Monthly Archives: February 2011

Know your team… your future is in their hands!

Creating a great team is probably the biggest challenge for any entrepreneur. Getting a A-Teamgroup of people who are entrepreneurial enough to make the business grow yet can work in the same direction over a long period of time and withstand individual and collective knocks along the way is not straightforward by any measure. I don’t claim to have the answers on this but I do expect to get into some of the details of how to build a fantastic team over time with the blog.

So having a great team is a lot about knowing them, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how they fit in and what motivates them. A few years back, Harry Harpur suggested an approach to this that we use from time to time. Basically this involves deciding how best to describe the members of your team as follows:

Prisoner – these people are trapped working in your start-up. They are only here because of the pay cheque or because they are scared to leave. They hate their job and are a potentially poisonous influence on the rest of the team. They are also making themselves miserable and need some help, maybe to get out of where they are right now.

Passenger – these people are capable of a lot but for some reason aren’t delivering. They might be in their comfort zone or else they are too lazy to contribute what they can. There can be a number of reasons why people are passengers and while you can’t afford to carry anyone in a start-up, there is a chance that passengers can be re-engaged and add value.

Protester – a protestor is never happy, always questioning and regularly disagrees. My view is that having a few protesters in the team is a positive thing and avoids the dreaded ‘group think’. Where protesters start to really hurt you is when you’ve made the decision, listened to the possible risks and downsides and made a call on how to proceed and the guys are still whinging. There is simply not enough time for that in a start-up.

Player – these are the guys you need and the secret to making your team and your company a success. Players are highly motivated, hard working and self directed. They buy into the vision and know what they have to do to get there. You’ll probably have a lot of these in the early days and the trick is to a) keep them as players and avoid them burning out or getting bored and b) avoid losing them to a competitor or their own start-up. Your players may not be your most senior or experienced people. Cultivating rising stars who can be your players is really rewarding as well as sound business.

So what do you do with this? My suggestion is to plot this on a graph and decide what it says about your organisation. You’ll see one we did a while back at Learning Pool above. I think this shows a pretty good picture with a bit of work to do in certain areas.

Graph

It’s really likely you’ll have some people who are ‘near the line’. These guys are usually easy to talk to – just ask them why they are not on the other side of it and mostly they’ll figure it out themselves. If you’ve identified prisoners you should deal with this first, regardless of how much you don’t want to or how hard it’ll be. With the players – I suggest you do 2 things 1) look after them as much as you can (albeit with limited resources) and 2) stretch them as far as you can – they can do more, and the business will benefit as a result.

A career in IT… is it really a good idea?

University of Ulster - MageeI talked to some students at University of Ulster last week about life in the IT industry. To be honest it got me thinking about whether or not this was a good industry to work in or not… here’s a summary of what I said:

Working in the ICT sector is a great career choice for a few reasons:

  1. Its exciting and gives you the ability to be right at the cutting edge of changing how people’s behaviour, and subsequently their lives can change.
  2. There are real employment prospects and that’s unlikely to change soon.
  3. There are literally no limits to what you can achieve. If you want to create a global phenomenon from your dorm room you can… you don’t even need to be that charismatic!
  4. Your skills are transferable to any country and any technology. This is useful because the technology you may end up making a living from probably doesn’t exist yet.

For me, the future of the web is ‘probably’:

  1. Mobile – we’ve just passed the point where there are more mobile phones than people on the planet. All that kit needs content and technology to keep it fun.
  2. Social – facebook and twitter are not fads but there is plenty of room for the ‘next big thing’. Social networking phenomena have shown time and again that the can scale globally in next to no time so this continues to be an exciting space to be in.
  3. 3D – admittedly I know very little about this but it stands to sense, just from acquisitions and investment in the technology that this will be big… presumably after the bandwidth issues get sorted out.
  4. Open – the days of proprietary software are ‘probably’ over. All the big global brands focus more on eyeballs and revenue rather than protecting their IP so as a career move, open source looks like a good horse to back.

So if you are a graduate or someone who expects to get a job in IT in the next few years, how do you go about it?:

  1. Be seen – get a blog and consider this a better alternative to your CV. Promote your work on there and on industry forums and sites so that people will get to know you or be able to find out about your work and you with a quick search.
  2. Be clean – just remember what goes on tour ends up on facebook and employers look at it. While someone like me won’t care and may even use it as a reason for entertainment at interview, other employers could take a dim view of you running around in your underpants on the internet!
  3. Be open – you will not end up as a digital animator straight out of school. Take a job that will lead to a better one and work hard as hell to get the next better role.
  4. Be free – don’t rule out that dream job just because you have to do it for free for a couple of months.
  5. Be flexible – your first, second or third jobs may not be close to where you want to live. You’ve entered a truly global economy… use it.

Bottom line for me is that ICT, whatever its form, is a great place to work. Where else can you get the opportunity to develop products that be sold internationally minutes after you’ve built them or where your company can grow astronomically and you can grow with it if you’ve got the strength to keep up?

The cost of free money

Free MoneyWhen you’re starting up your new business, there are real temptations to go after government grants and other types of support so that you can get the business to the next level, build a new product or just plain survive. There are loads of people around who will tell you that this is a bad idea, that you shouldn’t do it and that you’d be better off focusing on revenue. While I agree with most of that, I thought I’d write down a few of my experiences of the real cost of this kind of support for your early stage company:

Bureaucracy – chances are if you are an entrepreneur filling out forms will be something that you both hate and are crap at. This will really count against you when it comes to securing grants.

Time – there is no getting away from it: entering into a relationship with your RDA or equivalent will take ages, you’ll need to meet them plenty of times and work very hard to make them understand your business. They’ll also ask endless questions that you will think are unreasonable and often stupid. Whether they are or not is irrelevant – you’ll need to stay up all night answering them.

Delays – my general rule of thumb is that things with an RDA take about twice as long as you (and they) think it will. These delays can be the thing that will kill you in the end. If you are relying on a grant to be approved you probably won’t be able to spend money in the meantime. Imagine someone got to market before you did because you didn’t spend that money quick enough?

Rejection – the likelihood is that you’ll be turned down for any type of meaningful support from your investment agency first time round. There are lots of reasons for this and only some of them will be related to you: They won’t understand your business; they’ll think you are unrealistic about your forecasts; you can’t prove that your market exists or will behave like you think it will; they won’t believe in you as a person or your team as a team; they don’t have any money (this one is getting more popular).

Cash-flow – cash is unbelievably hard to a) come by and b) forecast when you are getting started. Relying on cash-flow from a government agency is a pretty awful idea as they will inevitably not pay your claim when you think they will for a fairly unending list of reasons. If you are early stage company the chances are you’ll be getting grants from your RDA. This means that they can only pay retrospectively against money you have actually spent – they sometimes pay 40-50% of what you’ve spent. As a result you’ll need to a) have the money to spend, b) spend it in a way that complies with your letter of offer and c) wait until they process the claim until you see your money back. None of this will help your cash-flow in any way!

Claims – this is the part of the process that I hate most. Claiming the money once its been approved is a cumbersome, time consuming and pedantic endeavour.  In fact its so time consuming that you’ll often have to resubmit because the claim forms have changed and the rules are different (my record for this is 4 submissions and 14 months.. no kidding). When you get a bit bigger you can weigh up the cost of paying someone to do this as a major part of their job… although that’s not something I’ve ever been able to justify.

Cost – claiming support isn’t free. You’ll have to spend money in a number of ways – getting someone to write your business plan for you in a language that the agency (not you) will understand, paying an auditor to inspect your claims before they go in (normally for claims where the spend is over £10K) are just 2 of the ways that free becomes ‘not so much’.

Apart from all that, grants aren’t that bad… seriously, don’t rule it out!

What makes a truly great software developer?

Geek PictureIf you’ve got a start-up these days there’s a better than average chance that you’ll need to hire a software developers and more than likely, a small army of them. Hiring great software developers can really make your business scale, can be an inspiration to work with and let crazy entrepreneurial ideas become realities that generate revenue. Hiring bad developers is probably the biggest mistake you can make and will, quite literally, cost you a fortune. Here are some features that I look out for in software developers (in no particular order):

  1. Discipline and focus – developers need to be able to stay calm and get through their workload in the midst of a bit of start-up chaos and a hectic atmosphere. My advice is to get yourself  developers that are more interested in writing code than in participating in the start-up ‘debate’.
  2. Understanding of the business and what its trying to achieve is absolutely key. If you’ve got developers who understand where the business is going and where they fit into how you’re going to get there keep them
  3. Great developers can think like a user and design products that people will actually be able to use. Thought through to its logical conclusion, this will massively help sales (people buy shiny stuff), reduce customer support (if people can work it out they won’t need to call you except to buy more stuff) and create ‘customer delight’… which is what all start-ups are after
  4. Great communicators – developers have a reputation for being ‘brilliant but weird’. In my experience this is a good description of bad developers. Great developers have the ability to talk to your sales team, your  support team, your customers (radical I know) in a way that is constructive, professional and effective
  5. They’ve got to be a team player – this one is sort of essential for everyone you employ but developers sometimes get away with being mavericks. Hiring developers that can’t work in the team is pretty much always a mistake. We’re all in this together after all
  6. Attention to detail is an absolutely fundamental trait and you need to figure out a way of finding this trait at hiring time. I’ll write another blog about this later but as a general rule, get them to fix some code, or write some code and find the mistakes
  7. Developers should be geeky… but in a controllable way! Excessive geeks are distracting, confusing, ineffective and a bit too weird for my liking. Good geeks love the technology, are curious as hell but know where all of this fits
  8. Mark who runs the software team at Learning Pool looks for a bit of a competitive edge in his team. This one can be a bit hard to control but in general, he’s right (about most things!) and having a team that are keen to show that they’ve done something better, more efficiently or nicer than its been done before is a great thing. Just stop it before they start punching each other to decide who’s hardest!
  9. Developers need to be reliable, as in, they need to come in every day and stay until the job is finished or the release is live as well as being low maintenance. The days of 30 page specification documents, flowcharts and test scripts are over. Great developers are tuned into what the customer needs and can produce
  10. Developers need to love problems. Most people hate problems but developers need to be the contradiction. The lions share of a developer’s time is spent fixing stuff and they don’t get to go to the back of the book to see the model answer (which is what I did when I was ‘learning’ Java!). Great developers also get job satisfaction about fixing something that’s broken or doing something that can’t be done.

Have to start somewhere!

So after a long delay and a lot of pontificating I’ve finally gotten round to writing my first post.
Journey Start

Idiot Entrepreneur started as a bit of a joke a while back but the more I thought about it, the more think it kind of works. Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t really require any qualifications, experience or even talent. Indeed, you could argue that any of these traits is a mitigating factor against setting up a business… you really would need to be an idiot to do it!

I’m going to experiment with this blog for a few months as a way of sharing my experiences of being an entrepreneur over the last 6 years. You can decide if I’m really an idiot or not. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback and comments, whether they are good or bad… you know what to do!