Realising aspirations over a weekend

Take fortyish enthusiastic people (including my wife); mix with a fun, energetic innovation process and add a sprinkling of coffee and beers…

And breathe! Most of my Monday (that’s Monday 28th April 2014) was spent mentally recovering from the brilliant, hectic, creative and positive Teach First Innovation weekend at the Watershed in Bristol. Thanks once again to the Teach First Innovation team who put it on!

The aim of the weekend was to develop ideas that help young people realise their aspirations, especially for those from low-income areas. This is something close to my heart. Some of you might know that I’m working on an idea for getting children more engaged with the things in life that they are passionate about (much more on my own idea at a later date, watch this space!).

The aim of this post is more to describe my personal journey through this weekend rather than to take you through the details of the process and the individual activities. I’m sure that Lucy or someone on the Teach First Innovation team can help you with the latter if you want to know more (and you should find out more as it was both beautifully constructed and very engaging).

Friday

Friday night was about better understanding the problem. We were presented with case studies of children thinking about their life decisions and raft of (beautifully hand-drawn) evidence on what was blocking aspirations. One key source of information presented was the work carried out by McKinsey on going from Education to Employment, which is worth checking out.

Those of you that know me well will know that I obviously could not take the assumptions of what aspirations are as a given. A lot of my time that first night was thus taken up discussing the nature of aspirations and what makes an aspiration “valid”.

It’s an interesting question – why do we generally believe that working and living off government payments is not a valid aspiration? Why is dealing cocaine not a valid aspiration? Is being a stay-at-home parent a valid aspiration? Why do we typically focus on high-flying economic success over happiness? Who am I to tell you that your aspiration is not a valid one?

After getting tied up in a meandering discussion with many people covering a spicy mix of philosophy, politics, economics, sociology etc (of which I’ll spare you the details), the hypothesis that I formed after listening to a mix of voices was that there were three factors which were the roots of what most people would call a valid aspiration:

  1. An aspiration should be based on something that an individual believes in
  2. An aspiration should not directly lead to negative impacts for others
  3. An aspiration needs to be, at a minimum, not be a financial burden on society

I have no idea if this is at all valid, but I think it is at least an interesting basis for starting a discussion around the nature of what we do and why we do it. I’m really interested in talking more about this with people – please get in touch if you feel the same!

Despite my love of philosophising, we swiftly had to move on to getting to the practical heart of the problem. To me, the problem seemed to be divided into two parts:

  1. What do I want to do with my life? Children often do not know what their aspirations are and, even worse, what the broad scope of their achievable aspirations could be (i.e. they have no visibility over the range of things that they could potentially do with their lives)
  2. What’s the next steps towards getting there? Even when they do have some idea of what they want to do, they do not know the path to reach their goals or do not have the skills to be able to do so, and they also have limited guidance or support to help them on their way

I decided that I wanted look at how we can develop ideas that solve the problem of a lack of role models and mentors. Why this? It was because I believe that having people in our lives that act as role models or mentors can help us tackle both parts of the problem above: they provide the spark for aspirations but also the guidance and support on how to reach them. If we could think of something that worked well in this space, the impact could be both deep and broad.

I decided not to work on my own idea over this weekend for two main reasons:

  • My idea is focused on the “intrinsic” side of things – providing children with the tools and mindsets to pursue their ideas further. Role models, I believe, are the other side of this coin – part of the “extrinsic” support network that is critical to further the personal growth. I thought this weekend would be a useful window of time to engage with parts of the problem that my idea is not being designed to tackle, and to see how it all fits together.
  • I wanted to engage fully with the process that the Teach First team had put in place. My idea has been developing on and off for a few months now and by working on this idea over this weekend, I believe I would not have made the most of various activities, which were about generating and refining ideas.

A great team formed around the problem of role models, and we started discussing the issues. And you know what that meant – a lot of deep conversation (I live for this stuff!). What do role models really mean? Are the role models that young people have today the right role models?

An evening in the pub ended the day, with a relatively early bedtime looking forward to a long Saturday ahead!

Saturday

Back in the room and ideas started to flow. After we were put in the mood, we were asked to think of as many ideas as possible to solve the issue we had chosen to tackle without thinking about why the ideas might not work. The rest of my team had some great ideas, and we also realised the problem was a broad one, and there were many things to solve.

One of the things we did was to divide up the world of role models / mentors into three groups, as per the diagram and table below

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic 1

 

Role model / mentor group Description Key benefit that this group potentially has Problems to address with this group
Immediate influences
  • People who have regular contact with a child, and that the child admires and / or respects the opinion of
  • Examples include parents, relatives, teachers, sports coaches etc.
  • High degree of influence and regular contact
  • Are there any good role models in this group for that child?
  • Do they have the skills to properly support the child?
Local role models
  • People whose achievements a child admires and can see a clear connection with (e.g. from the same area / school, some other more distant relationship)
  • Examples could include local artists / musicians, professionals etc.
  • Child can clearly see a path for himself / herself in this person

 

  • Is there enough understanding of success for a child to pick local role models?
  • Can a child contact / connect with this person easily to be able to learn more?
High profile role models
  • People who are usually famous for their achievements, typically nationally or internationally
  • Examples could be authors, musicians, sports stars, politicians etc that are regularly featured in the media
  • Provide aspiration at the highest level 
  • Can we broaden the exposure to high profile success beyond the usual media-saturated individuals?
  • Can the success be demystified to allow the child to see the path they took?

This is a first cut and probably needs refinement, but we felt it created a framework that allowed us to really identify tangible problems that we could create solutions for.

Another team (Eunice, Hassan and John) decided to focus on an idea that gamified the experiences of famous role models to make their life stories and experiences much more digestible for children. John is also already working on an idea to capture stories of local heroes and make them searchable and “crowdsourcable” (if that’s not a word it should be). A really cool idea that I think they might end up spending some time on and I hope they do.

Our team (Gini, Josi, Rose, Joel and myself) decided to focus on seeing if we could somehow improve the immediate influences around a child. This idea started life during the rapid-fire ideas part of the day (I think it came from Gini), and it was great to see its progress over the weekend. Our area of focus was this: When some children have a spark of aspiration, they do not know what to do about it and do not have the support network around them to help encourage them to explore their aspirations further. We wanted to improve a child’s immediate influences.

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic 2

We went back and forth on the values of mentoring, but we realised that often a child’s immediate influences lacked anyone that could act as a true mentor (i.e. someone with sufficient information to be able to point a child in the right direction or make the right connections).

We then thought about coaching, which does not require domain specific knowledge but is typically based on the ability to ask encouraging questions to provide direction and encouragement. I personally know several successful people (including CEOs and startup founders amongst others) who use coaches. High quality leadership training programmes, like Teach First and On Purpose, also often provide coaches. We believed that coaching would allow (at least some) young people to be able to start focusing on what was possible and how to get there.

The idealistic, very unrealistic goal would be to provide professional coaching for each child.

The solution that we came up with that could be feasible in terms of resources was called Aspirations Academy.

We targeted at Year 9 students – we believed that this was just before they have to start making some of the significant choices that will affect their future. We looked back at our own experiences from school and we believed that it would have been helpful to have a guide at that point in our lives.

Aspirations Academy’s formal programme is structured as follows:

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic3

Sep – Dec of Year 9: Each child would pick someone in his or her life that they felt cared about them and was a positive influence to be their guide. If they could not think of anyone then we would find them one from a pool of volunteers.

Jan – Feb of Year 9: We would then provide training on coaching skills to both the child and their chosen guide – both would be equipped to have better discussions. The training would be done in two groups, one of children and the other with the guides.

Mar – Jun of Year 9: After the training is complete, we would run three fully facilitated and supported workshops where the child and the guide would work with professional coaches to talk through future life choices. These training sessions would be clearly structured and focus on self-reflection, exploring aspirations and setting SMART goals that could be followed up on. The end of the last session would form a coaching plan between the guide and the child for the next six months, determined by the child, his or her guide and the professional coaches supporting the workshops. Every child will have different responses to coaching and will need varying levels of support, so we wanted to be non-prescriptive in our approach.

Jun of Year 9 – Nov of Year 10: We would follow up and make sure that the plans decided in the final session we acted upon, and help solve any issues. We would provide remote professional coaching support to the guides if they have any questions.

Nov of Year 10: We would run a workshop with the children to see what they have got out of coaching and provide them with support in any work experience applications or other areas that they might find useful.

Our formal relationship would end in Nov of Year 10 but we hoped that the coaching relationships would continue long after.

We liked the idea because:

  • It tackled a specific issue of children who have aspiration but lack the support help them figure out the right path
  • It tried to utilise a potentially untapped resource – people close to the children already – by upskilling them; this makes the whole concept scalable
  • The fact that the guides were people close to the child and invested in their futures meant that this could be the start of a long-term relationship with (hopefully) positive results for both sides
  • The coaching skills that the children and guides receive could have a “ripple effect” in the communities with which they live, if they apply the techniques to other people in their lives. We were making the world more self-reflective, and that could only be a good thing

A nice cold beer (again) followed a long day, as well as four amazing leaders of social businesses presenting at what was, I am told, known as a “cock-up club” – each of them described various mistakes they had made and what they learnt from them. Amusing tales with practical lessons for us all. Thanks again Alex, Charlie, Jamie and Sam.

Sunday

The final day. The morning was spent putting together the pitch documents, all very good fun but not too much to really write about except that I think we worked quite well as a team and Josi and Rose especially took the bull by the horns and got things done – really impressive work.

Sunday afternoon was spent by each of the teams pitching their ideas to a group of “dragons” – well-respected individuals from education and social enterprise. The pitch was 4 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions and with the Teach First team having a very draconian approach to time! There was a really great energy in the room and all the teams had interesting ideas, most of which had sprung up in discussion over this weekend.

Our idea was relatively well thought through and our pitch was well structured and delivered with clarity, but I personally feel it could have been a bit sharper overall:

  • The judges questions about our idea not sparking aspirations suggests that we should have explained the problem that we were addressing with more clarity
  • We should have spent more time focusing on what coaching skills are and why anyone can improve on their coaching skills without “content” knowledge
  • We should have focused more on the untapped resource, the long term relationships and the community “ripple effect” that this idea could lead to; we got stuck on trying to focus on tangible impacts rather than talking big picture impact – and if I genuinely believe that if we got this plan right it might have both broad and deep improvement for the children, guides and society at large
  • We had some clear views on how much the project might cost, but I think we needed further clarity on where the money might come from to pay for it
  • We could have had a bit more of the “wow” factor of some of the other great pitches – we missed the impact of ripping paper, role-playing etc!

This is not taking anything away from what I believe was high quality work from our team – it was a great combined effort to get to where we did. It is just my reflection on where we might have polished up if we had a bit more time, resource and that beautiful thing known as hindsight.

The three fantastic ideas that attracted the dragons’ attention and deservedly won the prizes were:

  • A programme of cross-curriculum learning opportunities for students with the aim of building and tracking skills development
  • A new approach to providing A level students with a wide range of work experience and project-based learning opportunities alongside mentoring (the team that my wife was on)
  • A method to embed a growth mindset (as described by Dweck) in schools via student ambassadors – this project is especially exciting as it is ready to start a pilot, with a member of the team having a mandate to do exactly this kind of thing

It seems like at least two of these winning ideas are going to explored further with support from Teach First, co.create and others – a great outcome from the event and best of luck to the teams as they progress! In addition, many of the other ideas are going to be taken further too, and I wish everyone the best of luck as they progress and I’m happy to help where I can – just get in touch!

And that was that. A few hours later we were on our train back to London. My wife and I both finished up tired but energised, positive and ready to change the world!

Conclusions

I personally got everything I was looking for from this weekend:

  • Meet people who are passionate about new ways of thinking about education in its broadest sense
  • Engage with the process and learn new ways of thinking about problems
  • Get some feedback and thoughts on my idea from those involved in educating young people today
  • Learn more about Teach First, especially their role in education innovation

If there was one thing I would take away from the whole weekend, it is this: There is currently a space for ideas that focus on the problem of building aspirations in children and giving them the tools and mindsets to be able to realise these aspirations. Watch this space, as my take on how this might be possible is coming very soon.

Finally, if you have the time and have any interest in education then get yourself to one of these Teach First weekends. If you couldn’t tell from the above then let me say again that I really, really liked it. And, amazingly, it was FREE!

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any thoughts on aspirations? Role models? Coaching as a tool for children? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

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My business “super” models #1 – HUKD: A good deal better

This is a first in what I hope might become a series of posts about interesting business models that I observe, providing my unique brand of uninformed strategic commentary. I hope you like them!

Note these posts are about the quality of the business model and not the technical details pertaining to product itself.

Image for HUKD post

We all like a bargain (especially in these difficult economic times), and us Shahs are known amongst the Indian community for liking that great deal more than most. Thus, a site like hotukdeals.com (henceforth referred to as HUKD) is a natural hunting ground, allowing us to find everything from TVs to frozen pizzas to shoes at a deep discount to retail price. As soon as I realise I need to buy something substantial it is this site, and not Amazon, that is my first port of call.

The rest of this post outlines what makes HUKD’s business model so great and why I use it all the time for buying useful stuff, but also a lot of crap that I don’t need but is cheap (especially painful now I have given up a regular income!).

How does HUKD work?

The core of HUKD is a forum where any member can post great deals, vouchers or freebies (henceforth collectively referred to as “deals”) that they find for any product or service, online or offline. These deals can then be rated by other members of the forum as either “hot” or “cold” which either adds or subtracts from that deal’s “heat score”. The forums can be browsed or searched by anyone who is looking to make a purchase of anything to see if there are any good deals on the product they are looking for. Simple, but effective!

How does HUKD make money?

To directly quote the “About HUKD” page: “The site is funded by using commission links on merchants where HUKD receives a commission if a product is purchased” – basically the site is one big fat affiliate marketer. Yes, the very same business you saw in all of those books, blogs and manuals telling you how easy it is to make millions from the internet but you knew were basically bullshit, but HUKD have actually done it well!

How big is HUKD?

The current user count is over 800K individuals who have generated over 1.3M threads and 15M posts between them. Annual revenues are not published but estimates I’ve seen put them at around £10M per annum.

Who owns HUKD?

The business was founded by Paul and Jen Nikkel*, who also founded Quidco, the UK’s largest cashback business. The business is now part of the Tipping Canoe group of businesses, a collection of global businesses trying to save consumers money.

Who are the competitors?

I haven’t come across any direct competitors (please let me know if you know of anyone) but there are lots of businesses in the game of offering deals and discounts to consumers and trying to save them money. Martin Lewis’s old joint moneysavingexpert.com (now part of moneysupermarket.com), the daily deals sites (Groupon, Living Social etc) and price comparison engines like pricerunner.co.uk and the businesses represented the stupid meerkat / fat opera singer (I can’t even bring myself to link to the businesses, I hate the adverts so much) are all sort of in the space but each have a slightly different take on savings to HUKD. What HUKD does better than all of them is to get users to generate content and form a community.

What’s so great about the HUKD business model?

I believe the secret sauce behind HUKD is that it treats itself as a community builder and not a sales machine. The mission clearly appears to be to provide a platform for its members to share great deals, and it has put in place all the apparatus required for this to happen:

  • First and foremost, the approach of HUKD is, on the whole, unbiased and neutral. HUKD itself does not appear to take a view on any deal shared by the community and does not appear to actively promote any deal over another. Instead, it relies solely on the community to make judgements on what deals are. This is important as not every deal shared on the site makes HUKD money (as many companies may not be involved with affiliate marketing) but it makes the site the first resource for bargain hunters like me! As a result, unlike deal sites like Groupon and other price comparison sites, HUKD feels like your friendly uncle offering you advice on where you can get things you actually want cheaper, rather than trying to flog you stuff that you don’t need.
  • The rules of the site are simple and clear: Anyone can join and post; No self-promotion; and that’s about it.
  • There is active participation of moderators on the site, who get involved in discussions and effectively enforce the rules. In addition there are forums for discussion and feedback which again are well maintained and regularly answered.
  • The user experience (UX), whilst not being the prettiest I’ve ever seen, is impressive in its functionality and ease of use. A lot of thought has gone into how users interact with the site and as a result it is so simple for people, including tech newbies like me, to post and rate deals and it is really clear which deals are better than others. The deal search capability is effective and the structure of the site allows you to easily browse “hot” deals or simply look at the newest stuff being posted.
  • Gamification, gamification, gamification! HUKD has used gamification better than almost any other business that I know of. The deal rating system in itself is somewhat competitive, with users fighting for kudos for finding the best deals. In addition to this there are gradated badges for contribution across elements of deal posting, commenting and vote casting. What I like is that the gamification elements are not intrusive to the experience of using the site but do provide encouragement to increase participation.
  • An open API, which allows developers to build widgets and apps using the site’s data, which has resulted in unofficial apps for WP7 and 8 amongst other things.

All of the above results in a strong, highly active and evangelical user community (including myself!). I wish I had access to the analytics, but I think what you’ll find is a business with lots of repeat custom, a very low churn rate and steady growth in users. Given that virtually all of the content is user generated, you’d have to agree that this is a great business model all round.

What I believe HUKD could do to improve:

Phew, after all that evangelising finally a chance to vent! In all honesty I was struggling with ways to improve this business model much so I’m open to suggestions as to how it can be done better, but this is what I’ve come up with so far. These are my own thoughts and it is more than likely that the management of HUKD have thought of all of these and rubbished them with good reason, but some areas for improvement are:

Think of combining the HUKD business model with that of Quidco, founded by the same people as HUKD. Quidco’s main functionality to share affiliate rewards with customers – i.e. if you buy a product by clicking on a Quidco link you will get some share of the rewards that is paid to Quidco paid back to you – explained much better here. Now, the owners of HUKD actually make much more money if people use HUKD to make purchases rather than Quidco as they do not need to share the revenues. However, in almost every HUKD deal there is always discussion around how much cashback you can receive if you use Quidco (or TCB, a competitor) and the hard core savers (like my cousin Paras) will always use HUKD as a resource and usually make the purchase via Quidco or TCB, leaving the owners of HUKD with lower (or no) revenues. To reduce this risk, there may be some way to allow users to combine their Quidco and HUKD accounts to simplify the buying process for these hard core users. In addition, you end up with a very strong business proposition – one which finds the best deals in the market and then offers you a further cashback on the purchases!

Clear the confusion over what makes a good deal! The perennial argument on the comments sections of HUKD is that of conceptually defining what a good deal is. There are broadly two schools of thought: (i) The “discount” school, which basically says that a deal is a deal when it is the cheapest price for that particular item (i.e. if a MacBook Air was discounted by 2% at a certain retailer, but still costing £1,000); and (ii) the “frugal” school which define a deal by more broadly comparing it to similar items in the market (i.e. a 2% cheaper MacBook Air may not be considered a deal as other laptops with similar technical specs are half the price). I’m going to put my head on the line and say I’m from the “discount” school, but my point is that the comments sections would be much more useful if we were all singing off the same hymn sheet. Maybe the blurred lines are what HUKD want (allowing the community to sort it out) but maybe some indicator of the type of deal it was might be useful.

Be more transparent. I believe that HUKD is a great business, but we know very little about its owners and what they are up to. Of course this does not detract from what they have created but it’s always nice to put a face to a business, and these guys should be role models in terms of community creation.

That’s my take on HUKD, a business that works because it’s a community first and a sales channel second. It comes from being a user (not an insider); just to be clear, I’m not in any way affiliated with the business.

As ever, I would love your thoughts (though you have been rather sparse) including criticism! Is there anything I’ve missed? Is there anything HUKD could be doing better? Are you a happy HUKD customer?

In general I will aim to write about the business models that excite me personally. However, if there are any businesses out there that you absolutely LOVE and think I should write about please get in touch. I’m going to apply the HUKD rule and not accept self-promotion, so not your own business please!

* Jen Nikkel definitely involved in Quidco, unsure about HUKD

Michel de Montaigne, the original blogger

“There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.” ― Michel de Montaigne

“One of the world’s greatest, oddest and most personal books” ― Alain de Botton

I recently began to reread Essays by Michel de Montaigne*, a book that reignited my curiosity when I first read it a few years ago. The Essays are a sixteenth century series of reflections across a range of subjects, a book whose iconic status lies at least as much in the style and approach of the author as its substance; Montaigne is often credited with inventing the essay form of writing, but the exciting thing about his work is how much you learn about Montaigne himself – the silhouette of his personality is sharply visible not only from the content of what he says but, more impressively, by his manner of articulation.

Let’s make one thing clear: His “essays” are not the typical sanitised, mark-seeking vessels currently spewed out by students all over the world (including myself back in the day). Montaigne considered the Essays as a form of introspection; a way to explore and test his deepest assumptions. By publishing them, he created a kind of autobiography that no longer exists: an autobiography which does not try to cover up flaws of personality; an autobiography which does not retrofit a desired caricature of oneself after the fact but ends up being a brutally honest account of who he was.

The Essays cover a broad range of subjects (a full list can be found here) including science, politics, philosophy and social convention amongst others but what makes Montaigne different is the personal and often intimate observations he scatters through his work. Almost nothing is free from introspection: interspersed with commentary on education, friendship and Seneca are comments on the regularity of his bowel movements, his lack of memory and his views on his penis to name but a few examples. However, let’s focus not on the content itself but the style of writing and the man himself for the lessons I take from this impressive work from one of my favourite writers.

Image for Montaigne post

These lessons are wide-ranging and I believe they apply as much to life as a whole as any specific area.  That said, I believe there is a lot for me to learn from the way that Montaigne writes for my own blogging and my approach to startup, specifically around how I build relationships with readers and customers respectively. Whilst I’ve tried to distil my learnings below, I strongly recommend you read the book and take the full class yourself!

Be personal and transparent…

Admittedly, it helps a little that he is a thoroughly likable dude but I believe it is the fact that we get to know Montaigne as a person through his words that really endears him to us, much like the great characters from literary fiction. Through the prose we get a feel for Montaigne’s opinions – we get see his likes (e.g. friendship: “of a perfect society friendship is the peak”) and dislikes (e.g. ego: “… to have a too good an opinion of our own worth… is an unthinking affection with which we flatter ourselves”).

Contrast this with corporate blogs today that are tasked with building a brand “personality” but often appear to forget that true character and a compelling story require more than a perfect version of what you want to be. The lack of vulnerability and quirks around this perfect set of core values result in these blogs often feeling stale, one dimensional and, at worst, unreadable in the long run.

Alas, all is not lost; often behind the sheen of “professionalism” is a real, living, breathing company that is actually interesting – so write about that! An (undeniably extreme) example of getting personal with a business blog is Buffer’s offering and, whilst it might get a touch more personal than where larger corporates can be, I think it provides some general sense of direction on where things could and should go.

The same applies to personal blogging. In the startup world there are more personal bloggers than you can shake a stick at, but the best blogs are those which share personal experiences alongside providing insight. A personal favourite of mine is Andy Dunn of Bonobos on medium.com – see his post on the risk not taken for a particularly great example.

Personality is of course also a key tool in marketing and building brands. But surely a strong brand personality isn’t one that needs to hide behind celebrity endorsements that have nothing to do with the business they are in (I’m looking at you Accenture / Woods or you Gillette / Federer + Henry + Woods**) or a “fun” but very false story about how the product is made (see Twix left bar / right bar for a recent example). A strong brand personality, I believe, is one that is a result of a personification of the product itself and the people / processes involved in its production, like that of Zappos or Patagonia.

I’m trying to keep true to myself. Before I published my post on Passion Capital I got some feedback that I should cut out the suggestions I put in for improvement to their approach lest it annoy them but I decided to keep them in. In general, however, a look back at my previous few posts clearly demonstrates to me how tentative my writing was – it could definitely do with a dose more of my personality and that’s something I’ll try to deliver going forward.

… but not egotistical

To paraphrase the man himself, “even on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom”.

Although Montaigne writes about himself, his motivations are not the narcissism or ego-fuelled endeavours of many of today’s selfies (lamentably something that I’m at least partially guilty of myself on Facebook – my traveling photos are up there to share with friends and family but also (at least at some level) because I want people to know I’m the kind of cool guy that goes traveling).

His motives are precisely the opposite: Montaigne writes because of how ordinary he believes he is and tells people not to bother reading his book (“I am the subject of the book… there is no reason you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject”)! Of course you could argue, perhaps with some justification, that there is some ulterior motive but his style throughout is humble – as JM Cohen put it in the introduction of Penguin translation, Montaigne comes across as “modest, truthful and unprejudiced… [with] a sound knowledge of his own limitations ”

The point is this – writing about oneself does not need to be an exercise in narcissism. It can be a reflection of the good and the bad of who you are. This is also important for corporate / startup blogs and marketing campaigns – again, a “look how great we are” exercise will inevitably turn customers off in the long run and likely lead you to over-promise and under-deliver rather than the other way round.

For me personally, taking the ego out of writing is bliss. It means I can write to learn. I can write to see how I can improve my thinking. I’m new to blogging (and to writing more generally) so I’m in the process of building my skills and style and, frankly, up until now I’ve been shit scared about what people think about how I write and what I choose to write about. The biggest lesson I draw from Montaigne is that as long as I write honestly and write for myself, what you people think is an ancillary benefit – the real reward should be what I learn about myself: “I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself”.

Take time to reflect

In an age where the world moves as quickly as it does, many feel the need to share their thoughts as soon as they arrive in their heads, as if there’s some sort of one-in-one-out door policy on their brain – a process that, if we are honest, can often lead to banality. I believe that Montaigne effectively combines spontaneity with deep reflection in many areas and it is this that allows his thoughts to endure and remain relevant more than four hundred years on.

To put it into the context of writing, we live in a world where there are many things competing for the attention of readers which in turn makes (forces?) us try to be the first out there to respond and report, often with the most shocking headline. However, I believe a considered view delivered later can pack more of a punch, and is the mark of a heavyweight. Taking an example from my past, an equity analyst who races to be the first to report on results of a company may get a conversation with the hedge fund manager, but the analyst who will win more business over the longer term is the one who delivers the best insight. Admittedly, we also live in a world where short termism often trumps the long game, but this is a different post for a different day.

In life I’m as guilty as anyone (probably more so) of an instinctive reaction to a situation and, though this is fine, I’ve often found that with hindsight my initial action was not the correct course of action. At the moment I’ve not come into a situation with my writing where being fast is important but I hope that if and when I do, I can keep calm and take a step back to deliver the right message – something I will definitely be keeping in mind.

Treat your readers (customers) with respect

A good piece of writing takes you on a journey. A great piece of writing takes you on a journey and makes you feel like you’ve learnt things you never expected to learn. Montaigne’s style and deference to his readers means that you float along with his thought processes but there are often moments, turns of phrase, that make you stop and think. This works because he treats readers with respect – he assumes intelligence but does not make his language complex (ok, aside from the slew of Latin quotes) which makes you want to come back for more.

Where this point about respect gets really interesting for me is when you start looking at business models. There are many examples of businesses that either forget or intentionally ignore the intelligence of their customers. Some examples that spring to mind are:

  • Daily deals and other discounting businesses which show the percentage saved against some pie-in-the-sky rrp rather than the price on amazon or (even better) the cheapest available price for the same item on the web. People can do a quick google search!
  • The myriad of products making health claims that make a nice headline but ultimately don’t stack up.
  • Sofa and clothing companies that offer perpetual sales. First-time viewers of the advertising of these businesses may be amazed by prices but in the long run people will readjust the price point in their head.

Again a theme of long term vs. short term emerges, and I get the impression that the above businesses are playing more of a short term game.

I truly believe that the companies and organisations which treat their customers with respect will ultimately flourish over a longer period of time; some examples of great companies and organisation I’ve personally thought treat customers well include:

  • Zappos (in the US) (again). Admittedly not a revelatory example but a 365 day, no quibble returns policy means that customers are treated like adults rather than criminals. Add this to customer service well ahead of anything else typically seen and you get the unreal customer loyalty numbers that Zappos sees. Of course you and I know that there is more to the Zappos business model than this (e.g. top notch employee relationships and supply chain management) but customer respect is the heartbeat of the business
  • HUKD, a company that makes its money from affiliate links but still allows its members to mention quidco and other cashback sites. I always click on the links on HUKD and not the cashback links because I believe HUKD provides a valuable service. Blog post on this great business model to come soon.
  • The BBC, which publishes articles and programs critical of the BBC. At best they can be considered to maintain journalistic integrity, at worst it can be seen as a cynical act as they know that these criticisms will be published elsewhere in any case; either way they are better off being self-critical!

Don’t get me wrong, you can no doubt make great money by building a customer relationship without respect at the core, but you cannot build a great business. The time constrained world we live in means that there will always be consumers that cannot test the voracity of your claims and therefore deliver opportunities – it’s just they won’t come back when they feel the lack of respect. This may be fine for you if you aren’t expecting repeat business, for example street hawkers who target tourists.

What treating customers with respect delivers is a great business;  you build a real relationship with your customers where you look for repeat custom and, ultimately, brand evangelism! To do this one needs to take a longer term perspective on the economics, but I believe the result is a more robust business in the long run.

In terms of my personal writing style, I know it needs a lot of work and I really welcome any feedback on this. I think my audience needs to judge whether I get anywhere close to the lofty standards of balancing intelligence with complexity like Montaigne (I suspect I’ve got a long way to go). When I decide on which startup idea to pursue I hope I do build a model that is built on mutual respect with my customers.

 

I’m about 100 pages in on my re-read of Essays and am thoroughly enjoying it and picking up on things I never did the first time. I discovered Montaigne via Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, which is also a great book and worth a read. Finally, thanks to GoodReads for helping me with some of the Montaigne quotes in this piece.

As ever, please let me know your thoughts. What are your thoughts on the Essays? Are there other similar writers you think I’d enjoy?

* Full disclosure: this is an amazon affiliate link so if you click on it and purchase the book I’ll make about 15 pence – affiliate links were something that I needed to test for a recent course completed on Digital Marketing – I hope @howardvk will give me some much needed bonus points for this! The book is actually available for free online so I don’t advise you to buy it in any case

** Just two particularly memorable drops in an ocean of marketing mediocrity. Sorry to pick on you specifically.

A real Passion? I think so

Over the years I’ve met a number of the VC players in Europe and most of the meetings had one of two “vibes”: either wannabe private equity (suits, ties etc) or wannabe startup but generally without any startup experience. Last week I was lucky enough to meet Passion Capital and the “vibe” felt different – a shift in approach looking to better align the interests of founders and investors, with all the founders having operational experience. If you are a startup founder looking for early-stage funding then, in my opinion, these guys should be close to the top of your list.

Some facts

Passion Capital raised £37.5M in 2011, with £25M coming from the UK government (conceptually I like this – I might write a full post on this at some point). It has made 34 relatively early-stage investments to date, and aim to make roughly one investment a month for the next 18-24 months. That makes about 50 investments for the whole fund which, at an average of about £200k per investment, means a total of about £10M first round investments will be made (by my calculations) – which leaves a nice sized pot for follow-ons in the more successful ventures. For further details about the fund click here.

The range of investments so far is mind boggling: real-time analytics; an online car magazine; a wannabe PayPal killer; a Facebook-integrated app that lets women rate men; cameras that let you record your life; business due diligence tools; I could go on, but I won’t and the full list is available here, but I  hope you get the picture – what Passion Capital say they all have in common is a high quality team.

The three founders have entrepreneurial experience (for further details click here), which seems to have made sure that they have founder interests in mind and have put in place a model that minimises potential conflict of interest.

What makes Passion Capital different?

In a previous post I looked at some of the recent discussion around what makes a great VC investor – let’s see how Passion Capital stacks up:

What a good VC provides How Passion Capital stack up
Access to game-changing contacts and opportunities
  • The fact that the fund is so new as well as me being an outsider makes this hard to judge. A CEO of one of the Passion-backed companies told me that he “was able to scale in a way he never thought possible”, which is a positive sign.
Willingness to help (sleeves rolled up etc) when you need it, but standing back and letting you do your thing in the main
  • Bringing many of the companies under one roof in White Bear Yard (WBY) can only be a good thing as it allows startups to collaborate. The full-time associate and constant stream of interns also rove between companies as and when they are required by the teams, which teams have found useful.
  • In addition to this I like that Passion capital does not indulge in PR , letting the effort of partners and portfolio companies speak for itself. In a world where image is becoming centre-stage to the detriment of real content this is refreshing and, as a trend, let us hope it continues.
Fast decision making, but knowing you and your product
  • Decision making is seriously fast at Passion Capital, who have recognised this issue and aim to take less than six weeks from meeting founders to cash being  wired – the shortest time has been two weeks (I’ve known VC guys who take longer than that to decide on what to have for lunch!).
  • One small concern here is around the sheer number of investments made to date – which is many more than typical – might have some impact on the long term attention that can be paid to any one investment. This could be a concern, particularly for LPs.
  • That said, Passion Capital appear switched on – a portfolio company founder said that “Eileen had been tracking his company over a number of months” before he was approached by her – and she understood the product inside out.
Treating you and your team with respect
  • One thing I like about Passion Capital here is the high level of transparency in the way they work – which other VC fund publishes founder salaries? Which other VC publishes it’s term sheet?
  • In addition to this, all the partners have founded (successful) businesses before so really understand the pains of being an entrepreneur and how it all works.
  • Most importantly – everyone is so approachable. No airs or graces and open plan working makes for a great atmosphere at WBY.
  • One of the founders said that Passion Capital didn’t “oversell” during the onboarding process; like all great businesses they undersold and over-delivered.
Track record of performance (to some extent
  • That all the partners have strong records as tech investors and, first and foremost, as entrepreneurs meant Passion Capital quickly established itself as an influential player.
  • The office hours concept instigated by Passion Capital and the sheer volume of VC attendance points to a fund that is well-connected and has all the potential to deliver in the coming years – though the model is new and there is definitely some risk.

The Passion Capital model is, I believe, paving a way for a new approach to VC which many rejuvenate what many think is a tired, broken industry. Many others (for example, Connect Ventures) are treading a similar path and this can only be a good thing for the state of early stage funding in London and Europe.

Great, really great… but always room for improvement: what I would change if I ran Passion Capital

Let me make this clear up front: this is my opinion only, based on my limited knowledge and my own twisted set of values – and indeed it is highly likely that Passion Capital has made considered decisions across each of these areas that I have no idea about – they have what they have in place because it makes sense for them.

That said, the things that I would change about the business as it stands today are to:

  • Make values you clear as they are awesome. Passion Capital is a clear step away from the old model of VC funds. Many people on the inside know this, and more and more are discovering it (like me). However, for those fresh to the industry the distinct proposition is only hinted at on the website. I know you are aiming to let your results speak for themselves but I don’t think a radical shift in approach or bragging is required – simply state what you do because what you do is great
  • Think about hiring another associate – your success will bring more and more work! From what I can tell Passion Capital’s workload is large and, though the quality of the team is great, the high-touch approach to supporting the portfolio means that people’s time can be relatively stretched. This may mean that the firm misses out on potential opportunities and also could add to the great support it gives entrepreneurs
  • Keep building centres of excellence. The founders I have spoken to say one of the real value-adds in London is White Bear Yard; this VC fund “accelerator-style” type proposition is very exciting and much appreciated by those lucky enough to be based there, fostering collaboration and helping all the companies involved to grow. This model could be replicated in other markets, particularly where Passion Capital might have clusters of investments – something to think about over the longer term.
  • Build a backbone of startup shared services for your portfolio (which then could be leveraged as a business in its own right?!). All startups need lawyers, accountants and other such services to get going. The community at White Bear Yard (WBY) and is provided with ad hoc help with a lot of this stuff (which of course needs to be done but doesn’t add real value to the product) by the Passion Capital team. It feels like there might be an opportunity to put in place a suite of services that portfolios companies can access at relatively low cost to put the right foundations in place and allow the teams to do what they do best – building products and businesses. This will be hard to do but, you never know, this “startup toolkit” model may become a business in its own right (this may exist already; admittedly I haven’t looked hard enough for it)!
  • Consider the social values of portfolio companies. I know Passion Capital back people and not ideas but, in my humble opinion, some weight could be given to the “social” value of the idea of the business – Passion Capital does not need to save the world but it should not invest in companies with a potentially negative social impact. Let’s be clear: this is not an issue with the vast majority of the portfolio; there is, however, one idea that I believe sits in a moral grey area. This is as much a business point around long term reputational risk as it is an ethical one, which I believe especially important for a VC fund not engaging PR firms and that has a large share of its backing from the UK government.

These are all very small and very manageable changes to a very strong approach – and as I mentioned previously Passion Capital no doubt have good reasons for doing what they already do or they may even be implementing some of these changes.

All in all, Passion Capital is without doubt the one of most exciting VC investors I have met in Europe, and I hope that they succeed in bringing a new way of working across the industry.

This post was written after speaking to key members of the Passion Capital team (not the partners) and several founders of Passion Capital companies. As I get more au fait with startup world I’m beginning to see more and more nuance and that’s what I hope to share with you.

Thanks for reading and please let me know your thoughts. Are there any other VC funds in Europe with a novel approach? Are there any you believe are better than Passion Capital? 

Why VC is like marriage: Five things to consider when bringing a VC investor on board

You’re a founder of a startup. You’ve built a crazy product and are now ready for some funding – time to schmooze the VCs, but which ones do you pick? Easy – the same things you look for when you look for someone to marry. Of course the relationship doesn’t last as long, but the long term nature means the same nurturing is important.

What do you want from that life partner? Being pretty and having money is great, but the relationship needs to go deeper for real success and the same is true of your VC investor.

Image for VC post

Not all VC firms are created equal, especially on what they offer in addition to money and a pretty face. In his open letter to Dumb VCs, Andy Dunn provided a sort of checklist of issues startup founders should look out for. This initial list has been subject to both praise and rebuttals  across the blogosphere – and by analysing this (very interesting) discussion I have come to the conclusion that a good VC investor combines the following five things:

1. Access to game-changing contacts and opportunities

The world is fast evolving, with more new business launches as the cost of set up falls, entrepreneurship spreads through the world and clone factories quickly exploit new opportunities, building a viable (tech) business with long term trajectory is getting harder than ever.

This means that the most important reason to choose a VC is the network they have and the ability to make the right connections for your business – and get you to scale quickly. This ability varies significantly across VCs, and you should give up more equity if you believe there is greater growth potential.

[Life partner analogy – someone who helps you grow spiritually]

2. Willingness to help (sleeves rolled up etc) when you need it, but standing back and letting you do your thing in the main

Andy asserts that “good VCs” stand back and let startups get on with their thing. I generally buy this, but the best VC funds realise when you need help and are available to give you the right level of support. The founder of any startup is not going to be all knowing, and the best VCs will provide coaching, guidance and hands on deck as and when required.

Mark Suster provides some prominent examples of help received by famous founders. Speaking to various startup founders in London I know generally like their VC investors and many provide a range of support that they have found useful:

  • Roving interns that work across the portfolio to pick up slack
  • A “sounding board” for product ideas
  • Recruiting key team members

See FFVC’s TOPSCAN list and others who have built on this for more comprehensive thoughts on the kinds of help you can and should expect from your VC (including the network mentioned in point 1 above).

[Life partner analogy – someone who is laid back most of the time back has your back when times get tough]

3. Fast decision making, but knowing you and your product

One of the biggest problems that many entrepreneurs have with the investment process is how long it takes – days can quickly turn into weeks, weeks into months. This is a big deal – startup founders often have pressing cash flow needs and a longer decision making process means these issues only get worse.

Given the skew of startup returns (see halfway down the page), a longer due diligence process may be understandable, but as a startup founder make sure that you are not led down the garden path for too long and understand any reasons for delays.

On the other hand, you want a startup founder that understands you, your team and your product. Early on, your VC investor should know what you do and understand your product – I’m fully with Andy on this one.

[Life partner analogy – someone who doesn’t leave you hanging]

4. Treating you and your team with respect

Arrogance isn’t attractive. Don’t get me wrong, arrogance can lead to short term infatuation, but it is humility that results in love and marriage!

Your VC investor should respect you (not least because you will hopefully be making them a lot of money).

Your VC investor should be straight with you about what they can and can’t give you and about what they think of you. Transparency and trust is critical to a long and fruitful working relationship

Most of all, your VC investor should want to work with you no matter how active a relationship you choose to have with them.

[Life partner analogy – pretty obvious: trust, respect, honesty]

5. Track record of performance (to some extent)

Duh, of course you should work with VCs who have had successful exits right? Generally right, but with nuance.

As with any other industry, there are brand names out there in the VC space. You know the names,  the so-called “2%” who have been there and done that and just the cachet of their name being associated with your company can open up doors (in terms of talent, exits and a whole host of other things).

However, it should be noted in general that bigger VC funds typically have weaker performance  and the old adage from financial markets holds true: past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

Andy refers to successful exits and this is where I think it’s a bit murkier. The world is moving quickly (especially here in London) with new VC and angel funds popping up on a regular basis and, putting it simply, everyone needs to start somewhere.  When picking a VC look at the track record of the fund but also pay careful attention to the track record of the individuals, and not only from an investment perspective but also what else they have done that could aid your cause.

[Life partner analogy –someone whose previous partners you admire…  ok, it wears a little thin here but you get the picture!]

 

I’ve chosen to write about VC as I’ve met a few VC investors recently as well as guys who have just closed funding, and at the same time I read Andy Dunn’s post – it really got me thinking about what I’d want from any investor interested in my startup.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m here to learn. If you’re a venture-backed startup founder, what did you look for before you took on the money? If you’re a VC guy, what else do you offer in addition to the above?

 

Hello all and welcome to musings of an untrained mind

I’m Amit. As an ex-strategy consultant (from London) I hope this blog will be robustly structured, MECE and have a lot of bullet points. As a wannabe startup founder I hope this blog will be full of terms like “lean”, “MVP” and “pivot” and probably reflect some extreme highs (“woo hoo, we got some funding…”) and lows (“…but we blew it all on fancy chairs and ping pong tables”). Finally, as someone who always wants to learn I hope this blog will highlight my childlike wonder juxtaposed with a healthy dose of cynicism.

A bit about me… out of the comfort zone and into the fire

Life flow diagram

In April 2013 I quit corporate life after 10 years working for investment banks and strategy consulting firms. Up until then I think I led a life of relative comfort, structure and a relatively linear journey. A-Levels picked before I finished GCSEs, university chosen and accepted before A-Levels finished, investment banking job secured before finishing a degree and every job after that in place before I left the previous one. However something did not feel right. I was not building anything, operating in a narrow circle and sometimes doing things I fundamentally disagreed with.

I’m leaving behind this life to explore. I want to meet inspiring people, discover fresh ideas and, most importantly, try to find a new life which reflects my values whilst providing a decent living.

Why startup? I have ideas, I believe I have (at least some of) the skills to execute on these ideas and I want to build something from scratch. As a consultant you spend your life telling clients what they should be doing, but never seeing things through. If I am completely honest I also have the startup bug that seems to be going round London these days – it may be a bit of a bubble, but what a great bubble it is!

Over the last few years I have developed a passion for social entrepreneurship and business models that have more to them than a purely profit-driven motive. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people who are looking to change the world by applying business techniques to social problems and I am totally inspired. So for me this is a dual journey of finding a startup idea that I love and can follow through with and making the world a better place, ideally both at the same time.

A few personal bits:

  • I recently got married, which is one of the best decisions that I ever made. If you’re with the right person and thinking about it, don’t, just do it!
  • I’ve been lucky enough to spend time traveling all over the world, be it backpacking for 8 months, holidays and weddings, or with work. This has provided fun times, great experiences and friends, and what I hope is a relatively open perspective
  • Sports: basically everything except cricket – still try and play soccer once a week
  • Music: everything except heavy metal, though a soft spot for conscious hip-hop (think Akala, Talib Kweli, Saul Williams amongst others)
  • Books: A mix – currently loving the Mughals (Akbar, what a dude!)

This blog

I’m on what is the most uncertain and therefore most interesting journey of my life so far, so I thought I’d take a bit of time to document it. What I hope to do with this blog is:

  1. Share and discuss some of the interesting ideas and topical issues I come across
  2. Provide some perspectives around startup life from both a personal and professional perspective
  3. Showcase some of the useful tools, resources and processes that I find (and use myself) and the cool organisations and I come across

In all honesty this blog is as much for me as it is for anyone else – however if you do give me the pleasure of your time you’ll quickly come to know that I don’t have all the answers – in fact I don’t have many. But I hope that my (what will, without any question, be an uncertain and bumpy) journey can provide some me with lessons that I hope to share with you.