Tag Archives: Business

How to Ask for Advice / Feedback About Your Startup

One of the things I’m passionate about is helping other startups and the community of entrepreneurs we have here in Edinburgh (and in Scotland).  Since becoming more intentional about “taking the pledge“, I’ve been meeting with lots of folks locally, and been surprised by the amount of requests!

So much so that other team members here at Administrate are helping me shoulder the load, according to areas of expertise (thanks Mike and Patrick!) and time constraints, and I know of many others in the community who are donating their time and expertise.  Helpfulness and support has always been a hallmark of the Scottish startup scene, so this isn’t anything new, but there’s so much more activity now, so many more companies, and so many more entrepreneurs now!  It’s great to see!

I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to expect, so I thought I’d lay out a brief framework to help everyone get the most out of the time.

  1. Remember that most advice is delivered within a context vacuum.  Don’t take my advice (or anyone else’s) without fully thinking things through and satisfying yourself.  Bad advice can come from really great people.
  2. In order to be at all helpful, I need context.  Things I usually ask about are: the problem you’re trying to solve (as a company), your business model (SaaS, etc), your market, some metrics around revenue, customers (people paying you money), team size, how long you’ve been going, growth, and churn.  It’s ok if you don’t have all of this information, but the quicker we can rattle through these items, the faster we can get up to speed.
  3. It’s totally cool if you just want to chat, but I’ll usually ask you what you’re biggest challenges are – we have these at Administrate and sometimes they feel cyclical (first we’re worried about sales, then tech, then support, then sales again, etc.).  Even if everything is going well, the question will often be “ok, how do we double down and make it even better?”
  4. I probably can’t help you too much with hiring (particularly “line” staff) – my network is mainly in the USA (so not local), and we’re in high growth mode here at Administrate, so if I know of any devs or whatever we’re probably going to hire them!
  5. Expect me to be very, very blunt.  If you’re British it may come across as almost hostile sometimes.  Sorry.  When I get into problem solving mode or analysis mode, I tend to interrupt, ask lots of questions, and don’t filter much.
  6. Expect me to play devil’s advocate.  Expect me to really push you on a few things.  Expect to be challenged.  The best advice I’ve ever received was from someone telling me they thought I could be a lot more ambitious, which annoyed me at the time, but really made a difference.
  7. One thing you won’t get from me is griping about raising money in the UK, finding a team, or complaining about Scottish Enterprise or Scottish Development International.  If you’re annoyed about these things, fine, but expect an argument from me!
  8. I’m not going to be very helpful to you with introductions to angels, VCs or syndicates.  These people all make their own decisions and won’t look at you in any different light if I make an intro for you.
  9. I won’t share anything about our conversation unless you specifically tell me you don’t mind.  I also expect the same in return.  This means I don’t mind if you want to ask me about challenges I’m facing now, etc.  We like to be transparent, and often it can be comforting to hear that someone else is going through something you’re struggling with.
  10. The majority of my experience and expertise is in high growth Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service.  So be aware I’ll bias towards that style of company.  I don’t like most B2C ideas because they are riskier, require more funding earlier, require a lot of traction to be successful and are often harder to build and/or monetise.
  11. A couple of times things have gotten emotional (really!).  That’s OK! Building a business can be really hard.  Relationships are involved. It can feel overwhelming.  That’s normal.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not the first time.
  12. Unfortunately, you may have your appointment changed around a few times.  Sorry, but Administrate comes first!  Also, it may be awhile before we can meet, and depending on what you’re looking to talk about, we may provide someone else from our team to give you a better perspective.

Hopefully that helps you get an idea of what to expect and makes everything run just a bit smoother!  I’ve enjoyed all of the conversations I’ve had and am always encouraged by the amazing people we have in Edinburgh working away on building things and solving problems.

Startups, Take the Pledge for Your Community

We’re about to kick off another year, resolutions have been made, lots of parties have been attended, a bunch of milestones have been reached, and it hopefully feels good to get some closure on a year and plan for another.

I’d like to challenge you to add one more resolution to the list, and instead of thinking of it as a resolution, treat it as a habit, a lifestyle, a core part of your duty as being a member of your startup community.

As a bit of background, my startup Administrate is founded in Scotland, backed by Scottish investors, and a member of the fledgling Edinburgh startup community.  Using the term fledgling to describe a group of companies that has produced two unicorns (Scotland has the highest rate of unicorn production per capita in the world) seems a bit weird, but it’s true.  Like most non-Silicon Valley, non-Boston, (dare I say non-American?) locations, the community here is fairly young.  Most of the founders and senior management teams are first timers here.  All of us are trying to tackle the inherent challenges of building a sustainable business while learning as fast as we can, hoping to not commit that fatal mistake (last piece of learning?) along the way.

It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Just Go Faster

In cycling they say that it never gets easier, you just go faster, and I really believe the same is true with startups.  This stuff is really hard.  Even when things are really rewarding, you know you’re on the cusp of making it, you’re getting that positive press coverage, you’ve just raised money, you just signed that huge deal, whatever the milestone is, it’s still really, really hard.

And here’s the thing – if you’re a senior team leader or founder, there’s not many options for support.  Your spouse won’t fully understand what you’re going through.  Your board isn’t the right venue for a freakout.  Your direct reports have problems of their own that they need support to help address.

Feeling alone is one of the worst feelings, but it’s also one of the most common in a startup.

A Solution?

I’ve found that the single best avenue for support as a founder, CEO, or senior team member is to talk with a peer, usually someone who is ahead of you on the journey.  I don’t even mean support as in therapy, I mean support as in “I’m having this problem, how did you solve it?”, roll-up-the-sleeves style problem solving.

In the last 2 years, there’s been several key moments where I’ve received advice/suggestions/thoughts from members of our community that have caused me to rethink, come up with a plan, and have ultimately seriously transformed our company and helped make it one of the fastest growing tech startups in Scotland.  Things would have been very different if I hadn’t had that time from others who were ahead of me on the journey.

Take the Pledge

Spend 30 minutes every week helping other startups within your community.

You can spend an hour every other week, two hours with one person, etc., I’m not bothered about the mechanics, but just make sure you’re investing.  You can still run a highly structured calendar, you can ask people to come with a specific question or problem, you can implement this however you want, but the key is to be available, be supportive, and spread as much knowledge as possible.  Even if you don’t know how to help your fellow startup, refer them to someone who might, or tell them to read a book or go to a conference.

The funny thing about this is that the people that helped transform Administrate by spending time with me usually didn’t remember the conversation when I went back and thanked them.  I’ve had several instances of the same thing happening to me when someone mentions what a great help I was and it turns out it was a 10 minute conversation at a party.  These things add up, but they can only do that with consistent attention, over time.

The other interesting thing about this is that it’ll help you run a better business too! Taking your head out of your problems to focus on something else can provide clarity, and I’ve never found a situation where I couldn’t learn something from another company.

Lets Talk

If you think I could be of help, let me know! Hit me up on Twitter, email (if you don’t have my direct email, send it through the main Administrate email), phone, etc.  Sometimes it’ll take a week or two to get something arranged, sometimes it’ll be via the phone, but hopefully it’ll be helpful.

I’ve Never Wished I Was Less Technical

I got an early-ish start with computers when I was about 6 or 7 years old.  My dad created an MS-DOS boot disk that got me to a DOS prompt on the one of the hard diskless IBM clones in his office.  Once I had booted to the command line, I’d put another floppy disk (these were 5.25 inch floppies, the ones that really flopped) in the B drive, type in the commands which I quickly memorised, and my six year old self would be ready for some hardcore word processing.  Using Multimate at first, but then moving on to PC Write, I penned a few short stories and would love to visit the office and use the computers.  My Dad’s staff even gave me access to the holy of holies – the one real IBM PC (not a clone) which had a 5 megabyte hard disk, and was protected by a password.  I was solemnly lectured to never disclose the password, not to anyone, and I never have, even to this day.

And so it was against this backdrop that I became interested in computers.  When I was nine my family bought our first computer from a back alley vendor in the Philippines.  It was an IBM compatible XT Turbo, which was technically an 8088, with a twenty megabyte hard disk and a monochrome CGA monitor.  It was outdated when we bought it, as the 386 had just been released, but I loved it.  I spent hours learning different software packages like Norton Commander, PC-Tools, and playing games like the Commander Keen trilogy.  We kept it until I was twelve, and then gave it to a Chinese friend when we replaced it with a 486 DX-33 we picked up in Hong Kong.  Built like a tank, it is probably still in operation somewhere.

Despite this early introduction to computers, I didn’t get started programming until I was sixteen.  It was harder then – we had just got the internet but the tutorials and blogs and wealth of easy information we have now didn’t exist.  It was also difficult to get the necessary software you needed – thanks to living in China I could buy a pirated copy of Borland C++ or Microsoft Visual C++ for about a dollar, but they were a bit overwhelming to setup.  I finally found someone who knew how to program and begged him into giving me a few sessions.  He had a book, helped me setup my compiler, and agreed to meet with me once a week to teach me.  I even managed to get these sessions accepted as school credit during my junior and senior year.  I still keep in touch with Erik now, and he was one of the groomsmen in my wedding.  Together we even managed to cobble together two “junk systems” from spare parts and after a few weeks of constant trial and error, we got Slackware running in 1998, still one of my proudest technical achievements.

Every American college bound student knows that their junior year of high school is crucial for getting accepted into their university of choice, and I began targeting computer science as my major.  I was heavily advised that I should focus on a business degree instead.  At the forefront of that group were several of my math teachers, who knew that I didn’t do well in that subject, but there were also many others who thought that I shouldn’t “waste” my people skills in a technical role.

But I was really enjoying programming!  My first real project was a string indexing program which could accept a block of text (much like this blog) and then create an alphabetical index of all the strings (words) and the number of times they appeared.  Written in C, I had to learn about memory management, debugging, data structures, file handling, functions, and a whole lot more.  It was way more mentally taxing than anything I’d ever done in school, and it required a ton of concentration.  I wasn’t bored like I often was in classes.  It was hard.  Erik would constantly challenge, berate, laugh at me, and most importantly, accurately assess me using an instructional style that I’d never been exposed to before – he only cared about the results, not the trying.

Although I was dead set on computer science, I really liked making money too.  My parents noticed this and for one semester during that crucial junior year they offered me financial rewards for grades achieved.  After I’d hosed my dad for over a hundred bucks due to my abnormally high grades that semester, he announced that “grades should be my own reward” and immediately discontinued the program.  There were plenty of people telling me that a degree in business would better suit these talents of mine, and if I was honest, at the time I knew they were probably right.  I was great in my non-science subjects, I could mail it in on papers and still get an A, and I knew that diligence, attention to detail, and math were weaknesses.  Getting a business degree would be stupidly easy.  Getting a computer science degree would be pretty hard, at least for me.

I was close to changing my mind when Erik mentioned, “You know, I’ve never wished I was less technical.”

This is advice that I really took to heart.  It rung true when I was seventeen.  It’s even more true today.

For me, the advantage that I incurred by getting a computer science degree meant that I could start my own consulting company and be one of the technical contributors while also being responsible for the business stuff.  It helped me obtain positions of leadership because I didn’t need technical middle men to explain things to me.  If things were going poorly, I could help manage the crisis effectively, and when things were going well I could explain why and point out the technical decisions that had carried us to success.

Guess what?  I got to do all the business stuff too!  Having a technical background has never limited my business acumen or hampered me in any way.  I haven’t coded for money since 2007, but I use my knowledge and experience every day, and I stay up to date with technology as much as possible.  I love it when our technical lead shows me the code behind the latest feature.  If anything, having an appreciation for complexity, code, and systems design has only helped me design and implement better budgets, business models, and pricing schemes.  I’ve never met any “business person” who is better than me at Excel, the language of business, and much of that stems from just knowing how to program.  This has made me the goto guy in almost every planning or budget meeting I’ve ever been in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way.  People who aren’t technical will always struggle in any technically related environment.  I’ve met so many people who have struggled and struggled to make their great idea a reality chiefly because they weren’t technical, couldn’t contribute, couldn’t cut through the bullshit, and therefore couldn’t effectively manage their way to success.  Sometimes, they’ll try to fake it and just lose the respect of the programmers.  As many times as I’ve thought to myself how glad I am that I have a technical background, I’ve had others voice to me the frustration that they just wish they knew more about technology.

If you’re reading this, and you’re trying to figure out which way to go in life, make sure you get technical first.  If you didn’t choose that path, there’s still plenty of time – get out there and learn to code.  There are so many resources.

This is what the “everyone should learn to code” movement is really saying – not that everyone should be a coder, but that everyone could benefit from understanding the environment, pressures, and disciplines that drive a huge part of our economy.  It’s not just business either – artists can benefit from more creative displays and better performing websites, not-for-profits could benefit from volunteers who know how to help out in technical areas, and it’s just nice sometimes to be the guy who can get the projector working in a foreign country!

So get technical.  You’ll never regret it.  And if you’re a programmer and you ever see a kid who wants to learn, help them out, you may just find a friend for life.

Cynical Optimism: Technical and Business Planning

I thought Rand Fishkin’s recent blog post on “Cynical Optimism” was a nice read.  He talks about how while there are plenty of things to be cynical about when it comes to humanity and our tedencies towards negative things, there is plenty to be optimistic about with regards to our progress as a whole.  The phrase “Cynical Optimism” is one that I really like to use when describing how to attack business plans, budgets, technical roadmaps, or other kinds of planning.

First, Be Optimistic

When setting goals, you definitely want to be an optimist.  Aim high, don’t limit yourself, and always strive for accomplishments that are meaningful and aligned with your values.  This is the classic “CEO” way of looking at the world and deciding where to go – strategy, vision, and confidence are huge assets here.  When goal setting, make sure you show your work!  Define goals in the form of “We’d like to do X because of A, B, and C”.  This provides important context and you’ll find that there are often other cheaper better routes that could be had which your haven’t considered.

Second, Become a Pessimist

Once you’d laid out your goals, make sure you switch hats and cast an incredibly cynical eye over your plans.  You want to identify everything that can, will, or should go wrong.  This is the perspective that a “COO” or “CTO” would take, as they’re the ones seated more firmly in the trenches.  The important thing here is to engage your team and let them know it’s OK to second guess goals in the context of determining how they’ll be achieved.  By critically assesing what it will take to arrive at your destination, you’re ensuring you don’t run off the rails enroute.

Now You’ve Got a Plan

Forcing yourself to wear both hats is hard – it’s often difficult to pull yourself across the chasm if you’re naturally predisposed to one outlook or the other, but if provides the following:

  1. Builds a culture of intellectual honesty.  It’s always easier in a team environment to just go along with the flow and feel like you don’t have any skin in the game.  If your team feels they can object or hone objectives, they’ll perform better.
  2. It can reduce the risk of making major mistakes.  By critically attacking your objectives you’ll anticipate problems and avoid major pitfalls that could have been forseen.  You’ll never know what you don’t know, but often teams drift into problem areas they could have avoided.
  3. In dysfunctional organisations, it’s amazing how almost everyone involved will know (and be able to point out good reasons) how goals won’t be achieved, well ahead of time.  You’ll prevent this kind of “death by politics” syndrome which affects a lot of companies.
  4. Bottom up planning is always the best way to meet top down objectives.  In other words, the high level goals can be set by the product owner, CEO, or visionary, but they’re on the worst vantage point to actually see how to go about achieving these things.  A tip on how to encourage realistic plans – don’t confer time estimates of any kind when setting strategic goals.  Just say “We’d like to do X” and see what comes back!

Lastly, Remain Engaged

Plans sometimes need to change.  You’ll need to react to new things.  As your team engages with the problem the goal-owner will need to remain intimately engaged with the team.  Fine tuning your goals is a necessary part of any meaningful project or endeavor – not fine tuning will just ensure failure.

Fun with Video Marketing

We had a lot of fun writing, storyboarding, and critiquing this video of what my company does and how it helps our clients: training companies.  There was some debate over what accent we’d use for the narration but in the end we decided that we’re a Scottish company and we should use a Scottish accent.  I think we made the right decision.  Enjoy!

This was My Brand Too!

Recently I’ve had two really dissapointing experiences with companies that I’ve admired and sought to emulate.

One of them I’ve admired for something like 12+ years.  If you asked me who the top companies in the world were, unequivocally, I’d list this particular outfit.  I loved their philosophy, their marketing, their service, everything.  I told people the way I felt as well.  The other company was a fast growing outfit who conquered their industry and was an inspiration to me at every step of the way.

Both of these companies have clearly lost their way and it’s a cautionary tale for those of us who are running, growing, or seeking to start out on something new.  The weirdest part of it is that I feel as though heroes of mine are gone.

These companies were my brands too!

How could this have been prevented?  What can we learn?

  • Don’t overreach – both companies broadened their product line to the point that they were doing too many things.
  • Don’t ignore the small stuff.  Things like consolidated invoicing don’t seem like a big thing in the developer scrum, but they’re huge to customers who are probably using all of your products because they love you.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a financial credit.  Several times along the way a discount or permanent waiving of fees for what was admitted to be substandard service would have set things right in my mind.
  • Don’t ever tolerate rudeness to customers by you staff.  If this happens, get the staff to seak out the customer and apologise.
  • Don’t blame your failings on a third party.  It’s your fault for introducing the third party – third parties mean more responsiblility for you, not less.
  • Don’t allow tickets to wallow unresolved for months.  This just festers the entire situation.

At the end of the day, I won’t be using these providers as much anymore, and that’s sad, because I truly loved both companies.  We’re probably all guilty of a some or all of the above at some point, but it’s how we respond that matters.

Free Business Idea for a United Kingdom Startup

Start a Stripe.com clone for the United Kingdom.  Even better, launch to the wider EU and support accepting payments in GBP, USD and the Euro.  You’d instantly get worldwide press and massive attention from developers and startups within the countries you’ve chosen to support.

Stripe is too busy focusing on the USA despite saying they’re coming to the USA and other competitors in other markets are starting to spring up, like the newly announced PIN which caters to Australians.

Your competition will be incumbents like SagePay, Paypal, and Google Checkout, all of which won’t be able to move fast enough and are despised by your target market: startups and developers.  The only real threat to you in the United Kingdom is GoCardless which could attempt to compete, but they’re focused on UK Direct Debit payments at the moment.

The lack of competitors doesn’t really matter anyway – there’s plenty of room for you, plus the above, plus Stripe.  My training company software startup would use you in a heartbeat.  Dozens more would as well, just troll the forums begging Stripe to launch internationally and scoop up your first beta testers.  Seems all you need is a couple smart developers, a good lawyer, and a connection to a bank.

Any takers?