My first week of Helpful Conversations

Last week I started having Office Hours to have conversations with anyone who wanted  the benefit of my experience in startups, tech and a few other things from my 25+ years in the software space.

Using the awesome ‘Booked’ wordpress plugin – which I had acquired for another idea that I was launching last year – I set up a simple calendar/appointment booking on my blog site and wrote a blog post to make my offer and kick the whole thing off.

The first week has been tremendous. I’ve had 4 conversations that each went well beyond the 30 minute slot that was booked and all ended with some very positive feedback and heart felt gratitude from the people I spent that time with.

I haven’t asked their permission to write about the conversations – they are, of course, private and confidential – so no names will be named and no identifying details will be shared.

Two of the conversations were about starting out as an agile coach, one was about remaining relevant as a people manager and the last one was helping a startup on its growth plans – specifically raising market awareness. Here are just some of the ideas I shared:

Starting as a (independent) agile coach:

  • Don’t do it. The market for ‘agile coaches’ is saturated and filling up with project managers, scrum masters and all sorts of other folk. Rather than be bound to some title,  strive to be of value instead by understanding what problem your client is trying to solve (and not simply help us do Scrum/LeSS/whatever) and be determined to use *all* that you know to help them.
  • Know what you bring to the engagement – be clear about it, at least to yourself!
  • Get yourself financially lean to compete, take risks and endure the downturns.
  • Get comprehensive agile experiences – learn to code, ship something, try to market something – you cannot empathise effectively if you don’t know what they are going through.
  • Stay in your day job long enough to get the essential capabilities you need – once you have to make money, it becomes harder to make strategic decisions  – being financially lean can mitigate this but not remove it entirely.

Remaining relevant as a people manager:

  • Ask the people you manage what they need – practically, emotionally and financially – to be happy and fulfilled in their jobs.
  • Remember that your responsibility is to spend authority wisely – for the benefit of your reports and indirectly, the organisation.
  • Stop shielding people from the consequences of their professional actions – agree some rules beforehand, but blind support does no one any good. That said, helping to create an environment where the consequences are manageable and fairly trivial is also important.
  • Tell the person who manages you the same thing (even if they don’t ask for it).
  • Go ask your ‘customers’ what they enjoy about you as a manager and what they don’t. Commit to them to act on their feedback.

Growth for a startup – creating awareness of a product or service:

  • Focus on what the users and customers are actually trying to use your product or service to achieve. No one uses a tool for the sake of the tool. Customers will value your service better if you strive to understand their goals.
  • Be honest with what your product and service is great at and what it isn’t – users do not appreciate wasting their time on something that doesn’t work in their use case.
  • Use your paying customers more – if you are lucky to have them, then engage with them more.
  • Try and get better at being out of your comfort zone by doing more of it and learning ways to be better.
  • Rediscover your passion for what your product does – the unique way you want to change the world. This is the bigger goal than the features you are building and enables you to speak and promote your startup with passion.
  • Give what you have to get what you want – create content about useful and helpful things, share it, help companies for free using the expertise you’ve developed from your product. Earn goodwill, it pays off.

A huge thank you to the amazing people who accepted my invitation  this week and had the courage and humility to ask for help. Needless to say, I’m deeply enjoying these conversations and hope for many more.

If you or anyone you know would find a conversation with me helpful – book a time on my office hours, show up and lets do this thing!

 

My Web Summit 2015 Experience – the really short version.

TL;DR

Web Summit was a major experience.  There were a lot of people – the organisers claim 42,000 people were in attendance – and it felt it.
If you aren’t a people person don’t go.

If you are exhibiting, go to a busy vegetable market or car boot sale a few weeks in advance and learn to engage and trade. Otherwise you are wasting your time.
This is exactly what it’s like.

I personally consider The Alpha track to have been great value. Even after flights and accommodation, it worked out at about €800 per person. We made leads, tested product fit of the app with a wider audience and made some really great contacts.

On the other hand, it is blatantly obvious that profit is a major thing for the organisers – pay very little out, bring as much as you possibly can in. Even if that means screwing people over. The debacle of the food tokens demonstrates this perfectly.

There were some really cool exhibitors and some speakers – I tried to see all the exhibitors but only 3 really sparked my interest. There seemed to be a multitude of people doing things that were not really solving a problem or solving a known problem differently.

If you were attracted by the quality of the ‘celebrities’ and the possibility of rubbing shoulders with successful and influential peeps – you would be out of luck – they were there but not mixing and as my speaker friend said ‘oh they are all in there, but no one is coming out – there is food there and its not so crowded’.  I don’t really blame them.

The WIFI also classically sucked. Given the much reported problem from last year’s event, you would have expected such focus on getting that bit right. I met at least 10 alpha track cohorts negatively affected by this. Such a lack of attention to detail on a sensitive issue speaks volumes to my earlier point about profiteering. We even joked there was a lot of ‘summit’ but not enough ‘web’.

Ultimately the organisers are awesome at what they do – marketing, data mining and building their business – whatever you as the attendee or exhibitor gets seems accidental. They deserve alot of respect for that alone.

I personally got very little value from the talks – with such a huge range of people, I can appreciate the speakers easily going for the lowest common denominator level to pitch their talks.

So, Web Summit – it is like the Eiffel Tower. You only really need to see it once. We won’t be going back.

The long bit is coming in another post. Too busy, can’t complete.

Why every business is a startup or soon will be.

Every business – however large and however profitable – is a startup. Or is about to be. The big WTF is that they just don’t realise it yet.

This epiphany struck me recently and life hasn’t been the same since. I am eternally grateful to Massimo Lucchina for stating the simple truth behind this and triggering the idea that follows.

A Successful business model is a non-loss making one.

Steve G Blank, in his book – “The Startup Owner’s Manual” – defines a startup as ‘ an organisation searching for a repeatable and sustainable business model’.

When I first read this and applied Steve’s ideas to my own startups, I made the rookie mistake of thinking it was a one off search. I committed my time and resources to validating my idea and doing customer development, sure, I needed to do that – every startup does. The mistake is thinking is was a one off activity and this thinking can lead to unsustainable behavior.

When you are going from zero customers and revenue to something enough to quit your day job for, it can seem like you only have to do this searching thing once and yes, it can take ages.

Whilst searching, you might twist and turn as you try and find that seam of gold in a grotty old mine. If you take the right kind of risks, you might find enough of this seam to generate some revenue and gain early customers. You might even make enough to print some decent business cards, move out of your parents’ garage, hire some people and get into business.

What you soon realise is that a business model is a relative thing. The model needs to generate at least as much – if not – more revenue than your costs – hence profit. The trouble is that as you grow revenue, gain new customers, expand your market share – possibly with the same products and services – your costs grow too.

So a business model is about the relationship between revenue and costs and a successful one is where revenue trumps costs most of the time.

You die because your heart stops

Just as the heartbeat is proof of life, so it is that consistently not making a loss – in the case of successful non profits – and consistently turning a profit – in the case of for-profits – is the indicator of life in business. Many things can kill a business, but how it dies is that it becomes increasingly loss making and ultimately insolvent or euthanised before that point.

What happens when revenues do not grow as fast as costs are rising?
Or when costs remain constant or daresay, even drop, but so do your revenues?
Quite simply, what does your business do when revenue does not  match or even outpace costs and your once successful model is losing steam?

There is some value in understanding how this might happen because there may be some learning into what the next twist, turn or pivot that your business needs to take to regain its mojo. I’ll write another post that delves into the various ways this slow failing model can happen.

Suffice to say, every business will encounter this problem and will continue to encounter it whilst they exist. In fact the reason they cease to exist will be singularly because their business model fails and they are unable to find another one quickly enough.

Whilst the triggers for a previously successful business model starting its descent from profitability to oblivion can differ between business and industries, the symptoms are always the same – declining profits.

Every business hitting a growth ceiling will either hover around it , drop from it or crash through it.

So, let’s assume for a moment that you get from zero customers to current break even – hurray you are officially an unofficial non-profit. You might tick along for a while. What this looks like in real life might be that:
You don’t gain any more customers,
Or don’t charge your existing customers any more for the same offering.
Or you charge them more for something new, but still only matching costs.
Or you are gaining as many customers as you are losing

Basically what you have is equilibrium. This business has found a ceiling and is hovering around it. It is not simply a revenue ceiling. It is a growth ceiling – honouring the relationship between costs and revenue.

This situation is actually identical to a company that has grown from $100m to , say, $1bn revenues. Heck, some of that growth might even have resulted in profit. Though now they find themselves steadfastly unable to break through that revenue ceiling, often falling just below it or even accidentally crossing it momentarily.

Both business are hovering, simultaneously trying to stop dropping away whilst unsuccessfully trying to break through. But only one of these is in a worse shape than the other.

Can you work out which one and why?

The only difference between these two examples is how far each has to fall and how much it has at its disposal to both prevent it from falling and propel it crashing through the ceiling.

To break through a ceiling *always* requires a search for a new business model i.e becoming a startup.

This sounds drastic – and it often is. Though in practice, the new business model is a variation of the previous one. Business models are merely versions of each other – each iteration a new version beyond the previous one.

Businesses hovering beneath a growth ceiling must – quite simply – find a different way to make money. This may be new product or service offerings; or the same products in new markets or radically change the revenue vs costs relationship – usually by slashing costs, because revenues aren’t budging.

I believe though that this last option is really one of the dumbest things a business in this situation can do – especially if it is not *yet* in dire straits. Ahem , Yahoo.

Why reducing your search capacity during a search a dumb idea.

If you buy into my assertion that breaking through the growth ceiling is a search problem, then it becomes clear that a search often benefits from having as many eyes involved in coordinated search effort as possible.

Imagine a search for a chest full of pure gold doubloons in the Atlantic Ocean.
Can you imagine starting with 100 people with skin in the search and then firing them , reducing the search effort down to 50 people. Clearly to search the Atlantic, you need as many people and vessels to search the space as possible. Why would you knowingly reduce that effort?

Costs aside, the only reason I observe that this might be done is because those doing the reducing do not have the skills to effectively coordinate this many people in a search. This assumes they even recognise that searching is what they need to do.

Once you have broken through a ceiling, the clock is reset and starts ticking again.

Just when you thought it was safe to put away the search lights and whistles because your new business model has been found, you discover that you simply are now on a countdown to reaching the next ceiling. The most prudent thing you can possibly do is to recognise this and begin to explore and create options for the inevitable next growth ceiling.

I am discovering a new passion and it is that beyond each growth ceiling is a new way of thinking and approach, to get momentum to make the next ceiling easier to crash through and to make the next hover as short as possible.

Look around you and see if you can identify the ceilings in the companies you know. Can you observe how they are trying to crash through the ceiling?

I would really love to hear your views and experiences around this idea – I’m still developing it. Tweet or comment and make my day!


Featured Image By: Jan FidlerCC BY 2.0