I just read a review of a new Wiley book Design a better business which argues that: better businesses are ones that approach problems in a new, systematic way, focusing more...

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Uncertainty: startups’ unfair advantage and more...

Uncertainty: startups’ unfair advantage

I just read a review of a new Wiley book Design a better business which argues that:

better businesses are ones that approach problems in a new, systematic way, focusing more on doing rather than on planning and prediction

For them, of course, the point is that design thinking is that ‘new, systematic way’, but this sentence made me think of startups, where the emphasis is very much on doing rather than planning. Since Eric Ries wrote The Lean Startup in 2011 smart founders have understood that the best way to progress is to get onto the ‘build-measure-learn’ loop and iterate to success. That’s doing rather than planning.

Whilst doing rather than planning has been a hugely successful tactic for entrepreneurs and their investors, before I go any further I want to note that as with everything you can take it too far. To get the best chance of achieving huge success, and avoid getting stuck at a local maxima, a certain amount of thinking should be done before building starts. There’s a balance to be struck and whilst best practice is definitely to maintain a bias towards action in our experience an increasing number of f0unders are starting to build product before they’ve done enough thinking, sometimes encouraged by investors who want to play with product before they invest. Many of these founders end up failing when with a little more customer research they might have built a slightly different product which would have resonated much better and allowed them to iterate to success.

The reason that Design a better business advocates doing rather than planning is that the world is becoming increasingly uncertain. Consumer habits, technologies, and other trends are uprooting once-thriving businesses and disrupting entire markets with an ever increasing cadence. In this environment every year gets more difficult for those who like to plan, whilst it gets easier for those with a bias to action.

The increasing engagement of big business engagement with the startup ecosystem through accelerator programmes, incubators and acqui-hires is a reaction to this trend. However, these small-scale programmes don’t solve the fundamental challenge of every business leader, which is deciding which actions to endorse. At good startups it’s easy (or easier..), all action is directed towards achieving their vision. Larger companies have a much more difficult challenge. They need to launch new products, attack new markets, or take radical steps to defend existing revenues, they can only put significant resources behind a small number of projects, and anything that won’t reach the scale to impact their financial statements isn’t worth doing. Historically planning has been the tool they used to figure out which projects have the best chance of moving the needle for them, but as planning is becoming less effective they have increasingly less confidence that putting resources to work will generate the scale of returns required.

That’s a problem startups don’t have. At least not to the same degree. Most founders want their companies to be huge successes, but if it turns out to be a medium sized success that’s still a worthwhile endeavour. A business that grows to £10m in revenues over five years and sells for 1-3x that amount can still be a life changing event. For large companies that’s not the case. If a £200m turnover business goes after a new market and it only adds £10m to the top-line after five years the project will not have been worth the effort.

 

This is one of the reasons why companies are increasingly buying back shares instead of re-investing profits.

In summary, increasing uncertainty is an unfair advantage for startups. And it’s an advantage that gets stronger every year.

      


Retail foot traffic is dropping like a stone

When I read in David Kelnar’s ‘Respect your elders’ and five other powerful trends shaping consumer retail that in the US retailers suffered a 48% decline in shop visits between 2010 and 2013 I did a massive double take.

If that rate of decline has been continuing visits this year will be roughly 75% down on 2010. Physical retail is a high fixed cost business and given that it’s fair to say sales correlate with footfall these levels of decline will put many retailers out of business.

So I double checked the statistic, and the original source was a solid PWC report, and this report has found a similar trend in grocery retail.

The upshot can only be that the growth of online sales will accelerate. As per the PWC report the main reason that people shop online is for better prices and the more sales that go online the more they online retailers will be able to discount, whilst physical retail is suffering the reverse logic and can only get more expensive. The main reason people shop offline is to be able to see and touch product and to try it on, and those factors aren’t going away. So we’re not looking at the end of physical retail, but we are looking at some pretty dramatic changes.

In most scenarios I’m a fan of creative destruction, but this decline in retail traffic is exceptionally fast and I worry that the adjustment period will be rough, especially for some of the more vulnerable portions of society.

      


The learning and growth trade off

I’ve finally got round to reading Andy Grove‘s High Output Management, widely regarded as a classic on management that was originally published in 1983. The Foreword to the latest edition is written by Ben Horowitz of A16Z fame and includes the following paragraph:
As he describes the planning process Andy sums up his essential point with this eloquent nugget of wisdom: “I have seen far too many people who upon recognising today’s gap try very hard to determine what action has to be taken to close it. But today’s gap represents a failure of planning sometime in the past.” Hopefully, the value of this insight is not lost on the young reader. If you only understand one thing about building products, you must understand that energy put in at the beginning of the process pays off tenfold and energy put in at the end of the program pays off negative tenfold.
Ben’s point is that investing time in proper planning pays huge dividends when building products. In practice that means not simply growing as fast as possible, but taking time out from focusing on growth to find and iron out issues that might slow growth in the future. In startups that entails diverting resources to learn from customers, learn from data (including building the tooling to extract data), and to think deeply about product.
Finding the right trade off between growth and learning isn’t easy and is a debate we come back to time and time again at Forward Partners in the context of individual partner companies we are working with. There’s no universally applicable answer, but here are some guidelines from our experience:
  • Growth is the biggest driver of value. Once revenues are established, then maintaining some level of growth is hugely important. If you’re not growing investors will assume that’s because you can’t grow.
  • If you have venture scale ambitions in your first year but have less than 20% month on month growth, picking up the pace should be the priority.
  • Once there’s enough growth to hit the milestones needed for the next round then you have the luxury of diverting resources to learning.
  • In a high growth scenario, tell-tale signs like falling conversion, worsening engagement and increasing churn are signs that the trade off between growth and learning is too skewed towards growth.

It’s more common to see founders insufficiently focused on growth than it is to see them insufficiently focused on learning, but we definitely see both.

      


How we can find our ‘flow’

the-flow-channel

‘Flow’ is the almost magical state of extreme creativity and productivity. Most often associated with artists and developers, but I believe applies to a lesser extent to all of us.

What follows is an extract from How anyone can enter flow state for maximum focus. I wanted to get these tips for enabling ‘flow’ down in one place that I can refer back to.

If you want more detail on what ‘flow’ is from a neurological perspective or much more detail and colour on the subject generally then please read the article above. It’s good. The most important point for me is that the more people work in a flow state, the more productive and happy they are.

These tips work for individuals and managers.

  • Find work that is in the ‘flow channel’ – flow only comes after a struggle with a difficult task, so the work should be stretching enough that it’s genuinely challenging, but not so difficult that it  creates fear that ultimately blocks creativity. This is a matter of balance – some boring work is inevitable in all day to day roles, but too much creates disengagement.
  • Create the right environment – all necessary tools and information should be at hand, to minimise distractions and excuses for not focusing on the task in question.
  • Remove distractions – Slack, emails, team meetings, colleagues wanting a quick chat and a cluttered desk all detract from focus, making it harder to enter flow state. Again, this is a matter of balance, but eliminating necessary distractions and giving people long periods of uninterrupted time will help. Permitting people to say ‘don’t interrupt me now’ is a good trick, maybe just by wearing headphones.
  • Break difficult tasks into smaller chunks; my dad used to love the following joke: Q. “How do you eat an elephant?” A. “One steak at a time”. Now that’s chunking! It’s an old productivity hack, but very relevant here because it helps break through the struggle.

 

      


Sports fans, founders and the psychology they share

I just read an old post by Nir Eyal about The psychology of sports: How sports affect your brain. Nir makes the point that our obsession with sports is weird. Writing at the time of the 2012 London Olympics he said:

“This week, fans packed stadiums in London wearing their nation’s colors like rebels ready for battle in Mel Gibson’s army. They screamed with excitement and anguished in defeat. Many paid thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to be there.

Among those who did not attend, 90% of people with access to a television tuned-in during past Olympics. In 2008, that was 2 out of every 3 people on the planet.

What the hell is going on here? How do sports engage, delight, and motivate people to put their lives on hold and become totally engrossed in watching other people play games?”

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples of sports fandom producing highly unusual behaviour too. The one that leaps immediately to mind for me is the tens of thousands of Chelsea FC fans who descend on London’s Fulham Road for every home game, wearing team colours and singing songs that we wouldn’t dream of singing anywhere else (I have a Chelsea season ticket).

Why do people do this?

Nir says it’s because the combination of hope and variable rewards is a dizzyingly powerful cocktail for the brain. We all know that hope sells and is a powerful motivator, and as Nir has been saying for some years variable rewards are addictive because they kick the brain’s dopamine system into high gear. That’s why people play slot and fruit machines for so long.

Entrepreneurship is the same.

Except 10x.

The hope is much greater. The promise of changing the world and making millions of dollars is way more exciting than winning a football game. And the variation in rewards is much greater too. I’ve felt the highs and lows of football fandom, waking up the morning after a game instantly excited or groaning depending on what happened the day before, but that’s nothing compared to the euphoria that comes when a startup is doing well or the gut wrenching stress when it isn’t.

This psychology also explains why it’s so important for entrepreneurs to remain positive. If the hope goes, the motivation goes too, and then it’s a downward spiral. When things don’t go according to plan, balancing the need for positivity with the need for realism is one of the most difficult tasks founders face.

      


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