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)

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)

Let’s nail the Future of Work

Covid-19 fatigue is really settling in everywhere. Not least in the workplace where people are starting to really feel the effects of being remote working-from-home.

To many it is just not as fun and/or efficient as it was in the beginning, and the sense of belonging to a team or the employer as such is starting to erode.

It is a crucial point, I believe.

When we talk about the Future-of-Work and working from home, we almost always talk about the practical stuff; how do we facilitate virtual meetings, which platforms do we choose and how do we stay efficient, so we can tick off our to do-lists.

All very tangible stuff.

But we also need to address the intangible stuff. And treat it as a priority. Because not only are these ‘touchy feely’ elements critical to focus and performance, they are also super hard to manage through technology.

For that very reason I would like to see someone giving that part a go and come up with a new Employee Experience Platform.

But not like the new Microsoft Viva (which actually does look rather cool, if your company is big enough for it), which is focused a lot around classic productivity.

No, it should be more nímble. More soft. And address all the little intangibles that makes a team a team, a culture a culture. And most importantly; ensure that people feel a sense of belonging and stay engaged to do their best work.

It is a huge opportunity for those who can pull it off, and I honestly don’t think there are any really great offerings out there. So I would be super excited to see someone picking up the mantle and perhaps even help them along doing it.

So, hit me!

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Regulation as a business model

One of the most potent business models, you can have, is if the use of your product or service is directly mandated by law. Or, in the absence of the complete model, heavily subsidized by law.

When something becomes a law, it automatically drives decisions; people and organizations are required to do x, y and purchase z – your product – to stay within the law or at least get subsidized by the government (which has roughly the same effect on helping grow your revenues).

What could be better?

Let’s say you’re in HealthTech. You may not necessarily be required by law, but indirectly the laws governing subsidies for specific treatments can materialize into official recommendation for treatments that specifically includes your product or service.

You become a de facto public standard.

If you can make it to this point, you have really got it made.

Getting there, though, is super, super hard. Because if there are things, you don’t control and should have no ambition to even try to control let alone influence heavily, it’s lawmaking and the creation of rules and regulations.

Ok, you could have the ambition to influence it. But the obvious risk is that by choosing that as a focus, you end up spending your time and effort in the wrong way.

Because no matter your best efforts, you have absolutely no guarantee that you will end up being successful in your endeavors. Quite on the contrary; the overwhelming risk is that you will come up short. And then you will have nothing to show for it.

The best thing you can do is therefore to figure out where you can join to apply gentle pressure – trade organizations of any sort, special interest groups – and then show up, when there is an opportunity to do so, speak your case. And then let them do the heavy lifting for you.

That will effectively allow you to have a leg in both camps: On the one hand you’re trying to influence a development that furthers your ambition in the long run, while you’re busy executing on your business plan on the short term.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Be problem-driven

There are quite a few really good arguments for why you should focus on the problem rather than the solution, when you’re trying to build a successful company. But there is one that I think takes the prize as the most powerful one:

By focusing on the problem, you broaden the opportunity for yourself, your company and your future success.

Why?

Because you start being less solution-focused. Not agnostic as such because there will always be something that you do that you need to put into the product to give it the real edge it needs. But less solution-focused.

You may start out developing and shipping one product, get a good reception and perhaps even some decent traction. And once you can see that the core fundamentalt of what you’re doing seems to resonate in the market, you can lift your gaze and start thinking about what’s next.

And this is where focusing on the problem rather than the solution enters the picture:

By focusing on the problem, you will see more opportunities just by looking. And others may present themselves that you would otherwise not have noticed. And this gives you opportunity.

Instead of being strong in a niche, you can become stronger in a space – and maybe even grow to become dominant of an entire industry.

Because you chose a laser like focus on the problem.

Looking in retrospect, most companies don’t become wildly successful by just doing one thing or having one product. They become wildly successful, because they understand the market they are in, the jobs, pains and gains of their customers and constituents – and the problem space they’re working on.

You should apply that approach to yourself and your company too.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Find your ambassadors

When trying to build a powerful startup team from scratch, I have found there is one trait it’s hugely important to have in every co-founder;

Ambassadorship.

With that I mean a person who will take the torch, carry it everywhere and be an unconditional spokesperson for what your team is setting out to accomplish.

The key advantage of having ambassadors all around you is that you will not be left to do all the preaching. While it is energizing in the very beginning, you can quickly both become tired of preaching, and at the same time you can get concerned as to why it is that you seem to be the only one doing so.

With ambassadors all around you, you’re spreading the message. As a team. That’s super important.

But how then do you figure out when you don’t have the right ambassadors around you? Well, that’s tricky. Because the most honest answer probably is when your startup hits a really rough patch.

If you don’t have the right ambassadors, the team is going to crack under the stress, worst case disintegrate completely. That’s when you realize than in essence you may have been the only one holding everything together (also even if you might have thought otherwise).

If you do have the right ambassadors, they will be looking for solutions to your woes. Perhaps even above and beyond what seems doable or logic. Because they want what you have set out to achieve so bad, they are willing to do whatever to keep the dream alive.

I realize those are pretty stark contrast. But in reality I also think it reflects just how important having ambassadors around you is.

At the end it can be make or break for your team and your startup.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Muscle is not enough

Ever since I spent a week at a business modelling bootcamp together with – among others – a couple of quite secretive NSA employees, I have been fascinated by lean innovation within the military.

Why? Because I can’t think of a much bigger – pardon me – clash of philosophies; one is nimble, lean and mean, the other is cumbersome, big, complex and – ok – mean too (albeit in a very different way).

For that reason it is also worth reading Lean Startup guru Steve Blanks reflections on lessons for the new administration on technology, innovation and modern war. It is a fascinating read of two ‘worlds’ colliding but still trying to find a common path forward.

The most jaw dropping nugget for me was the fact that US military has for decades relied on being at the front of tech innovation to an extend that as they developed new technologies, they could also work on countermeasures and thus play both sides at the same time; offence and defence.

That ability has been lost as more and more innovation has moved to the private sector. And it has profound consequences in more aspects than one.

Not only does it say a lot about the US potential to come out of a potential future conflict as the victor. It is no longer guaranteed, although I would still think the US has the upper hand.

It also says a lot about the interconnectivity between government, private enterprise and innovation. That one relies on the other and no chain is stronger than the weakest link. It seems like a lot of new uncertainties have arisen that we now all have to be aware of and deal with.

But the most important point I think is the notion that you can really do more with less. It is no longer the biggest budgets that determines who will prevail. Everybody has a – so to say – fighting – chance, and to some extend it’s more a matter of creativity, skill and ingenuity than brute force.

It can be frightening for sure. But outside the realm of defence it should also serve as a huge inspiration to all those with smaller budgets, less ressources and objectively less muscle:

There is a chance you might come out on top even if the odds and conventional wisdom are stacked against you.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The “red tape” danger

The problem with too much process and red tape is that it creates excuses for not getting problems solved:

“Our processes dictates that I must do this”, “I am not measured on doing that”, “I cannot do anything about it, it’s the rules”, “We have a policy that…”.

Etcetera etcetera.

Of course there needs to be rules and processes, and sometimes they’re even defined by law.

But having said that it is also important to reiterate that just because you can push a set of rules, a boss or even the law in front of you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t show empathy for the person(s) in the other end obviously experiencing a problem.

One of the reasons why startups even stand a fighting chance against much larger and more resourceful organizations is that they don’t have all these rules, processes and KPIs in place.

They’re just trying to do what they think is necessary to enable them to solve issues and move forward. By showing empathy and some sort of efficient pragmatism whenever they encounter a challenge or – most importantly – a customer experiencing a problem and in need of a fix to it.

When companies grow and more people get onboard, the need for processes, policies and rules will grow – sometimes almost exponentially.

That may be fine in itself. But it should never be an excuse for throwing empathy and the ability to act and fix issues out the window.

If you start doing that you will enable precisely all the behaviour internally in your organization that you DON’T really want. And absolutely don’t need to succeed.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)