Toolkit for building the future: Notes from a start-up coach

First published on: Upstart Advice

We are starting to see glimpses of a future of robots, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, mapped genomes and drones. Yet, this future doesn’t appear ready-made – it is often seeded in labs and then gradually finds its way to market. Over the next 6 weeks I am working with some of the world’s smartest future-creators, post-graduate students from Imperial College Enterprise Lab in London, on a coaching programme to move their early-stage ideas toward creating viable businesses.

This series explores some of the common issues that these nascent start-ups face. I’m sharing perspectives, tools and resources to help these innovators, and others, make the future, better. I’m also hoping that others (that’s you!) will send in their comments, ideas and resources towards all co-creating a shared pool of support.

Week 1: Who cares?

It is easy to get excited about the broad potential of an idea, to speak of the sexy algorithms and smart thinking that underpin it – to forget that at its basis as a business it will need to solve a problem for someone.   Four ways to do this:

  • Shift from technology to solution: People buy solutions that match their needs – not technology. They want cooked dinner – not renewable energy, inventory mapping – not a drone, cleaner surgeries – not a robot, etc. To find your solution, determine what need you are addressing for a customer. You can ask yourself “what is the pain point you are removing / opportunity that you are unlocking?” This identifies value and is the foundation of your offer.  It is a good time to understand how else that need is currently met or can be met.  It is no use when addressing mobility to design a Ferrari when only a skateboard is required!
  •  Bridge today into the future: In early stage, futuristic businesses it is often very hard to pin down one specific client type. Yet, doing this allows entrepreneurs to create something that is practical, valuable – and can get investment. This might change over time as technological solutions are disproven or the market shifts – but it provides a practical stake in the ground and a common vision to design toward. A practical way to do this is to decide criteria on what makes a market ‘great’ for you. This may include value of a solution (e.g. fish is a higher value product than milk to keep fresh), accessibilfuture-1ity of potential client (i.e. what relationships already exist), specific regulatory / cultural conditions (e.g. does a solution need to meet onerous conditions), etc. Map out current solution pathways against these and choose 2-3 focus markets to test/develop towards. This will allow you to have a coherent conversation with potential funders, partners and trial clients around your offer. Where possible create a development path that keeps the solution open across markets i.e. could be easily switched from one to another, as you learn more.
  • Know how it could work: Value isn’t just measured in the direct exchange of cash – but also in things like contribution to status, hassle factor and timing. It is important to understand the degree of change you are asking for from a customer as uptake for significant change will be slower. This included the full ‘ask’ of them personally and the organisational context for implementation. It helps to understand the broader ‘system’ that any new idea will need to operate in. To do this, create a map of the existing process that is used to fulfill a specific need and ufuturo-cionderstand how your solution will need to integrate into existing processes/structures (or be clear how it will shift them). How would this affect existing jobs? Who would commission it? Who would operate it? What specialised skills would be required? From here think through how to make your solution ‘fit’ with the existing status quo – and if it can’t, how to bridge the gap through smart partnering with pioneering organisations that are upsetting the current model towards ‘market-making’. Ask what you need to de-risk it through the process for those involved and how you could ‘fake’ parts of the process to keep it low cost while you’re developing the full solution.
  • Get real: Once you can answer ‘who cares’ – start exploring your assumptions by speaking to possible customers and partners. Often it is useful at this stage to have a basic prototype to show them how it could work. This could be a simple mock-up on PowerPoint, a 3d-model, a short film or even a ‘fake’ newspaper article. Provide customers with enough that they are inspired by your vision and trust your credibility that allows them to challenge your assumptions and improve your thinking. But provide them with answers that are incomplete to support their longer-term engagement.

 Helpful resources:

Often the focus is so much on the content of the business that we forget the most important success factor – the individuals involved. Next week’s blog will focus on the role of team and individual vision towards success.


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