An attempt to build a successful consultancy from the wreckage of a failed start-up: Part 1

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It is a commonly held belief that creating a successful start-up is an act of magic. In order for it to work you need to be that mythical beast known as an entrepreneur. The special powers of an entrepreneur enable them to conjure up a fantastic idea that no-one has thought of before, spontaneously manifest a marvelous product, reveal it to an expectant world. Voilà: success.

For all but a tiny handful of businesses this is completely false.

Starting a business is a process, albeit one shrouded in risk and doubt. Many of the founders of todays most successful companies only got there on their second, third or fourth attempt. They succeeded by persevering and learning well from the things they did badly along the way.

As a Fractional CTO my job is to reduce this risk and doubt to manageable proportions and turn failure from a victor into a mentor. The methods I use and teach are applicable to all types of business, so why not apply them to myself?

This post is the first in a series which describes how I’m trying to pluck the jewel of freelance success from the ashes of abject start-up failure.

A salutary, sorry tale

My current situation is born out of a disaster. I had been working for an eLearning company for eight years. The company was taken over, and the new owners were not to my liking. It was clearly time to get out. Several of my colleagues felt the same way and I took that opportunity to suggest to one of them that we started our own company. We’d had discussions around the same topic previously.

So that’s what we did.

It was a spectacular failure.

I did everything wrong.

There were many factors that contributed to our failure. The real issue, however, was that we were a solution in search of a problem (an issue I’ve seen with a great many start-ups that I’ve worked with since). At no point did we attempt to validate what we were doing with real customers. We didn’t get in the same building as market-product fit, let alone in the same room (this, by the way, is the number one reason that start-ups fail).

What compounded this mistake was that, as nominal CTO, I put my head down and concentrated on playing with technology (which is what I really wanted to do now that I had my freedom) rather than building a product. I have a name for this now: Comfort Driven Development. Like so many of my technical compatriots I was so used to building for the sake of building that I forgot to ask what I should be building (if anything).

It went swimmingly for the first few months. It’s a bit like learning to juggle. When you manage to keep the balls in the air for the first time it’s really exciting. You think to yourself “oh my goodness, this is it, I can juggle”. It feels great for a couple of seconds. Then one of the balls flies off in the wrong direction. You don’t know how to deal with it and all of a sudden all the balls are on the floor.

This is what happened to my putative start-up. I had learned a hard lesson, spent a year of my life creating a pipe dream and it had come to nothing. I had also decided that creating a start-up and working for myself is something that I wanted to do. I just needed to learn how to do it.

Ding, ding, round two

So I joined Geoviation. I was employed as a Senior Engineer and Fractional CTO, potentially working with a great many startups using lots of different technologies to help them build their initial products (a point to which I will return later). This was a really excellent opportunity for me to learn what I needed to know to create my own start-up.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by some excellent colleagues, two of whom felt (like me) that we were perhaps not not offering the greatest value to our start-ups in the way we were working at the time. So we decided to create a new way of working.

We started experimenting with different methods and techniques which we had come across, in addition to some new ones that we had found. Together James, Chris and I ended up creating a process which we felt worked well, based largely on the Strategyzer approach.

I spent four and a half years at Geovation perfecting this process, learning how to facilitate workshops, discovering the typical things that start-ups find difficult and getting myself into a position where I felt that I knew what I was doing.

The experience of working with all the different types of start-ups and the problems that they encountered has given me a wealth of examples to draw upon and a way of thinking that has rewired my brain.

I really believe this.

Previously I had been like the vast majority of developers, building for the sake of building and wanting to experiment with new technologies. I’ve now reached a position where I spend most of my time begging startups and not to build anything. The desire to build for the sake of building is one of the key behaviours that results in a lack of market-product fit and leads to failure (as was the case with my own start-up).

Another thing that became very clear to me, is that there is a mythology surrounding start-ups. The perception is that entrepreneurship is a talent one is born with, not a skill that can be learned. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

There is a tiny element of truth to that, but actually creating a startup is a process. There is no guarantee of success if you follow the process but your chances of success are greatly increased. This is what I now teach people.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. There are a lot of people who think that Facebook, Instagram, and Slack are examples of businesses that came from nowhere and conquered the world. Don’t believe it. They worked to hard get where they are and many of them nearly didn’t make it.

Take Rovio Entertainment, the makers of Angry Birds. Users spend 16 years every hour playing Angry Birds. Rovio, the company that created it, was close to bankruptcy in 2009. They developed 51 titles before Angry Birds. Far from coming out of nowhere to instant success, Rovio is a test case of a company that wouldn’t give up and stuck to an idea.

Most businesses go through a slog to get to where they are. But as I said, there are processes that can be followed. What I want to do is to remove as much of the mythology and mystique surrounding process as possible. This is why I’m writing this series of posts to tell you what it is that I’m doing and how I’m doing it to create my own start-up.

And so it begins

The foundation of my current freelance life was set approximately two years ago when I was given a task by my excellent manager, Sebastian. He asked me to write a series of blog posts that would help spread my knowledge and experience to my colleagues and to our community.

It took me about a year of publishing one article a month to find my voice and to become confident and comfortable with what I was saying, but once I got to that point writing new posts became much easier and more fun.

Sebastian had the foresight to offer his team coaching through one of our own start-ups, Natural Flow.

In October last year I had a discussion with a Natural Flow coach that basically changed my life. Up to that point I had regarded LinkedIn as something of a personal joke. I joined LinkedIn pretty soon after it started, or at least after it became known. This was approximately 10 years ago. I guess the first 10 or 20 or so contacts that I made were initiated by me.

I rapidly became cynical towards LinkedIn and treated it as a bit of a joke from that point onward. I decided after those first 20 or so contacts that I wasn’t going to initiate connections with anyone else. I would wait and see who contacted me, and see how far I got.

I’d picked up around 320 connections in the intervening years, mostly from recruitment consultants. I have known for a long time that networks are important, but I have never encouraged or developed a personal network in the past. In part this is a consequence of my temperament at the time.

What the excellent coach did was to persuade me that I was being extremely foolish in taking this approach because, at this point, I had decided that I needed an exit from the Geovation world. My coach made it painfully clear that if I wanted to go freelance then I had to engage with LinkedIn, whether I like it or not.

LinkedIn is absolutely essential tool for marketing oneself as a freelancer in my area of interest. So I made some changes.

The new me

I was lucky enough to stumble upon John Espirian’s blog. John is one of those rare people who cut the crap and believe that giving it all away creates business rather than destroying it. He’s something of a role model for me in this respect.

John has created and excellent guide to improving your LinkedIn profile. This was the perfect way for me to start.

First, however, I had to create a Test Card for my experiment:

LinkedIn Profile Update Test Card
Figure 1: LinkedIn Profile Update Test Card

As a first step, I took the Espirian 5-minute branding exercise to help find my voice, and this is what I came up with:

:book: Open Book

Whatever I discover I’ll share. None of this is magic, sharing is the point of what I do.

While my insights are my own everything else is based on the work of others. It’s not mine to keep.

:mag: Focus Finder

Problem first, customer second, solution third.


:no_entry_sign::poop: No bullshit

Business/technology needn’t be dull or abstract.

There are plenty of concrete examples out there. Use them.

I have a sense of humour. Use it.

:family::earth_africa::deciduous_tree: Triple Bottom Line

People and planet before profit.

I have no problem with profit, but it’s not an end in itself. If I can help society and the environment by creating a viable business then I’ve succeeded.

I then implemented all of the advice in John’s LinkedIn Starter Guide. You can see the results here. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting much, much better.

I found the most useful part of this guide to be the video at the start. My own ‘About’ section has gone through quite a number of changes and I’m always looking to make it better. The main thing I have discovered is that if you are selling yourself then your ‘About’ section shouldn’t be about you. That seems counter-intuitive, but it’s actually totally understandable.

The reason is that no-one actually cares about me except me. This statement isn’t the result of a personal existential crisis - it’s a simple truth, and it applies to all of us. Anyone reading my profile cares about themself, not about me. The message I present should reflect them and their concerns, not me and my ego. That way, I have a much higher chance of keeping them on my profile long enough to be interested.

So, what did I learn from this first experiment? Take a look at my Learning Card:

LinkedIn Profile Update Learning Card
Figure 2: LinkedIn Profile Update Learning Card

I increased my connections from 323 to 402 in 6 months. This is not as high as I wanted (I was hoping for at least 440 connections) but it represents a significant increase in the rate of obtaining connections and is high enough for me to be happy with it. Many of my previous connections were from recruitment consultants whereas very few of these new connections are recruiters, so I value my new connections more (sorry recruiters!).

I smashed my target for profile views. I was looking to increase from 20 to 40 in the last 90 days but I got 102. To be fair, many of these were from start-up founders that I had previously worked with who I had asked for endorsements and recommendations. However, my first three clients have come from this same source so I consider this to be a great success (this is a tangible demonstration of the power of networks).

I also achieved my target for weekly search appearances (rising from 15 to 32, with a target of 30). This is a less critical target since I’m not looking for employment and most searches are from recruiters, but it does give some indication that my improved profile is getting me noticed more often.

The take-away

Rather than give up when my start-up failed, I decided to learn what I did wrong and do it better next time.

No matter what kind of business you are starting you need to prepare in advance. In my case that meant embracing personal networks and LinkedIn, both of which I had shunned in the past. There’s plenty of advice on the internet about how to use LinkedIn effectively, so use it.

Make sure your execution is directed - decide what you’re going to do, and why, before you do it. Also decide what success looks like. Only that way can you take effective action from what you learn.

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