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.

Recap of the 2013 Turing Festival

The signet library venue for the Turing FestivalThis weekend was the third annual Turing Festival here in Edinburgh.  I was delighted to have been asked by TechCube MD and Turing Festival founder Jamie Coleman to speak Friday morning.  Due to the fantastic lineup of speakers covering a variety of items, the fact that this event was local, and the tight connection with the TechCube, we ended up taking three Administratives along as well.  All of us enjoyed the experience, the sessions, and a day away from the office to learn, talk, reflect, and listen.

If you’re located in Scotland, I think the Turing Festival needs to be firmly placed within your “Don’t Miss” category of events.  It’s time intensive and expensive to bring visiting speakers like the last three keynotes –  Neal Stephenson, Steve Wozniak, and Richard M. Stallman, but these are individuals that our local community should hear from and be inspired by.  Here are some thoughts from some of the sessions I attended during the festival.

Bill Aulet from MIT
Bill Aulet spent his time addressing the question of whether Entrepreneurship can be taught.  He had just finished a book on the subject which outlines a roadmap for entrepreneurs to follow, and he’d partnered with local startup Stipso to put forth a living info graphic that deals with some of the questions his book addresses.  I thought his points on how education has difficulty engaging with the subject of entrepreneurship due to a lack of datasets was interesting, and he mentioned how easy it is to provide fake or misleading guidance on this subject.  I thought it was an interesting start, if a bit long.  Check out his book here.

Jim McKelvey from Square
Two of the best soundbites from the festival were from Square’s Jim McKelvey, who mentioned that the industry they were trying to disrupt (payments) is “fundamentally corrupt.”  Transparency, according to Jim, is a fundamental ingredient to their success.  He also talked about how much of what Square has achieved came because they were in the right place at the right time, both of which are necessary to achieve huge success.  In addition to being a cofounder of Square, he’s an accomplished glassblower, and board member of the financially focused startup accelerator SixThirty.co, located in St. Louis.  Who knew that St. Louis is the second largest financial centre in the USA?  Jim seemed like the kind of guy I’d really enjoy bantering back and forth with – he was opinionated and generated controversy, which is needed at events like this.  He was great to chat with over drinks one night too!

Mike Hearn of Bitcoin/Google
One of the talks I enjoyed the most was from Mike Hearn, of Bitcoin, who clumsily shouted that “HE WAS NOT REPRESENTING GOOGLE” in response to a question from the audience.  Still, he spent most of his time talking about a future 50 years from now that involves digital cash without middle men, and a trade net that’s leveraged by autonomous, self-owning agents who respond to bids for materials and services on both the internet, and the “matternet.”  The latter just seemed to be an attempt to make quadcopters sound cool.  Humans, he contended, will be around for their ingenuity and creativity, which we’ll always have in abundance compared to computers.  The irony of announcing the ultimate invincibility of the Turing Test while speaking at the Turing Festival seemed to be lost.  This talk was enjoyable as it firmly fixated on the future, painting broad yet tangible themes that were all theoretically possible today.

Brian Doll from Github
I really enjoyed the talk about how Github markets and has grown over the years as part of the Growth Hacking session.  Github saw most of its success from focusing on its voice.  Marketing according to Github is the culture transference, and this is how they continue to engage their customers.  In first year of their existence, while building their product, three engineers managed to push out 280 blog posts that were true to their culture.  Their famous “drinkup” strategy is an outgrowth of attending meetups and finding that the chat in the pub afterwards was more valuable then then presentations, thus they sponsor more than 200 drinkups around the world every year, including the after-party drinks at the TechCube as part of the conference!  Focus on your culture, focus on tribes, tell stories, and develop a voice was the mantra of this session and I thought it was great.

Old College venue at the Turing Festival
“Living Infographics” from Stipso
Stephen Drost launched into his discussion of the evolution of infographics with a short history lesson.  The origins of the fundamental charting methods used in infographics today come from the Scottish inventor of statistical graphs (bar chart, line graph, pie chart, and circle graph), William Playfair.  Florence Nightingale, in addition to being the founder of modern nursing was also a highly accomplished statistician whose early info graphics (which look like something you’d see today) were instrumental in proving that soldiers died more from disease than from battle.  Essentially, info graphics have been unchanged for hundreds of year, until now with Stipso.  They’re a combination content and listening tool (notably, Brian Doll from Github mentioned that there were plenty of great content tools out there, but zero great listening tools).  I’m a huge fan of how Stipso is positioning their product, how it can be used to both project and listen, and think it could be a fantastic tool for those looking to make their infographics a continuously fresh asset, rather than something that’s created and dies after a week or two.  As part of their talk they demonstrated one of their living infographics in conjunction with Bill Aulet’s book, which you can check out here.

My Session on Starting Up in American and Scotland
If you wanted to distill my talk down it would be: “The grass is always greener. Make sure you’re shipping something.

One thing I’ve noticed is that entrepreneurs across Europe tend to fixate on comparing their local market to Silicon Valley, while ignoring their own advantages.  I firmly believe that Scotland is an amazing place to build an incredible company.  While some changes in approach may be necessary (forget building a B2C business here, unless you can demonstrate significant traction), there are plenty of advantages.

A point that I forgot to mention is last year while I was in the audience at the Turing Festival, a panelist based from Edinburgh emphatically said, “Make sure you focus on a small market that doesn’t matter, otherwise, the Americans will find your company, come into your market, and destroy you.”  I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that moment, and it goes into the category of statements that I wholeheartedly disagree with.  With the talent, cost structure, tax advantages, and access to capital we have here in Scotland, we should be able to take on and compete with any company anywhere.

The Venue and Surrounding Events
The Turing Festival was held in three gorgeous venues in the heart of the Old Town of Edinburgh.  Truly some of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in.  Some liked the multiple venue approach, some wished for less walking, but I thought it was a nice approach to get people out and integrated into the city.  Lunch was provided in addition to free drinks (thanks Github!) at the great After Party and like many quality conferences, the people who you got to meet and talk with were really great.  I would have liked a bit more attention paid to following the schedule and a few more breaks between talks, but overall it was a great couple of days.

Life in the Edinburgh Tech Cube

The company I work for is fortunate enough to have offices in the Edinburgh TechCube, a technology and startup accelerator/incubator/hub that opened in January of this year.  I thought I’d show people what life is like working from the “World Class Startup Space” that we have here in Scotland.  The mission of the TechCube is to be a magnet for the area’s technology companies and technologists, help get startups up and running, see them fail or succeed, rinse, and repeat.

The City

For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a breathtaking city, one of the most beautiful in the world.  The entire downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the incredible architecture (dating from as early as medieval times) that surrounds the iconic Edinburgh castle which is perched atop a dormant volcano.  Known for its festivals and culture, it has the highest resident satisfaction of any city surveyed (by MORI), more restaurants per head of population of any UK city, and a temperate climate that has the same annual rainfall of New York City, Frankfurt, and Rome.  Its compact footprint is small enough to walk across, yet it has an excellent public transport system, a great airport, and convenient rail links to other UK cities. (Source)

The TechCube really benefits from being in such an inspiring and historic city that’s just a short flight from most of Europe.  Just a couple blocks away is the campus of the University of Edinburgh and its excellent Computer Sciences and Informatics department which provides a steady supply of top graduates each year.  There’s a lively tech community that has monthly meetups focused on a variety of technical subjects and several annual conferences that attract technologists from around the world.  I can’t think of a better place to live or start up a business.

Follow the TechCube on Twitter

The Building and Location

The TechCube began life as the Royal Dick College of Veterinary Medicine, and was constructed sometime in the 60s.  It’s an incredibly ugly building from the outside, but the key to ugly buildings (if they must exist) is to make sure that you’re on the inside looking out.  We have offices on the 1st (2nd floor for Americans) and 4th floors which means we have spectacular views of the Pentlands to the South, Arthur’s Seat to the Northwest, and the Meadows to the East.  It’s an amazing sight to see the Scottish weather rolling in from a distance, experience the rain or snow that it brings, then have a crystal clear view of the sun as it breaks through, all within a couple of hours.

View of Arthur's Seat from the TechCube
View of Arthur’s Seat from the TechCube

The Techcube is just a few steps from the University of Edinburgh, is located on several bus lines, and within walking distance of most of the city centre, the Waverly train station, and airport shuttle.  There are also several excellent cafes, sandwich shops, pubs, and eateries within just a few minutes walk of the building.

The Team

How many times have you been happy with the landlord of your office? It’s rare enough that it warrants mentioning  that one of the things that sets the Techcube apart from other office buildings you might consider is the team that manages the facility.  Composed of managing director Jamie Coleman and his intrepid team, they make being a tenant here completely hassle free, really fun, and they’re very aggressive about consistently improving the facilities and public profile of the building.  Running a startup can be quite an emotional roller coaster, particularly for early stage, pre-revenue startups that need an environment like the TechCube to get launched from, and my guess is the cheerful words and laughter upon entry and exit of the building from the front desk staff are a special kind of therapy to many founders within the building.  It’s really hard to overstate how great the crew behind the TechCube is.

The Resources and Facilities

While the building may be ugly, the facilities available are top notch.  The entire building was renovated from top to bottom and each floor includes ample meeting room space as well as a kitchen.  Access to each floor (as well as 24 hour access) is controlled by RFID proximity cards that make the environment informal yet much more secure than your typical office space.  High ceilings and the freedom to paint and decorate as desired is another major plus.  While the windows look small from the outside, they provide plenty of light, and all outlets and ethernet ports (of which each room has dozens) are located at desk height.  Thanks to a generous donation from Skyscanner, there are free, high quality desks available to tenants to save on office costs.  Offices are well lit, well heated, and quiet (you can’t hear other tenants).  The offices available range from the very small (2 man teams) to very large with space for 20+ bodies.  Electricity is included in your monthly rent and internet is priced at a flat rate per head.  Leases are available for periods as short as 6 months, and all leases allow a break with 2 month notice.

administrate-techcube

Pricing for office space depends on the stage your company is at, with price hikes occurring at important financial milestones such as break-even and profitability.  The goal that later stage companies eventually find space elsewhere to make way for newcomers.

The TechCube is part of the larger Summerhall complex that caters to the arts and creative community in Edinburgh and enjoys the benefits of several shared facilities:

  • The Summerhall Cafe serves coffees, sandwiches, snacks, and provides a great “offsite but not” meeting location.  There’s an outdoor deck for seating during the summer.
  • The Royal Dick brewery and pub is located across the way and serves their onsite-brewed Ale along with other bites to eat, and makes a nice place to have a meeting as well.
  • Summerhall boasts some extremely unique meeting rooms that can be rented as required for larger or more formal functions.
  • There is a theatre in the basement of the TechCube for presentations to audiences up to roughly 150.
  • The ground floor of the TechCube includes a just-completed hot-desking environment which can double as a meet up space or be used for hackathons/special events that require desk and network connectivity.
  • There’s a massive boardroom/meeting room still under construction also on the ground floor.

Another resource that’s connected to the building is a pool of early stage funding currently being raised by the building to have for those companies that meet their (yet unannounced) criteria.  Expect this to be broadly patterned after well known incubators like YCombinator or Techstars.

The Neighbours

While the building is still very new, it’s already almost filled with technology companies that range from product companies to consultancies, pre-revenue to post break-even, funded, bootstrapped, and everything else you’d expect from assembling a wide range of tech companies.  There are still two floors to be renovated, and as companies succeed and fail, I’d expect the range of companies to always be in flux.  There are plenty of opportunities to bump into others in the halls, and everyone operates an open door policy for visitors.

The Intangibles

Most accelerates/incubators/hubs really sell themselves on the intangible benefits they provide such as proximity to other likeminded companies, access to the broader technical community, ongoing events, and the possibility of funding.  TechCube is no exception as all of these things are squarely on its radar and if not already available, are in the planning stages.  Already I’ve been to a few meetups and events held in the TechCube that I normally might not attend as we can just walk down after work, and that is a huge benefit.  Even if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of how much an incubator like the TechCube really matters, right now there are more than enough tangible benefits to make the building a no brainer decision, even if the planned items never materialise.

The Bottom Line

Great people, great culture, a great location, great resources, and a cadre of peers who are all at different stages in the startup journey conspire to create a place that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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?