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Join me in helping startups

One of the things, I find most pleasure in, is helping others succeed with their ideas and ventures. It’s a big part of the reason, why I joined People Ventures in the first place, as a core part of our DNA is helping the founders, we invest in, in very hands on ways moving their companies fast forward.

Because I like to help and see other great people help likeminded great people achieve great things, I have kicked-off a small experiment:

I have launched a Slack community for people with an interest in and passion for helping startups succeed. Here we chat and help each other out, because we care. We are people with ideas, founders, corporate profiles and investors all trying to chip in the best we can.

If you’re into helping others become greater than they already are, join today using this link and introduce yourself.

The only thing we ask is that you make a commitment to being open, accessible and active.

Many thanks for your participation and help. It’s so much appreciated.

(Photo by Stephen Phillips – Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash)

How to win with corporates

I have always held a strong belief in the outsize value of strategic partnerships. And I must confess it has been a frustrating pain to be part of and watch a lot of good intentions end in absolutely nothing.

I am by no means alone with that experience. In fact I think it’s fair to say that it’s more the rule than the exception that these partnerships between corporates and startups don’t work. The excitement at signing is almost inversely related to the feeling of frustration and banging your head against the wall, once the partnership has to be implemented to start delivering on all the promises.

But it can be done. One startup, I have worked with over the last few months, has managed to get to a winning formula, and I thought I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of my learnings from it in the hope that you might use them to improve your own prospects with getting a great return on your strategic partnerships.

The first thing to consider is whether or not what you’re doing solves a real pain that the corporate has. Yes, we all know that big corporations can struggle with innovation, but that’s not where the real potential lies. Due to the law of big numbers, it makes much more of a dent in the corporate structure, if you can help them sell more or what they are already selling.

In essence that means that if you have something that makes the corporates product better in itself or provides leads for more sales of their existing product by giving their sales people cloud cover to reengage with their customers with something new and exciting, you could have something that is very valuable to a strategic partnership. But you need to have it mapped out beforehand in order to put yourself in the strongest possible position for identifying the right partner and do the hard negotiations.

If you succeed in coming up with a partnership, the hard work truly starts. A lot of startups mistakenly think that it’s all about teaching the corporate to adapt to their more lean and efficient way of doing things, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case. What I see working is in fact more the opposite; that the more you can factor in how they work in your own process and be open, transparent and accountable about it, the easier it will be for the corporate to integrate you and your product in their offering – which is essentially the only recipe for commercial success with a corporate.

Finally, you need to ensure that incentives are aligned. No matter what the corporate might tell you, its a matter of fact that they are ruled by objectives. That also means that key stakeholders bonus plans are tied to objectives, and they will do whatever they can to succeed with those in order to get bonuses and promotions. Nothing else will really be touched. So be damn sure you understand their objectives, their KPIs and bonus targets, and do whatever you can to slot into that in the simplest possible way. Make it super easy for them to engage – the less they have to think about it the better – and you’ll be in a good position to achieve success.

Does all of the above mean that you always need to dance to the corporates tune? Well, if you want to succeed with a strategic partnership centered around marketing and sales with a big corporate, I think the answer is yes. The balance of power isn’t in your favor, and the only thing you get from insisting you’re equals is…nothing. Then it’s much better to just eat humble pie, focus on the end goal of making things work and making a solid profit. And then stick to the formula.

That should enable you to consider frustrations over failed strategic partnerships a thing of the past.

(Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash)

Moving aside

The other day I met a startup founder, who had been struggling getting his business of the ground as a business for the past couple of years. Despite claiming the ambition of millions of users worldwide, he had only reached a couple of thousand within the first couple of years.

While there is always reason to celebrate great knowledgable people for taking the plunge to pursue their passion and their dreams and turn both into a startup, there are also times when you need to step back and take a more sombre look;

This particular startup was in reality nowhere. In order to have any prospects of success, they needed to step back, look at their core assets and find ways to build a revenue stream around those. Not out of curiosity. But out of necessity.

And yet the founder resisted. While claiming to be open to change, he was still very much set around the same set of assumptions that had brought him and his colleagues so little over the past couple of years. When I asked him what in their performance so far he thought mandated to continue approaching things the same way, he didn’t really give an answer, and I totally understand why: There was no real good answer.

The founder was faced with a ton of challenges, but what also become apparent to me is that he was at the center of a lot of them. And that maybe the best prospects of success for him and his startup was for him to find someone with a pair of fresh eyes and the right capabilities in terms of building the business, and then step back to another more product related role for himself.

He sort of agreed. Until he didn’t the next second. And we could have continued that way for ages.

While I completely understand that it can feel totally wrong to think in terms of finding someone better to replace you in a key role – and especially in a startup you founded – I think there are times, where it’s truly the best solution for all parties concerned. If you believe that the most important thing is to build a thriving business, personal considerations should matter less.

For myself I have always believed that building winning teams is about looking at the challenges facing you and then go about trying to recruit someone much better than yourself to help you overcome those challenges and move on to the next level with the business.

For that reason I have always tried to recruit the best and brightest and get someone who could not only challenge me and my thinking but also contribute to some vastly improved results within their areas of expertise. I think it’s wise for founders to think in those terms too.

The last thing anybody needs in any company whether it being a corporate and a startup is someone at the top with the ambition of always being the smartest person in the room, no matter what. Yes, that person might be brilliant and truly the smartest person, but in most instances – and my experience – there are quite a few even smarter people out there, we should instead be looking to recruit, onboard, get to work and start generating successes with.

Having this unbiased view of your own role can help you build the team that builds the great business together with you. If your too stuck on your own ego to realize that, you risk ending up becoming a founder who will look back and reflect on what potentially could have been but never materialized because you failed to make the right decision and move over to provide room for other great people.

(Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash)

Silent opportunities

Preventing something from happening is without any doubt one of the biggest opportunities in healthcare – and perhaps especially digital healthcare. Trying to keep people from developing a medical condition that requires cost medical care is a really good idea for everybody concerned. And given the nature of prevention – and thus lack of physical intervention on the body – it is an area that is really suited for everything digital.

But there is an opportunity that might be even bigger; helping look after those who have developed a condition to enable them to have an improved quality of life. I think there are at least two major arguments for why this is so:

One of the problems with being diagnosed with a condition that may last for life is what happens after the diagnosis has been given. It’s all very good that in Denmark there is a 30 day or so guarantee to get a diagnosis, but to many who are then diagnosed, getting the message might actually be the last time they have a truly meaningful conversation with someone who specializes in their condition.

Yes, it can be that hard to get the attention and follow-up, you would like to have, post-diagnosis. There may be a lot of reasons for why this is so, but I think two of them are a lack of specialists in general combined with a lot of conditions being considered relatively banal by any other than those who are actually suffering from them.

In those terms this is what I would call a silent opportunity.

Here digital tools for follow-up and disease management can be a real benefit, as they can supply the kind of ongoing help and advice that is otherwise inaccessible. Done right digital tools have an opportunity to take the place of a specialist and provide the person with the condition with all the tools needed to ensure a better quality of life.

In this also lies the second major argument for why I believe this is a huge opportunity: The value the tools can potentially bring to the patient.

If a digital tool provides significant value to a person with a condition – perhaps for life – I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t be a major business opportunity to strike a working relationship between provider and patient perhaps even for life. If the tool becomes an important port of ensuring the users quality of life, it is worth paying something for. Likely not a whole lot per month, but over time it all adds up. And, best case, with extremely little churn.

For startups looking to cater to this market it is an opportunity to build a really interesting business for the long run with a solid purpose to boot. Of course the requirement beyond being able to build something that truly adds value is that entrepreneurs are in it for the long run, as exit opportunities may be few and far between. But for the right people with the right incentives and motivation to make a difference, the opportunities are definitely there.

(Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash)

Unleashing impact

A couple of weeks ago I ventured a bit into unknown territory, when I attended the Green Impact Summit in Copenhagen. I wanted to get a firsthand view of what’s going on within the world of impact startups and get a sense of how it’s progressing from being a lot of great and interesting ideas into real companies that actually have a fighting chance both to create impact but also become great businesses.

I don’t know what I expected before getting there. But a couple of things surprised me.

First of all the sparse attendance at the event. There probably was a couple of hundred people in total, and many of them were from the startups themselves or from the supporting ecosystem. For all the hype surrounding the space it still seems like we have some distance to go, before it really draws the big crowds.

Second, I noticed that the creativity and skill in the solutions being showcased are not necessarily matched with business experience yet. It still seems like there is an abundance of idealism – which is fine – and not so much emphasis on actually making it a sustainable – viable – business.

Tommy Ahlers, the super angel (yes, I will call him that) said it well, when he noted that the impact investment community reminds him a lot of where the tech investment community was 20 years ago; a lot of great ideas, visionaries and willingness to share. But not at all the same kind of focus on the business side of things.

I fully realize that there may be some out there who would now suggest that thats all part of the plan. That the great and all important cause of fighting climate change in all its incarnations takes priority ahead of talking about business. But I think that is totally misguided; there is no distinction between impact startups coming up with brilliant solutions to our sustainability challenges and the ability to make a profit. Rather, I think they go very well hand in hand.

There is an obvious opportunity in this space IMHO for experienced business savvy people with an interest in pursuing something more meaningful than a corporate career to look at startups in this space and look for ways to collaborate and even engage directly in one of them, helping them succeed all the way.

In fact, I don’t think you can overestimate the potential of this sector to become a real Danish or Nordic growth industry, if we just show the ambition on wanting to make it about more than the idea and invention itself but actually put a laserlike focus on what it means and takes to succeed. In a big way.

It’s ‘just’ a matter of the missing people engaging directly with everything they have in the good cause.

(Photo by kazuend on Unsplash)

The new reality

Currently it’s not for the fainhearted to follow the developments on the worlds stock exchanges. 15 years of bull market has been replaced by an ugly bear which seems to send anything with an incling of tech down, down, DOWN in the market. Well, it pretty much sends everything down to an extend where it can resemble a stock massacre. 

The development in stock quotes is not interesting in itself – things go up, and they come down again. What’s interesting is the shift to a new reality that the movements are an indicator for; the end of ‘free’ money, rising inflation, rising costs of production and a shortage of both key components and talent. It is truly challenging times. 

In the face of such adversity, you can be forgiven for giving up and just wanting to bury your head in the sand until this whole things blow over. Because how do you cope, let alone adapt to this new reality? Most of us have never tried anything like it, so we’re in uncharted waters trying to learn how to swim before we drown.

But it’s exactly when you have to develop a key ability in an instant that you’re perhaps the most capable of doing so. There is just no workaround. So when the immediate shock gives way, it’s time to assess where you are, and what all this means for you and your startup and start adapting to the new normal. And I think there are a couple of things, you need to address and get used to.

First of all, you need to control your burn and your business fundamentals. The good times where it was growth at all costs, and nobody cared about the cost are over, as far as I see it. Going forward there will be much more scrutiny on your commercial model, and whether its viable or not. If it is and you can prove it to investors, you will still be able to attract funding to grow and seize opportunities (more on that in a bit) that may present itself. Furthermore you avoid getting into a situation where you need to raise new funding with your back against the wall. That’s a bad situation to be in in general – now it’s just plain terrible for you. So don’t go there. 

Second, be aware that a lot of the ‘smart’ growth tactics you have deployed in the past and probably semi-automated probably won’t have anything near the same effect anymore. Your customers don’t have the same spending power or urge to spend, as they had before, and you will most likely see cutbacks towards skipping things that are considered non-essential. And let’s be honest; a lot of what’s available out there are non-essentials that few customers would truly miss, if they had to cut it. 

With that there is also an opportunity. An opportunity to put your automated growth machine on the back burner and instead spend some time and energy on talking to customers face-to-face, listen and really understand where they are at, what they truly need and how your product applies to those things. You wan’t to ensure that you truly understand how your product is truly – and please don’t blow smoke in your own eyes here – essential for them, so you’re still considered valuable and thus they will continue using and paying for your product. 

Willingness to pay is going to be the only metric that matters here. Forget about most other metrics right now. If you can’t get your customers to pony up the cash for what you provide and have them continue doing so, you have a serious challenge. It’s that simple. 

The benefit of this simplicity is that once you get this right, you will know that you have the strongest possible foundation that will pretty much insulate you and your startup from market turmoil. You will know for a fact that what you do and deliver is essential to your customers, and that any future downturn will hurt a lot of others before it hurts you. 

Knowing that is priceless. It allows you to get a bit out of the crisis “all hands on deck”-mode and start thinking about the future and pursue interesting opportunities. What do I mean by that? Could be that one of your competitors don’t have the same stamina that you do and suddenly provides an opportunity to consolidate. Consider it. If it makes sense, and you can get the financing right, consider doing it. Exploit the crisis of others for your own benefit. 

Do whatever it takes. And understand down to your very core that this is a new reality we’re looking and have to operate in.  

(Photo by Tobias Bjerknes on Unsplash)

Making the vision operational

You start out with a vision. You fight to develop your product. You ship. And you get so caught up by day-to-day operations and fixing things that you don’t have time to think about the vision or – more importantly – put initiatives in place for the longer term that will ensure you continue driving towards it.

Does it sound familiar? When I look around, I see it happening a lot.

And I can understand why that is. Having a product in market with real customers using it is just completely different from being in R&D mode. And getting the revenue in from customers who are happy users of your product, because you listen and service them well, just feel like the ultimate validation of what you set out to do – even if you’re only just establishing a beachhead.

Getting stuck can be so easy. One day after another passes, where you’re in operations mode trying to fix things, optimize and move a couple of steps forward in the process. But you are essentially stuck. Because you’re potentially neglecting the very initiatives that are going to enable you to push even further, grow to the next level and drive the value of the business up.

I would argue that if you are in this situation, it is more or less a miracle if you end up anywhere near realizing the vision, you set out with. Or more importantly: Capture the value you could have captured, if you had been able to run a tight ship, constantly moving forward and upwards.

Don’t count on miracles to happen. Instead invest the time in ensuring you both have a day-to-day operational side and a longer term strategic side working on the next important projects crucial to the growth of your business. In my opinion that’s the best insurance policy you can take out on your startup becoming truly successful.

Of course the obvious question is what it takes in order to maintain a balanced approach and ensure you succeed on a broad spectrum? Well, I have a few ideas and suggestions.

First of all make a conscious decision to set out a portion of your time as founder to only think about and work on projects that are longer term (+6 months) but crucial to the growth of your business. How much you should set aside varies and is up to you, but I would suggest at least one full day per week. That will get you started.

Next up, drill down on your vision and build your product and business roadmap based on that. Start out with the vision and define a strategy that will provide you with a blueprint for what needs to happen in order for the vision to be able to come true.

When you have the strategy, define which role your product(s) is going to play in order to make the strategy succeed. It will not be the only thing that matters, as execution and GTM plays also play pivotal roles in ensuring success. But the ongoing development of your product(s) and the leaps you can generate through making the right product bets are critical.

What does your product need to be in order to deliver on the strategy and ultimately the vision? What does that imply when it comes to the roadmap? When do you do what? In what order? What are the goals you will setup to monitor, whether your successful with your product or not? How will you remedy mistakes and get on the right patch again? Etc etc.

Make a complete drill-down on what your product strategy and roadmap needs to be in order to deliver on the vision. And make a conscious decision to stick to the plan in the sense that you prioritize ideas, feature requests etc that supports the roadmap, the overall strategy and the vision as much as you can.

When you get to the point where you have those things in place, you can start enjoying the overview that comes from having a plan and working towards executing it. You will find further enjoyment in the fact that even while you may from time to time toil with fixing bugs or some other operational matter, you’re still by and large working in the right overall distraction. Fixing things doesn’t become the end but just one of many means to an end.

And that’s a huge difference. Also to the ultimate success of your business.

(Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash)

The beachhead pitfall

Every time I see a startup pitch for funding, the founders include an assessment of the size of the market, they are going after. The more detailed ones also give an assessment of the size of that market, they believe they can make their own and why.

It is all well and good. Sometimes I might even think that the slide is in the boilerplate department, where it’s there because it’s expected, but it’s not the most sexy or informative slide.

But what I have learned is that it is actually more important than that. That if you get this wrong or don’t think enough of it, you can potentially end up in a place, where you and your startup find yourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Why that is has something to do with the first share of land, you grab in your market – the beachhead.

Normally, when we talk about beachheads, we refer to them as a representation of the segment you go for first in order to prove your value proposition and achieve the illustrious Product-Market Fit. It’s your assessment of where the best match between your customers pain and the relief, you can bring to the customer, is the best at this particular stage of your startups life.

You go after a beachhead, because you want to get traction ASAP to show your investors – and potentially also the first significant revenue to show for it. And it makes total sense.

But – and this is a big but – if you’re not mindful about the bigger market opportunity, your specific plans to get there and the narrative about what you’re doing right now, you run the real risk of getting stuck in the midst of what otherwise might look like a success.

What could potentially happen, if you’re not careful, is that your beachhead becomes your market. That what was once thought of as the first small slice of a big cake becomes the entire cake.

If that happens you may develop a super strong position in a niche market, but you will never be able to scale your business to the bigger market opportunity, you will need in order to find investors, who are willing to put up the ressources required to be there. In other words you risk turning into an ok business on the longer term rather than an amazing business. Which – without saying anything bad about ok businesses in general – just seems like a wasted opportunity.

And this is where we come back to the role of the beachhead.

It is super easy to get excited about your beachhead, when you start seeing traction in it. You naturally want more, and you want to build on the early success. And you can do that, but you need to control the narrative.

You need to keep telling yourself, your investors and everybody else who might listen that what you’re currently doing is NOT the end goal but just a beachhead. That while you’re killing it in your beach head, you understand the fundamental dynamics and value of your product in a larger context for different segments of customers, and you’re well on your way towards branching out.

Thus, your narrative and your operations becomes about the beachhead based on what a beachhead should be; a stepping tone towards making real landgrab in land. If you can balance the two stories about what’s happening now and where you’re taking it, you’ll have a much more compelling story to tell. Not least to the investors, you will need to enable you to get the ressources you need to make real landgrab and fulfill the potential, you set out to fulfill.

If you don’t get this right, the risk is that you end up becoming a de facto niche player doing a stellar job in too small a market that no investor really sees the upside in. And if that happens being able to move the needle and move inland will become infinitely harder. Just don’t go there, when there is an alternative that is so much better by just being more conscious about how you stay the course.

(Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash)