knowing when to do so that is key. A combination of paranoia and utter confidence is needed, in order to hold your nerve so as to get to the carpe diem moment.

Speed It makes a difference when a startup is able to launch on time and able to move faster than competitors. Successful startups never delay the process of getting things done. The most productive startup leaders are the ones who make the most of their time. I believe that the faster you can make the mistakes, learn from them and improve your offering, the better.

Discipline Self-control and a strong self-imposed agenda in terms of getting-the-things-done-you-said-you-would-when-you-said-you-would, are important elements to timing. Self-discipline from the founder leads to a positive team work ethic to getting things done effectively and efficiently. When focusing on your first release, this focus is critical.

Time and ability for listening, reflection, curiosity and self -awareness Listening is a completely underrated trait. In a hyper-competitive economy, the person who speaks first – and loudest – is most often heard. But soliciting feedback and internalising what you hear will always make you a better startup leader. The best startup leaders have an acute sense of self-awareness; they know their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses. They are confident enough to be honest about areas for growth, take time to be curious about feedback, be reflective on lessons learned, and make timely changes to their business model or product as a result.

Time for the team Startup leaders who share good, bad, and ugly news to their folks with full transparency earn trust, and have a daily huddle with the team. Aside from this honesty, making time to share information ensures that all team members know what they’re working toward.

Stick-to-it-ness Seriously impressive entrepreneurs are willing to put in the graft to work through the hard times. They work through the different bits of a knot, rather than trying to rush through and cut it apart. They take their time to craft the product that is in their minds’ eye and don’t compromise.

Bide your time The untold stories of Pinterest and Twitter are that they were operating for two years before they became marginally relevant. It’s very seldom that a startup comes out that delivers overnight success. If you have already validated your problem and solution, then stick with it. Conserve energy and cash, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not pivot too early thinking the solution is wrong. It could be that you are not getting to the right customers, you don’t have friendly onboarding features, some tweaking is needed, or one of many reasons. Timing here is all about patience.

Knowing the right time to fight rather than adapt Important traits for a startup founder are tenacity, passion and grit to keep fighting for what they believe is right. But that must be balanced with the humility and openness to listen to customers on feedback that improves the product, even if it goes against your vision. What determines success is knowing when to apply which one of the personality traits.

Most startups fail because of the lack of customers – maybe their products didn’t end up being what they thought it would. Some fail because they ran out of money because their revenues couldn’t grow fast enough.

But these causes of death don’t exactly illustrate what went wrong for the startup during the course of its life, much in the same way that listing a heart attack as a cause of death doesn’t directly indicate an unhealthy lifestyle that may have led to it. Like with human life, some startup deaths come out of nowhere and can’t be helped, and some are both predictable and preventable.

We all know that there are no shortcuts to success, and there’s no secret formula that can create the ‘perfect’ startup. However, as identified by Bill Gross, there’s one factor that rises above all others in importance: – timing – which represents the single most important make-or-break point in a startup’s development.

Fundamentally, timing is about judgment, intuition, foresight, gut instinct and an element of good fortune, to tip the scales and create the moment. Timing is about ensuring that your idea doesn’t come too early and consumers aren’t ready for it. Conversely, if your idea comes too late and there are already a number of different offerings in front of your target audience, you won’t be able to squeeze in.

Timing can’t be ignored, and it can’t be substituted just by paying more attention to the other elements of your business. Certainly, having a good idea, business model, team and available capital can all increase your chances of success, but without that critical timing factor, you’ll inevitably end up failing, or at least struggling. It’s up to the startup leader to ensure they gets their timing right.

Startup lessons from the Apollo XI moon landing – 20 July 1969

Some 46 years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. When the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, Armstrong radioed Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. At 10.56 pm EDT Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I still recall the grainy black and white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for Accountancy roles and one, a bit speculatively, for ‘Astronauts wanted’ to NASA. I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat.

There’s a great book, Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three had died, and we lost Neil Armstrong in 2012) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 ( The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, but for me the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid astronauts a few dollars a day while they were in space and deducted bed and board from their pay cheque! They were paid $8 a day minus deductions for their free bed on Apollo. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, has a framed receipt: From Houston to Cape Kennedy, Moon, Pacific Ocean. Amount claimed: $33.31.

President Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition shows how people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. His push toward putting a man on the moon in less than nine years was a fantastic statement of intent, and the fact that it was done is astounding. Of course, Kennedy did not live to see the dream realised.

Landing on the Moon is surely man’s greatest ever entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the extraordinary Apollo XI experience for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight. Dr. John Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy

To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic. Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre said, I don’t know if this is possible, and detailed his frank opinion about the resources NASA would need in order to make Kennedy’s dream a reality. However, it came together, united and focused by the vision.

2. Have a sense of direction

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases.  Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down into the major steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

The Apollo programme followed the steps of The Lean Startup, setting a series of milestones: phase 1 was to fly to the moon, phase 2 was to orbit the moon, phase 3 was to land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They followed the concept of ‘the pivot’, from the Lean Startup. Had they immediately set their sights on a full-fledged lunar landing, history may have turned out very different.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

They probably normally expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And here we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot

On descent to the moon, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and would likely smash into a crater at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If Armstrong and Aldrin hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We feel comfortable with all of the unknowns that we went into this program with. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo 11 mission was one of the most risky undertakings in human history. From technical failure to human error, any number of things could have gone wrong, and did. But without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made – Build-Measure-Learn is one of the Lean Startup key principles, and applied here.

As with any experiment, a startup is about setting down hypotheses regarding customers, the value proposition and product-market fit, and then using a customer development process to identify facts. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risks, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

One of the biggest challenges that we had was one of communication and coordination. Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a selected founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required clear communication. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organisation. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication became easier. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows with early hires, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone will assume the same priorities. Create a plan for how your team will communicate, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down. NASA responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do these things, and were expected to go find out how to do it. Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience with a certain task may seem counter intuitive, but it was something Apollo project managers actively encourage – the average age of the entire Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in yoru startup, give people the opportunity to shine.

7. Keep asking questions

When we had the Apollo 1 fire, we took a step back and asked what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your project are vital, not one-time events, they are crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you. Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team. Small wins throughout the project fuel continued hard work.

9. The pivot to MVP is painful

The leader has got to really believe in his organisation, and believe that they can do things. Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

Once you’ve achieved Proof of Concept success, how do you take it forward? According to NASA, every successful project needs three things: a vision, a vivid picture of where you’re going; complete commitment from leadership to make it happen; a first goal to keep everyone focused, which in Lean Startup philosophy, is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), based on validated learning.

Getting to the third point is hard. The pivot is all about changing direction but staying grounded in what we’ve learned. If we can reduce the time between pivots, we increase our odds of success.

10. Dare to dream

Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Life has its its twists and turns – Armstrong was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. Armstrong lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive.

Armstrong captured the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank, a colleague of Eric Reis in the Lean Startup movement, has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

The Apollo 11 mission is to me, the ultimate startup and best example of launching a large-scale high-risk technology project to achieve something no one had done before. It resonates with Simon Sinek’s work on ‘Why?’ in terms of having a clear vision and purpose underpinning your startup ambition.

It was about turning an idea into reality, an example of what Steve Jobs termed the reality distortion field. Ignore the naysayers, it can be done. We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming said Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V launch rocket, capturing the spirit of adventure.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot. Eric Reis defines a startup as a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions if extreme uncertainty. Everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins makes them startup founders and entrepreneurs. What a leap for mankind they made.