When Constraints Embrace You

Turns out I had mononucleosis over a year ago, and not only did I not know, the lack of recovery time has slowly eroded my immune system and given me the low-energy experience of someone much older. Now that I'm diagnosed and getting better, I feel this has been a warning about ambition and life balance. You know the parable of the frog allowing itself to be boiled, only because the temperature is increased so slowly? I feel like I've been given a thermometer. When you're young, old people tell you not to take your health and energy for granted…

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Craft

From the new Founder Centric blog: You may have heard of Jiro Ono. For those of you who haven’t, Jiro is one of the best sushi chefs in Japan. It is considered one of the greatest honours to work with him. Only those who have the utmost devotion to becoming a sushi chef receive a place as his apprentice. The first ten years of an apprenticeship with Jiro is spent exclusively on rice. That’s right, those little grains can take up to a decade to master. Once you’ve worked with Jiro for ten years however, you can…

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Village Accelerator - the story so far

Ten months ago, I shared an idea -- what if, as the Internet arrives in developing economies around the world, we could empower local people to be tech founders, with all the modern techniques we know in accelerators and education? "An accelerator for the world's poorest." That post kicked off interest from corners of the world I'd never considered! I learned from loads of interesting people. Here are just a few: A Ghanaian incubator/post-graduate programme that's had world-class results. For example, a team of founders whose first time on a plane was flying from Accra to San Francisco on…

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Using business model design to raise more for charity

I used to have heavy metal hair. Then I shaved my head for charity. I didn't have any organised campaign to back me, so relied on some newly learned skills in business model innovation instead! I ended up raising 6 times my target. I'll explain how. Now, Macmillan, the Cancer charity, is running a head-shaving campaign, Shave or Style, so I thought I'd share my lessons learned since I think we can unlock more donations. The general fundraising model is to commit to some crazy, difficult act, whether that's shaving your head, running 10k or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a…

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The unique advantages of living in Sofia

Originally posted at entrepreneur.bg, and based on my talk at Eleven's Demo Day. How To Make The Most Of Sofia - Eleven Demo Day from Founder-Centric I first came to Bulgaria 3 years ago, and moved here from London about 6 months ago. My work has taken me into accelerators across Europe and startup communities from San Francisco to Singapore. So, a lot of people ask what in the world I’m doing here! My honest answers are often rejected… The unbelievable truth I love the lifestyle and the food – skara barbeques, caviar with rocket, bumping into friends on…

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No more hubs: startup community is P2P

Startup capitals are an out-dated concept. Global startup culture is becoming more networked and less top-down. The fastest-growing startup communities aren't trying to be the best-in-region or playing a zero-sum game, they're embracing the connections to other places. At a global level, our community behaviour is peer-to-peer. Centralisation is becoming a liability; rivalries get in the way far too often. Valleylust There's a lot we can learn and take from Silicon Valley's example, but this is more often a distraction from building on our own strengths and on our own terms. Our Valleylust is often misplaced. Silicon Valley has a…

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Entrepreneurs are like fish

While I was in Hong Kong last year, I got a beautiful gift that had deep symbolism: a small fish sculpture on a necklace. What I was told stuck with me. It rings true from my experience: Entrepreneurs are like fish. They seem to weave from side to side, but they're propelling themselves forward. They find the invisible currents, the path of least resistance. And they always carry a surplus. My weaving path, course-corrections, experiments and forays have often moved me forward in unpredictable ways. Like a lot of founders I know, I try to be attuned to trends and…

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Ecosystems grow around stumps

The good thing about stumps - there's always a way around them. Leancamp and Founder Centric have taken me to loads of flourishing, little startup communities around the world, and I've seen a bit of discouragement because of so-called local leaders. Like a rotting treestump in the forest, they've established themselves from a past leadership position, still get all the attention, but get in the way of progress. In London and many other cities where I've helped start a Leancamp, I've hit stumps too. Stumps are the people talking about your startup community to outsiders, but arrogant and unavailable to…

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The Data Always Says Yes

Our ability to spot opportunities is limited by our intentions, even when we're trying to be scientific. Not my business model More than a few years ago, a friend of mine posted his startup idea on Reddit, looked to see who engaged, and found that the idea resonated with Indians for some reason. He concluded that it wasn't a good fit, since his financial model required a higher price point than the Indian market could afford. He was looking for signals from Western markets. You might have noticed that things in India changed pretty quickly! His assumptions about his target…

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Expanding through partnerships

Bulgarian startups, like those in many other European countries, continually face a problem: growing beyond our local markets. I find too many of my friends in hustling hard for potentially Zombie startups. All that hard work, but not a lot of progress in the numbers that truly move them forward. On the other hand, there are clear strengths here in Bugaria; companies that have grown globally, and investors building broad networks. So I asked them. Vessy Tesheva from Telerik shared her approach with me: "Partnerships mean each company can act proactively on the others' behalf. This takes trust, which comes…

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Lean Information - how to choose the right tool for the information you need.

Excited to run this workshop with Spencer Turner of Neo tomorrow! A crowd-sourced day of hands-on techniques to design your business around your unknowns, with Sal Virani (@saintsal) Partner at Foundercentric and Spencer Turner (@spencerturner) Principal at Neo. We often get distracted by learning new tools, and lose sight of when each is actually useful. In an up-beat and conversational worshop, we'll focus on startups and projects that need to find traction. We'll start by asking each participant what challenges they have. We'll work through some hands-on exercises and activities, giving you real experience with the tools - so you…

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The Immediate Response Fallacy

Why a lot of startup experiments mislead us into believing customers don’t care. Some things take time to brew. A good experimenter knows that, and doesn’t draw false conclusions when there are no immediate results. A few examples Two years ago, I created Tweetable Text, a simple Wordpress plugin that makes individual sentences in your blog post tweetable. The vision was a better way for good ideas to spread, and the minimum success criteria was a handful of installs in a few weeks. I got none, so I moved on. Recently I googled for it, and found that…

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Mastery

Seems we're getting rusty with technique, instead letting ourselves get caught up in process and tools. It's pretty tough to get a startup right without certain skills: understanding customers, building and responding quickly, and making frequent decisions with imperfect information. Mistaking new tools for progress I once spoke to a startup that had switched from a design technique using sticky notes to a pre-printed dashboard. The design technique was for finding patterns across multiple customer interviews. The dashboard was for plotting the number of experiments that had been run. Not the same purpose, so why make the switch? Well, since…

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Accelerator Design - 5 Questions That Define Success

The accelerator business is moving fast, and everyone is figuring it out as we go. Accelerators are quickly becoming more diverse, the contexts accelerators operate within are changing quickly, so a look at the model of your programme can add value quickly. When I sit down with directors to help design their program, here are the questions I regularly ask: What does accelerated mean for your teams? From the founders perspective, what goal or milestone can we make happen sooner? The standard accelerator model takes the onward funding round as that goal - bringing it to 3-months instead of 12…

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Two accelerator design approaches I admire

I've worked with 20 accelerators over the last year and I've noticed two approaches I admire, Just Do It and Challenge The Model. Just Do It, then Iterate (JDII) Whether starting an accelerator for a region, or a particular vertical, or a type of founder, these accelerator directors simply hit the ground running, with a view that the important changes will come from experience after the first cohort. They generally stick to the standard 3 months, with round-robin mentoring, and a demo day at the end. What they discover, other than general structural improvements to the program, are who and…

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Small town advantages for startups

We often don't think of small towns as advantageous for starting up. Big startup cities offer peer support, team-building and investment opportunities. Often, we get distracted by this, and lose sight of the information we need to progress our business. We forget that at an early stage, it's our job to go get that information so we can make better decisions, faster. Go to where the information is Big cities have high-density industries and communities, so if your target customers are there, you can learn and develop your business quickly, with constant and broad customer feedback. But if you have…

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A startup accelerator for the world’s poorest

There's an opportunity emerging that I'm compelled to explore, and I've written about it on Medium. If kids in poor Ethiopian villages can teach themselves to hack a tablet in 4 months, it makes sense to support them like we do in Western startup accelerators. With mobile adoption in Asia and Africa, the timing is right. With the economic trends working in their favour, they are investible. I want to do this, and I need your help. Read the full post on medium.com and please join the discussion on Hacker News.…

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Can Creatives be "accelerated?"

The accelerator world is diffusing into niches, led by programme directors who challenge the conventional accelerator business model. One that's really pushing the boundaries is Camden Collective, a hive of creative startups and freelancers in London.If Camden Collective is successful with their pilot, it'll provide a repeatable model to support creative startups everywhere. This is a category of startups that, in spite of showing the same level and quality of innovation as tech startups, have not benefitted from innovative advice. While the tech startup world benefits from the pervasive teachings of Eric Ries, Paul Graham and Alex Osterwalder, Creatives…

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Bulgarian Optimism?

Originally posted on entrepreneur.bg in Bulgarian. I've been to Sofia three times since 2010. I keep hearing about Bulgarian Pessimism but actually observing Bulgarian Optimism! I love Sofia. The town, the people, the startup scene – and the attitude. Running Leancamp and Founder-Centric I've seen a lot of startup communities around Europe. In Bulgaria, I've run workshops for Eleven and LaunchHub, and I ran LeanSpark and Leancamp with Start IT Smart. In spite of this old idea of Bulgarian Pessimism, I'd like point out 3 unique factors that I think make Sofia strong and optimistic: 1)  Fearless, expressive techies. Not…

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What do we do about bad startup advice?

Good startup mentors and bloggers still give bad advice. It's pervasive and damaging. So we're working with Emerge, collecting techniques from Europe's best-respected startup mentors, and creating a package of best practices we call Mentor Impact. One of the biggest problems raised so far is the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect The halo effect is where one's judgments of a person’s character [or advice] can be influenced by one's overall impression of him or her. It can be found in a range of situations from the courtroom to the classroom. - Wikipedia Often, startup mentors and thought-leaders inherit an…

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How I found cofounders that stuck through the hard times

As our startup ecosystem grows, there are loads of people trying to help match cofounders. These events and online networks will create all kinds of meeting opportunities and surface area for great connections. But don't forget what makes the fabric of our ecosystem - helping each other out. That's where real relationships grow. Of the 6 businesses I co-founded,  the ones that made it through the tough times started with me helping a friend out. Unfortunately, my help worked. My friends came back for more. Eventually, I had to say, "Look man, I want you to be rich so we…

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Why my cofounder is my biggest rival

The classic business and tech duo, or more modern trio of tech, design and growth hacker, are how we think of well-structured founding teams. But my recent experience questions if this type of functional separation is always the best. I'm learning that culture and personal goal alignment sometimes matters more, especially considering the worst type of startup failure is when a viable business implodes because the founders fight. The power of nuanced differences Teaming up with Rob Fitzpatrick to create Founder Centric was a good move, in spite of the fact that we have largely overlapping skills.  Because we have…

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Forcing myself to take Pomodoro breaks

I'm awful at taking breaks once I get in the zone, but I've noticed that this is counter-productive by the end of the day.  What's "in the zone" earlier in the day ends up being staring at the screen by the end of the day. So today, I hacked together a solution. At the end of each Pomodoro, my Pomodoro software loads calm.com in full screen, and starts the 2-minute mediation thingy. What a wonderful way to break away! Update: Much simpler way! You can run this little AppleScript, which gives you a 10 and 20 minute warning in…

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Why the startup rules have changed, and we're plodding along blindly.

Sometimes you see it coming totally miss it.  We've buried our heads in the sand regarding 3 pervasive trends: what people actually want from their mobile device the failing rules of intellectual property (IP) the shift of early adopters to emerging emerged markets I think they amount to fundamental rule changes for both early-stage and scale-mode startups, but we've missed it and are plodding along blindly. Our misconceptions about mobile When it comes to mobile phones and tablets, the consequences came far quicker than a lot of us expected. By the time most of us were seriously applying mobile-first and…

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Why innovation is alive and well: Peter Thiel vs the Science Fiction masters.

* This is a significantly more tongue-in-cheek rewrite of this post, after I read The Founders Fund Manifesto which seems to have kicked off all this ballyhooing. Getting impatient for the future, for revolutionary technology?  You're not alone. From The Daily Mail: Peter Thiel's floating fortress. Peter Thiel, that billionaire guy who started Paypal and who wants to create a floating Ayn Rand country is attributed for saying, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters" in his Founders' Fund manifesto.  The manifesto was actually written by Bruce Gibney, a Founders Fund partner and one of the first investors in…

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Time for a buzzword diet?

I've been swimming drowning in buzzwords for a while, being into startups and all. Beyond the birth of a new idea, where buzzwords are an efficient shorthand for something fresh and progressive, I've seen them become a liability as the idea starts to spread. They get misinterpreted, hijacked and used to exclude rather than include. Where they were once shorthand to communicate a common understanding, they become a way to disguise a lack of understanding. Worst of all, I've seen a tendency to pull discussion towards abstract and semantic hair-splitting, rather than practical progress. As an educator and community convenor…

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I am Jack's wasted opportunity

South East Asia is going through exciting and tremendous changes at the moment, even in Laos, one of its poorest countries. There, one of the best ways to rise out of poverty is to learn English, Russian, Korean or Japanese to become a tour guide. While some farming families try to get by on $500 per year, you can earn $40 per day as a tour guide in the high season. So there's a common story. Lau comes from a rice-farming family, and was lucky enough to be educated while his siblings farmed rice or carried logs on their backs…

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Self-improvement vs self-confidence

"Releasing your potential is a very dangerous idea. You should stay away from your potential. You'll mess it up."  - Dylan Moran Self-improvement is a dirty word. On one hand, it's a bit wanky and we think of it as quick fixes that don't really work. On the other, it threatens our sense of self with change or compromise. I used to think greater self-confidence awaited on the other side. You know, once I was somehow a better me. The more successful people I've met, the more I've come to see it the other way around. Here's what I've observed…

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Cure jargon in 30 seconds.

Too many great ideas get buried by their own jargon. If we're lucky enough to understand these jargony ideas, we can fix this. Life's too short to let others miss out!* Take a complicated, jargon-y or hard-to-understand term and explain it buzzword-free in 30 seconds. Doesn't have to be about tech or startups - anything in your expertise. Make it visual. Make it fun. And most importantly, make it quick! Up for it? Scalability explained in 30 seconds. With Zombies. #jargonfree30 And here's a go I had 2 years ago: MVP explained in 30 seconds. (Warning: contains Kevin Costner, Donald…

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The History Of Lean Startup

(and how to make sense of it all) It's important for founders to understand the background of Lean Startup, since it helps evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches around it. They often seem incompatible or counter-intuitive, so this history will help you make sense of it and hopefully make more informed decisions. While Eric Ries, who coined the term Lean Startup, is preparing for the 3rd annual Lean Startup conference, he tweets out a link to "Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants" by Eliyahu Goldratt – a testament to the great thinkers we founders are learning from, whether…

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First, seek to understand.

Whether it's negotiation, mediation or even international politics, we know it's important to first seek to understand the other side. When launching a business, we know it makes sense to seek understanding about our customers needs before trying to change their behaviour. But when it comes to how we do things ourselves , why do we startups prefer the smell of our own farts? When code-first founders dig in with Lean Startup people, I hear the reply- "I get Lean Startup, but my customers need to see a complete build. I'll just code this - it'll only take a few months…

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How investors gauge your opportunity - beyond your business model.

I ran an experiment to challenge if the Business Model Canvas actually enables founders to communicate their business models more succinctly. At Leancamp Dublin, I hosted 90-second Business Model Canvas pitches to 4 well-respected Venture Capitalists. We asked the VCs to question the founders and then comment on the their communication ability, rather than their idea. The Canvas helped – almost all managed to describe their business well in 90 seconds – but a clear problem with the pitches was highlighted from the investors' questions. Their most consistent question beyond the value proposition, customer problem and target customers were about the growth…

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"The best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty.”

These days, we startups are learning from Science and getting comfortable with Uncertainty.  Which is why I find the viewpoint in the video below so helpful - it's a scientist's view about uncertainty and questioning. And not just any scientist, Beau Lotto studies perception! He explains that we interpret our observations in ways that were useful in the past. We find patterns and create meaning in what we perceive. This means our experience distorts our interpretations of what we observe. When we find ourselves in a new context, we end up acting in ways that used to work but don't…

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When should branding become a concern for a startup?

Short version: Think of your brand as two parts: the customers' expectation at the core, and the surface elements that signal that expectation.  Usually, it's less wasteful to get the expectation right first (through conversation and low-fi prototypes), then invest in the surface elements once the brand expectation, customer needs and business model are validated. Let's start with the big picture.  Your brand will have value to your business if it gives you advantages in your customer and partner relationships, and sales/marketing channels. These advantages come from an expectation about you. It's that expectation you need to figure out…

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Tips on choosing your customer learning method

Exploration, pitching and concierge are 3 common experiment categories in the startup world.  Often these are incorrectly seen as steps, but they're not. This will help choose which method is appropriate. Exploration (Learn, aka Customer Discovery) if you have an early idea for a solution if your customers aren't biting your arm off and chasing you for your product if you're not sure where you need to be to make new customers aware of you if you don't know what budget you belong to, or who else in the organisation can affect your sales if you don't know how to…

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Tips on hosting your #sllconf simulcast, and how to use it to strengthen your startup community.

I've organised the Startup Lessons Learned simulcast in London for the past 2 years.  If you're thinking it would be helpful for your startup community, take up the responsibility and do it. Opportunity gravitates to people who what "somebody aught to do." Hosting an SLL Conf simulcast is quite easy, and pays off by bringing out smart founders to engage with the community. SLLConf attracted smart people I'd never seen at other startup events, and helped make them part of the ecosystem. Jonathan Markwell is quoted in Eric Ries' latest post, saying, "It was fantastic being able to discuss some…

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The question that almost always lifts conversion, or points to a pivot.

Ask a founder to describe what their startup does. Then ask their customer.Think they'll say the same thing? Probably not. How badly to you think this slows down the founder? When I co-founded a business providing business centres to hotels, we were convinced that the new revenue stream was the main reason hotels bought from us. But it turned out to be the fact that at busy check-in times, the front desk gets overwhelmed with guests asking them to print their boarding passes. (This was about 10 years ago.) Learning this unleashed our sales. This was a happy accident…

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Seriously, WTF?

Since I started teaching entrepreneurship, I've been trying to instill an iconoclastic attitude in founders. I really want to push them to think for themselves in their own context. But thinking isn't enough. Looking at my most forward-thinking heroes, they actually changed how things are done.  It seems to me it was their detached observation of how businesses are started that lead to asking, "Seriously, what the fuck?" But what sets them apart from the wannabes, analysts and comedians is that they did something about it, they actually answered this question! Is this where evolutions in entrepreneurship come from? Can…

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Cocktail CustDev - and the risks of over-formalising your interviews

At the early stage of CustDev - Customer Discovery - you're seeking a commercial opportunity that shows strong market pull. This type of discovery happens much faster with exploratory conversations. This is where most people mess up, missing opportunities because they over-formalise "the process." The smartest one in the room You've probably seen this phenomenon at cocktail parties. After a casual chat ends, someone is left saying, "what a smart woman!"  Except she wasn't talking very much - just asking good questions. The smartest one is the one who consistently asks smart questions. It's tough to ask smart questions if…

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