Deadly theater

Time and time again I hear from and meet startups who are eager to follow the corporate partnership route to gain traction in the market for their startup.

Sometimes it works out well. Most often – I would argue – it doesn’t.

I know this from my own prior experience from the corporate side. Yes, I have been one of the ‘fools’ trying to introduce startups to the corporate world as tomorrows fix on todays problems only to find that the organization had no intention of being ‘fixed’, let alone by a startup.

I can’t count the times I have engaged with promising startups with some great products and services under their belt and spent a ton of time on building the case and getting them introduced to the company – only for everything to come off the rails once the handover needed to happen.

Undoubtedly, I have a lot of the blame myself, as I should have spent more time and energy on facilitating the internal relationships necessary to enable a great collaboration – to enable my peers and colleagues to ‘see the light’ so to say. I naively thought it was rather self-explanatory.

It wasn’t.

Anyways, there are still a lot of startups out there who seems to think that pilots projects and strategic initiatives with big corporations are the best path towards fame and fortune.

If you are one of those, I highly recommend, you get yourself a copy of “Death By Innovation Theater: 10 Corporate Innovation Lessons Learned by a Startup” by Søren Nielsen, former CEO of now closed down FinTech startup Ernit.

Apart from being very well-written and with a lot of great references, the book is a tale of why all those aspiring promises in corporate partnerships never really amount to anything for startups.

In the close to 100 pages, Søren walks you through his own largely miserable experiences banking – sorry – and counting on corporate partnerships to work only to find out that he and his team was never more than an afterthought at best and entertainment at worst.

When you read it, you might believe it. Or you might think that that won’t happen to you. Don’t delude yourself. There is every chance that it will. Take it from me as a representative of the ‘innovation fools’ in the corporate domain – we’re not that different from each other.

Should you completely forgo any opportunities to do partnerships with corporates? Absolutely not.

But as Søren Nielsen also states make damn sure, you’re absolutely sure about what you’re doing and what you and your startup are getting out of it, before you dive in and spend too much time.

After all, you don’t want to die on the stage, do you?

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

From zero to hero to zero?

Is Clubhouse a fad?

I am on the fence. I just noticed that while everybody seemed to be doing rooms on Clubhouse before Easter, there was no mention in my feeds of any events after.

And when I asked on Twitter, the silence was deafening and in itself a verification that the red hot service might not be as red hot anymore.

This poses two questions of which the latter is the most interesting to me:

Is there a future for ‘live’ audio casting a la Clubhouse? I liked the idea at first and especially the part with having to be there in the moment versus leaving it for later and never listening in anyway. On the other hand I can also see that this dependency on time is the exact reason why I don’t use Clubhouse. So maybe it’s not so clever after all…

On a more generic level, if Clubhouse and it’s audio model turns out to be a fad, what does that say of the time span from hero to zero in our digital age? Normally we talk about how long it took for radio and tv to become mainstream versus digital services, and how things have speeded up.

But this is putting it in reverse; from zero to hero to zero again in no time.

Assuming of course that Clubhouse is a fad, which at this point in time of writing is very much debatable.

But if we follow through on this thought, what does that say about the risk of investing in building new innovative services? I mean, building Clubhouse has probably not been cheap, and the company has raised 110M USD so far from investors looking for a return. What if the party is over, before it started?

I realize there are lots of examples of cases, where investors have poured money into ambitious startups that has gone belly up – Quibi comes to mind here – but this is different.

Why?

Because this is not about investing in some new ‘me too’ actor with a slightly different take on an already well established model. This is about investing in a potential trend shift from ‘on demand’ to ‘live’ and ‘exclusive’ that might not be happening after all. In essence this is about reading the overarching trends in the right way or not, which makes it so interesting to follow.

Potentially also more interesting than the Clubhouse service itself.

(Photo: Screenshot)

Transitions are hard

There may be a fantastic new innovation which could significantly improve performance for the company if it were implemented.

But in order to implement the innovation, you need to go through a temporary change, a transition phase, where for a period things could be less stable than they were previously.

It is this fear of the reduction in stability which can cause resistance to actually implementing the innovations, as people fear what the change may bring.

And so many companies prefer to stay on their first lower mountain peak, not willing to go down into any valley, even if they can see higher peaks ahead of them.

“Stability”, Nick Skillicorn, Idea To Value

Wise words.

I have seen it play out many times in corporates, but I have lacked the words to adequately describe it.

The interesting question is, whether it applies to startups, who have got past the first launch and seen the first traction too?

Challenge the status quo

What is the one thing driving startup opportunity in the post-pandemic era?

The willingness of everybody to challenge the status quo and be open to new ideas, new ways of doing things and – with that – new products and services from new and inspiring companies with strong value propositions.

Now, what is the status quo?

Actually it is two things. And most of us are eager to leave both behind.

There is the status quo of the pandemic lockdown. Of course we want to be rid of that and get our freedom back.

But there is also the status quo of what was before the pandemic, and where we have had more than a full year contemplating what if anything that was before we would like to change. And how changing things are actually – even if forced by a pandemic – (by and large) less painful than what we imagined it to be.

Look at it this way:

The barriers of “that isn’t possible” or “I don’t need that” have been lowered by the past 12+ months of Covid-19.

If that isn’t a signal of opportunity to reimagine and reinvent things, I don’t know what is.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

No excuses

When you understand your customer, magic happens, and brilliant results follow. If you don’t put time into understanding your customer, then you’re setting yourself up for a battle or, worse, failure.

“The Complete Checklist To Truly Understand Your Customer”, Scott Middleton, Product Coalition

This is an eternal truth. Yet a lot of startups – and other companies for that matter – still don’t prioritize it.

It’s a potentially life-threatening mistake for your company. And, honestly: There are no excuses. If in doubt how easy it is to do, if you just put in the effort, this checklist is a great starting point.

It’s been oh so quiet…

Q1 of 2021 is behind us, and I have ‘celebrated’ it by being quiet around here for almost a month.

The reason is that I have been busy doing other things while trying to recuperate.

On the personal front, me and my girlfriend have decided to build a new home where our existing home is. That means tearing a house completely down, finding a new place to live while the building project lasts and – not least – settling on what the new home should be like.

Let’s just say the amount of choices, stress and anxiety is daunting. And then all at once. I honestly can’t recommend it to anybody, but it’s something you first realize when you’re deep into it. But the end result will be great. I am absolutely sure of that.

On the professional front I have been licking my wounds after a MedTech startup I worked on for the past year chose another direction that sadly didn’t include me. Despite building the case, securing early funding, getting the IP in place etc, I placed a lot of trust where it wasn’t warranted, and I got seriously burned from it.

Actually, I would rank it among the Top 3 professional disappointments of my life. Yes, it hurt that much. I guess it is one of those tough life lessons that you analyze at a distance, learn from and emerge stronger and better on the other side.

Speaking of the other side, I am in the process of getting back on track and up to speed. There is a lot of work to be done and lots of exciting projects and opportunities to work with my great colleagues and help the startups, we work with, succeed.

It’s challenging, fun and super, super meaningful – just how I like it. And who knows what might happen in the Q(‘s) that follows?

Bring it on! Upwards and onwards!

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Doing your homework

What does it mean for a business, a startup or you to ‘do your homework’?

Does it mean being out there, staying curious about the problem you’re looking to solve trying to figure out what potential avenues towards solving it might be.

Does it mean diving into existing research to be able to say and tell others that you know what is already out there, and that is what you’re building from?

I am not really sure, although I do think the latter resembles more of an exam, where – let’s face it – the only objective is to pass in more or less flying colors and then move on.

The problem with homework is much the same as with communication: The effectiveness and value of it often rests not with the creator but the receiver.

Thus, is the receiver has a misconception of what doing your homework really is, you run the risk of putting in the wrong sort of work for the job while still being able to claim that you have essentially done nothing wrong.

See the problem? Or paradox, even.

The sense of having done your homework needs to rest deeply within you. You need to have a feel for what you need to know, what you need to challenge and the questions you need to ask to get the answers you need.

When you have that, you can think of yourself as having done the homework. But not before.

Homework is an extension of determination. If you’re determined to get something done, succeed with a pitch or with a business or anything else you put your mind towards, you will make damn sure you do your homework. And it will be yours to define and own. Also the results.

Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

You need mutual respect

Over the past year I have been spending a lot of time trying to understand how to help researchers at universities bring great research into market through spinouts. And I wanted to share my experiences in a series of posts.

The first post on ownership structure is here, and this is going to be about the founder team and an important cornerstone in making a team gel:

Mutual respect for what each member brings to the table.

In my mind great founder teams have never been about sharing the same background, friendships from school, hobbies or the like. For me great founder teams have always been about getting a team together with a shared passion for solving a big problem and a skillset and experience that compliments rather than overlaps.

I have always held this belief also when I worked at corporates hiring new team members; get people in that are better at what they are going to help out with than me or anyone else already in the team and provide them with the room and mandate to maneuver.

In many respects it was about filling out the blanks based on what the business needed to succeed. It was about looking at what it would take to succeed with the mission.

The same principle should be applied to founder teams of researchers from universities. No questions about it.

Most often researchers will be brilliant at what they do. Essentially thats why they are researchers employed at universities. It also implies that there are other things they are not equally good at, and for many understanding and building a business outside the walls of university campus is one of the things they are not particular skilled at.

So they need help. Preferably they need outside help from people who knows and have tried (and perhaps even also failed) to build a business, and who in turn know next to nothing about researching. Again, very little overlap – mostly complimentary.

In most cases researchers will understand and accept this, but there is one potential problem; creating a team culture, where there is mutual respect for all necessary contributions to succeed.

It is not uncommon to meet researchers who have spent years on their research, and who naturally place a huge, indispensable value on this. Sometimes these same people can have a very hard time placing the same kind of value on a new member of the founding team, who will essentially be looking after the business side of things and ensure that the spinout actually has legs on the other side of the university wall.

This creates friction and the potential for an A and a B team inside a very small team to start with. And this is poisonous.

And not only that. It is also flat wrong:

Even though researching is hard and coming up with breakthrough innovations is super hard, making it work in the real world afterwards is perhaps even harder. Because while a great researcher might apply his knowledge and experience extensively in the lab and be really focused and use all the time needed, a lot of the outcome of the research is somewhat within the control sphere of the researcher. A lot of it basically comes down to the individual.

The same can not be said about making it work in the real world. Not only do you need skilled people with lots of experience. There are also endless moving parts outside the university walls that it can often be hard to predict and that you need to navigate in order to stay afloat, let alone succeed.

In essence it is a moving target, where everything changes in an instant, and you need to adapt to that. It is a whole different level of uncertainty and anxiety, which it takes great skill – and often also lots of luck – to navigate successfully.

Getting the business side right is a navy seal skill. Almost literally. And given that it makes absolutely no sense inside a team to run the risk of elevating someone at the expense of someone else. It creates friction, will ultimately make the person being degraded leave and the spinout tank before it can live up to any of its original promise.

The good thing about all the above is that there is a really simple fix:

Mutual respect.

The realization that in order to everybody succeed, everybody needs to feel valued and appreciated as key players in the onwards journey.

If you don’t truly feel like that in the spinout, you’re working to create, stop and fix it immediately. Or drop the spinout completely.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)