I was chatting to a startup founder the other day and he made a great point: “you’ve never actually done it have you. You’ve not built and grown a successful startup”.
He’s right, and I’ve never claimed otherwise. As a founder, in that particular moment, he felt he needed the counsel of someone who had “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” and I agreed with him. On both points – he needed a founder’s perspective, and that I’m not one – at least not a successful one!
So what gives me the right to claim I can help startups – to advise founders? Can I really help with something I’ve never done?
At first glance the idea someone can’t help with something they have no direct experience of is attractive – it seems to make sense. That doesn’t stop it from being demonstrably untrue!
The first astronaut had no experienced astronaut to train or advise him, but he couldn’t have succeeded without an without an army of experts in relevant fields including physicists, physiologists, physical trainers and theoreticians. Startup founders are no different – they regularly need advice from accountants, lawyers and other domain experts that have never built a startup themselves. The key is that all of these non-direct-experienced advisors bring other things to the party in the place of direct experience.
Here’s what I think I bring to the startups I work with.
Founding a startup is a series of struggles, and often the way forward is unclear. Even when the need is clear, some tasks are so big and scary they are hard to get stuck into –like “finding a market”. I have personal strengths that ideally suit me to helping in such situations:
- I am great at understanding complex situations and extracting the key issues in order to simplify them and make them manageable.
- I am good at breaking down big scary tasks into simple actions that will help move things on.
- I am naturally action oriented, so I’m not afraid to take on those actions and get stuck in.
- I am an excellent communicator and translator between groups of people with different perspectives and jargon such as founders, customers and investors.
- Taken a startup to £750k annual revenue as part of a management team of two
- Led a management team from almost nothing to having equity investment and two customers in the sector’s global top-10 list
- Been a member of boards of companies that have raised in excess of £3 million in finance
- Written business plans and presentations that have raised well over £1m
- Built my own successful consultancy, working closely with about 10 startups (plus universities, Scottish Enterprise and LINC) over 4 years
- Hired technical staff, sales people and a CEO, developed people in their roles, and dealt with un-hiring when it didn’t work out
- Consulted for global companies on strategic issues including building incubators and selecting spin-outs
- Led development and delivery of software, consumer products and microchips
- Founded two startups which have failed
These are just some of the things I have done which I think have given me a rich set of indirect experience to bring to startups, and to support founders in similar situations. Many of these things I have done as part of teams and of course they were a team effort, but I’m only listing things where I was a key part of the management, decision making and negotiation (otherwise I could add two successful IPOs and an acquisition to the list!).
I was a Saltire Fellow in 2009 when I had the privilege of spending 4 months at Babson College – consistently #1 in the world for entrepreneurial business education. As well as theoretical learning, the Fellowship includes supported placements in global companies and continuing education through the Alumni programs. I have attended other courses including developing new business, solution selling and market identification. I attend many events and seminars each year to keep current and continue my education. I also read widely, both print and online, and sometimes my work can be an education in itself – for example working on Scottish Enterprise’s review of the risk capital market, and working with LINC Scotland on various projects.
I am not naïve enough to believe that I have all the answers – there is plenty I don’t know and plenty of experience I don’t have. Thanks to a network of contacts, I can usually find people to help fill these gaps. Whether we need to recruit, solve an obscure technical problem or learn about a market, I can usually help find someone with the answers.
Something I try to do with every company I work with is build a board with the experience and expertise to keep us on track – either as an advisory board or a board of directors depending on the situation.
Qualified to help? Yes – at least that’s what my colleagues say!
I think the combination of my mindset, experience, education and networks can be valuable to startups and the people I work with seem to agree. Almost all the work I do is either repeat business or comes from referral. There is no endorsement I’d rather have.