Startup Stories

March 11, 2015

CB Insights have put together a fascinating set of stories of how 101 startups ‘failed’, collected from their founders and investors.

Here are some examples:

Ultimately, I didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. It’s an incredibly expensive venture to pursue and a hard industry to work with. We spent more than a quarter of our cash on lawyers, royalties and services related to supporting music. It’s restrictive. We had to shut down our growth because we couldn’t launch internationally. It’s a long road. It took years to get label deals in place and it also took months of engineering time to properly support them (time which could have been spent on product).

We didn’t spend enough time talking with customers and were rolling out features that I thought were great, but we didn’t gather enough input from clients. We didn’t realize it until it was too late. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking your thing is cool. You have to pay attention to your customers and adapt to their needs.

I started to feel burned out. I was Blurtt’s fearless leader, but the problem with burnout is that you become hopeless and you lose every aspect of your creativity. I’d go to work feeling tired and exhausted. I was burning the candle at both ends.

Do not launch a startup if you do not have enough funding for multiple iterations. The chances of getting it right the first time are about the equivalent of winning the lotto.

The full report is a free download on their site.

See also: More Lessons From Startups

Getting Rewarded For Your Skills

February 24, 2015


The topic of getting suitably rewarded for your skills is one that crops up regularly in discussions with colleagues. There often seems a conflict between doing what you really want to do and making that financially viable and sustainable.

There’s an interesting post on this at ‘The problem isn’t that life is unfair – it’s your broken idea of fairness’ from which the diagrams above and below are taken. Although they are obviously a bit simplistic, they do make a key point very clearly.

The only change I’d make is that the top picture illustrates how we like to think reward works even if we know that the picture below is far more more realistic, and probably a lot more uncomfortable. The question then arises as to where an acceptable compromise point is, which is where personal values and circumstances come in.

However it’s a step forward to be aware that a decision on this matter is always being made, either knowingly or by default. So it’s helpful to regularly question this compromise point, preferably with others (to get a spread of views and experiences).

A slight change of direction may yield a delightful improvement!


Images: from the site above.

A Corporate Sense Of Humour

February 19, 2015


On a lighter note, I was quite surprised to read that my local train operator, South West Trains, modified the standard messages on the digital info signs to fit in with Valentine’s Day – quite a creative move!

An example is given above.

From GetHampshire:

Love was in the air for South West Trains passengers this weekend after the rail company romanced them by renaming station on electronic platform signs.

Those travelling on Valentine’s Day (Saturday February 14) were treated to a range of loved-up plays on station names across Hampshire and Surrey.

The London Waterloo to Salisbury service was changed to “London Waterlove” to “When Harry met Salisbury”, while Liphook became “Lips-Hooked” and Petersfield “Passionfield”.
Fleet was changed to “Fleet-ing Romance”, Ash Vale to “Ash Valentine”, Hook to “Hook, Line and Sinker” and Farnborough to “Four Weddings and Farnborough”.

It’s not without risk of course:

However, the puns may have backfired slightly after some commuters claimed it left them confused and even led to some missing trains.

The sight of the pun names next to notices informing passengers of delays or cancellations also killed the romance for others.

Anyway, it’s good to know that some companies are brave enough to try a corporate sense of humour!

Introducing Yourself

February 16, 2015

I often meet new people at various business events. Sometimes I’m introduced to them through colleagues or else they’re just bumped into at random. The situation then crops up as to how you can communicate ‘who you are and what you do’ in an interesting and concise manner. You don’t want it to be too specific as that could cut down possibilities but being too general can result in vagueness. Also, you often have just a few minutes to get the main points over. Tricky!

I’ve tried various techniques and not found any of them particularly satisfying.

One common approach is to define yourself through your profession and role e.g. I’m a senior project manager with company X. This is useful information but it’s not likely to spark an interesting conversation.

What could be better?

There are a couple of suggestions I’ve come across recently that sound promising (see here and here):

1. Tell a mini-story (Present-Past-Future):

So, first you start with the present – where you are right now. Then, segue into the past – a little bit about the experiences you’ve had and the skills you gained at the previous position. Finally, finish with the future – why you are really excited about this particular opportunity.

This sounds fairly natural to me and has the opportunity of revealing a theme, which is probably far more interesting and memorable than any specifics. The listener can then respond to any of the hooks – present, past or future. It just needs to be done succinctly and not develop into a rambling life story!

2. Focus on your customers rather than yourself:

Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.”

Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.

This sounds a bit rigid to me although, admittedly, it could be very useful if time is tight.

Both allow you to get out of the confining box of profession and role, as, in my experience, nearly everyone is far more interesting than that!

Power, Inertia And Entropy

January 19, 2015

As it’s the start of 2015, I’m mulling on what to aim for professionally this year (and thereafter), so I’m quite susceptible to articles on this topic. Whilst there’s no easy answer, getting others’ views is often handy even if it’s only to prompt a questioning of my current viewpoints.

Recently from Seth Godin:

A tactic might feel fun, or the next thing to do, or a lot like what your competition is doing. But a tactic by itself is nothing much worth doing. If it supports a strategy, a longer-term plan that builds on itself and generates leverage, that’s far more powerful. But a strategy without a goal is wasted.

In this context, I quite liked this quote (which pre-assumes you have a clear and challenging goal):

“Yes is the destination, No is how you get there.” – Andrea Waltz

The problem is that tactics and delivery are comparatively easy and give the immediate impression of progress being made whilst developing good strategy is really hard and because of this is often effectively ‘avoided’.

From an earlier post on this topic (A Cascade Of Outcomes):

Good strategy is rare. Many organizations which claim to have a strategy do not. Instead, they have a set of performance goals. Or, worse, a set of vague aspirations. It is rare because there are strong forces resisting the concentration of action and resources. Good strategy gathers power from its very rareness.

Competitors do not always respond quickly, nor do customers always see the value of an offering. Good strategy anticipates and exploits inertia.

Organizations experience significant entropy—the continual drift towards disorganization. Much of the useful work of managers and consultants is maintenance—the constant battle against entropy. Strategists must battle this never-ending drift towards disarray within their own organization. And they must try to exploit the disarray of their rivals.

These aspects apply to small businesses just as much as to large ones.

The Wisdom To Be Successful

January 2, 2015

The TED clip above features cardiologist Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein and he makes the case that age is/can be an advantage in making discoveries or coming up with new ideas and products.

He also makes the point that it’s your obligation to do something about any insights you might have, as even though you may not have the ‘energy of youth’, you do have the wisdom of experience. He gives a variety of interesting examples that support his case and has the nice turn of phrase ‘the wisdom to be successful’.

I found his own story very compelling (15:45 in the video) where he had a hunch that something was wrong with a widely acclaimed drug for heart disease. The end result was that the drug got turned down, making a massive impact on healthcare (financial and medical). The process for carrying this through must have been unbelievably tough, both in steadfastly believing his hunch as well as relentlessly pursuing it’s consequences. Obviously sometimes you’re going to be wrong but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to taking action (fear of failure).

I have to admit that I’ve fallen into this trap myself, thinking that most interesting things need the vitality and curiosity of youth. That obviously has an important role to play but, as he emphasises, it’s only part of the story and ‘making a difference’ can anyway take a variety of forms. Like Fleming (who was 47 at the time), keep an eye out for your mould, it’s probably already in front of you!

I came across this clip by chance and found it very inspiring, especially as the New Year is just starting.

What’s Important?

December 16, 2014

I’m currently trying, albeit somewhat haphazardly, to simplify my life. I’ve tried this before with varying success. One aspect is dealing with information, of which there are mammoth amounts these days (in a way it’s effectively infinite).

However time isn’t so unconstrained. Consequently I’m once again trying to improve my handling of to-do items, capturing and storing information (so that I can actually find it when I need it) and using all this to make better and faster decisions to hopefully release more free time etc etc.

However some of this I actually like doing for it’s own sake as it gives me pleasure eg reading reviews of clever new software, getting to virtually ‘know’ the developers, trying out and using it and being (occasionally) delighted at what it can do.

Some of this activity is patently useful as it keeps me up-to-date with developments in an area where things are moving fast but some of it is just going round in circles which can then be a bit dispiriting eg did I really just spend 3 hours to eventually come back to what I was doing anyway? If I was bored or needed a break, why didn’t I just go out for a walk in the fresh air? I even live near a nature reserve!

This is a good example of focusing on tactics rather than strategy and of easy fun versus discipline.

This point, together with it’s concomitant emotional triggers, is perceptively discussed by Ed Batista in a recent blog post:

The first step is to reframe the issue. Viewing a full inbox, unfinished to-do lists, and a line of disappointed people at the door as a sign of our failure is profoundly unhelpful. This perspective may motivate us to work harder in the hopes of someday achieving victory, but this is futile. We will never win these battles, not in any meaningful sense, because at a certain point in our careers the potential demands facing us will always outstrip our capacity, no matter how much effort we dedicate to work.

So the inbox, the list, the line at the door are in fact signs of success, evidence that people want our time and attention. And ultimate victory lies not in winning tactical battles but in winning the war: Not an empty inbox, but an inbox emptied of all truly important messages. Not a completed to-do list, but a list with all truly important items scratched off. Not the absence of a line at our door, but a line with no truly important people remaining in it.

The next step is to stop using the wrong tools. We expend vast amounts of energy on “time management” and “personal productivity,” and while these efforts can yield results at the tactical level, they’re futile when it comes to the strategic task of triage. Remember: this is not about making a list but deciding where the cut-off point is and sticking to it.

Finally, we need to address the emotional aspect of triage, because it’s not merely a cognitive process.

So, it makes you think, what have you encountered or addressed today that is actually important? Important may of course be something intangible like getting an insight for something that has been germinating for a while, or having an inspiring conversation that changes your mood or viewpoint completely. It doesn’t just have to be a task.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.