Tag Archives: Startups

Entrepreuninsight: BookShoppr

We live in a culture of immediacy, an I-want-it-now, instant-reaction, globally-connected planet. Certain online retailers have made their name synonymous with next day, or even next hour delivery. My co-founders and I wondered what it would mean to go one better: next second delivery. That is why we founded BookShoppr, to turn our vision into a reality.

To do so, we had to go back to basics. We love e-commerce, but struggled with certain aspects of the process. Websites weren’t inspirational, not lending themselves to an interactive browsing experience. As helpful as FAQ chatbots can be, we struggled with the sometimes clunky dialogue. We found ourselves questioning fundamental cornerstones of how we buy books, and we decided we would do things differently.

That is not to say it is entirely unfamiliar. When you arrive at Bookshoppr.co, you will see a lot of the same offers, recommendations and deals you would see at other online bookstores. We have minimalist design, and offer the usual bestsellers.

But try clicking on a book you might be interested in, and you will immediately see the difference. Rather than a descriptive page, instead it will feel like the book is actually in your hands. Thumb through it. Read a page or two. If you decide you want to buy the book, keep it in your Hands (just like Amazon’s Shopping Basket). This is a browsing experience rooted in human experience.

If you have any questions, no problem at all. We won’t direct you to some bland FAQ. Engage with one of the Actual People in the store, our Digi-Staff. They will use a natural language processor (we call it “the human brain”) to understand your problem and find a solution. Some people find out Digi-Staff quite attractive, but do not entertain any delusions. You don’t have a chance.

Suppose your Hands are full, you are ready to Check-out. We can do this seamlessly, with no serious effort from you. We accept Android and Apple Pay, credit cards or even actual physical money. You don’t even need to create an account with us to make a purchase – no password required!

And what about delivery, that next-second challenge? As soon as you have checked out, your purchases will go from your Hands to your actual hands – the books will already be there, mere moments after making a purchase. We can also deliver to any address, at your home or your workplace. All you need to do is go to those places with your purchases, and they will be there when you arrive.

So come try out BookShoppr! To find us, go to BookShoppr.co, then stand up, leave your house and walk to one of our physical websites.

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Www: Zoomz

Where we Work (WWW) is a series looking at the modern day workplace, and the many new and innovative workspaces that today’s companies are using to inspire brilliance in their employees. Today we meet Zoomz, a mysterious underground AI startup
Welcome! Oop mind the doors, they’re automatic. I’m so glad you’re on time, we insist on punctuality at Zoomz, it’s part of our company culture. The early bird catches the worm, but the punctual parrot catches it too! We’re so strict on it if you’re not on time you miss your chance, it’s our one unbreakable rule.
Please do sit down, though not in the disabled seating of course. Sometimes it’s so busy here our team have to work standing up! But it’s early this morning and it’s Friday, so no one is around. Everyone says Thursday is the new Friday, apparently mainly to excuse weekday drinking. I’m teetotal of course, but I’m happy it’s quieter on a Friday morning, I love getting a seat.
Yes, the velocity here is amazing I know. That’s the joy of tech startups! Always launching, always moving forwards. Also the physical forward momentum of course. I hope you don’t get motion sickness.
It’s amazing the variety of people we get here, it’s become a bit of a hub. Bankers, teachers, candlestick makers, everyone passes through in the morning. Everyone’s very respectful, though, no one says anything, and please don’t make any eye contact, because it’s beyond awkward.
I’m afraid I can’t really talk about what we’re working on at the moment, but I can tell you it’s going to change the world. It’s such good stuff that we’re in stealth mode. We’re Underground.
Anyway I’m afraid I’m going to have to step out, I have a meeting at Victoria, but feel free to hang around. Stay as long as you like, or rather until This Train Terminates.

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Plant fewer seeds

The life-cycle of a startup has never been more complex. Where previously ambitious twenty-somethings would bootstrap their way to legitimacy, new businesses now have a fundraising maze to navigate, from angel investments and seed money, to rounds one through “n” to IPO.

The poster-child for this changing landscape is the seed round, which has grown significantly in size and popularity:

Peeling back Silicon Valley tech deal activity since 2009 reveals that seed investments have seen a massive increase over time. In fact, seed deal share in Silicon Valley has jumped from 7% in 2009 to 29% in 2013 year-to-date – CB Insights

Presented by this new and in-vogue opportunity to take on capital, it is hard for businesses to know quite what to do, and in particular when to say no. When would you ever turn down a big fat cheque?

The answer is clear, in the eyes of this seasoned venture capitalist – small businesses need to spend less money on seeds and focus more on their core business.

Since when did so many startups have a side-interest in horticulture? I am as green-fingered as the next man, but I don’t necessarily see the benefit of raising a fund to keep you well-stocked with sunflower seeds, however good they are for your cholesterol. And don’t even talk to me about your home grown kale, as I almost certainly don’t want to hear it.

Now that is not to say that your home-grown green beans aren’t delicious, and your pumpkins do look fantastic, just in time for Halloween. But as much as I appreciate the desire for vertical integration, there is no need to plant your own. Weed out the seed rounds, and watch your business grow.

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Business is Awesome: Monet-ization

Business is Awesome.  You know it, I know it.  This series is where I write about it.

Stating the obvious, tech is hot right now.  The latest and greatest entrepreneurs are filling up the app store and the wider WWW with tools that are changing people’s lives and / or making it easier to pass the time while waiting in queues. The current growth formula is generally pretty similar across all such businesses – first achieve scale, and then worry about Monetization.

Isn’t that awesome? I was sitting here thinking that art was dead, when in actual fact Impressionism is alive and well in the modern-day tech industry! Quite why all these entrepreneurs have chosen this particular French painter as their muse escapes me, but Monet-ization is a major point of concern for founders and their VC backers.

I’m all in favour, indeed the great man’s waterlily series includes some of my favourite works of art. I can only hope that Pointillization, Picassification and Pollocking gain similar traction in future.

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Macaroni and strategy

And now for something slightly different.

It’s midnight, the witching hour.  The world and his wife are asleep, but you are up, working on your start-up. This hard graft is what separates the men from the boys. How many users have you got right now? What on earth are you going to about that VC meeting in the morning? Your to-do list is longer than your arm and you’re a fully grown orangutan.

And there’s obviously a bigger question, too. The big question, for a new business.  Not just what you’re going to do next week, what are you going to do next year? What is your strategy? And as easy as it might be to put that on the back-burner, you should put it front and center.  Because it’s all too easy to get distracted.

Because I know what you’re thinking, it’s only natural. It’s absolutely delicious.  Cheesy and delicious.  Warm comfort food. But as attractive as it might seem now, it’s not what your modern day business needs.  Stop confusing Macaroni and Cheese with strategy.

That seems obvious, right?  But all too often I have seen entrepreneurs neglecting their business goals in favor of a steaming bowl of Mac and Cheese. It’s not just the carbohydrates (don’t get me started on the carbohydrates), it’s just not the right way to take your business from a half-baked idea to a fully-baked macaroni and cheese.

Metaphorically speaking, that is.  A metaphorical Mac and Cheese. I certainly don’t want one, I’m focused on business, and strategic thinking.  Customer acquisition! Competitor benchmarking!  Not a guilty bite of dairy delight.  By no means that, not that at all. I cannot think of anything worse.

You need to buckle down though, son.  Get to it on that Mac of yours, and I don’t mean macaroni. How are you going to convince that VC that you’re legit if you stink of Stilton? I know, of course, that Stilton is a delicious cheese, one of the best.  But I let alliteration get the better of me.  I’m sorry about that.

Would I like bacon on top, I hear you ask? Of course I would like bacon.  On my Excel model, that is. Not on a tasty and filling pasta-based treat. I only ever analyze user KPIs in Excel with some tasty bacon sprinkled on top.  My IT guy won’t thank me, but it helps me do business for some reason. It’s nothing at all to do with all the empty food cartons all over the floor.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.

What do you mean, Mac and Cheese problem? I am a serious business man.  Just talk to my many business associates.  I go to meetings on a regular basis, and do more email than you’ve had hot dinners. Just because a man enjoys an occasional takeaway doesn’t mean he is not fit for the business world. How dare you make that accusation, on this, Mac and Cheese Monday! It’s like this day means nothing to you at all.

You impudent brat, coming in here, talking Mac and Cheese like you own the place. No. I have been eating Mac and Cheese since before you were born. You walk in here like you’re made of cheddar, when you’re not.  You’re a poxy entrepreneur and I am the big cheese. I am a Big Mac.

Ok, ok.  You were right the first time.  I know it, you know it.  You didn’t even mention Mac and Cheese earlier, that was all me. You don’t know man, back in the 90’s. Everyone was doing Mac and Cheese.  It was like a drug, just so delicious.

Please leave me, I can’t bear it.  I can’t help you with your business, I’m a wreck. All hyped up on dairy and carbs.

But don’t take the Mac and cheese, though. Please. I’m going to get me some of that.

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Startup founder an ok guy

Industry onlookers have been left puzzled this week by the growth of a startup founded by a well-balanced, reasonable individual. Jermaine Dixon, 29, an MIT machine learning PhD, released his recommendation app after finishing his doctoral thesis, and has seen huge user growth, despite the fact that he is neither narcissistic nor arrogant.

Bill, his former college roommate, has expressed surprise at his success, wondering how he has managed to build a business despite the fact that he respects women, and doesn’t have an egomaniacal streak. “I mean he’s the cleverest man I’ve ever met, for sure,” explains Brandon, “but he has never sent me any misogynistic emails, not even one.  I’m not sure how he’s managed to build a business at all.”

His parents are as shocked as anyone, having despaired that his well-rounded social life would doom him from the start. “He worked incredibly hard, but he also managed to maintain friendships and family relationships, and was never snappy or rude,” reports his mother, Carolyn. “We’re just astonished, really.”

In terms of future plans, Jermaine plans to wait 12 months, then sell the business, giving most of the proceeds to charity.  However he did admit that he would probably use some of the money to buy a Prius to replace his 20-year-old station wagon. Our industry insider was relieved: “I knew it, a new car. What a selfish t***.”

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Where is your actual business?

In my work as a Venture Capitalist, I come across a lot of startups, across a wide range of sectors. While the businesses I see are incredibly variable, the meetings I have with them are often almost exactly the same, opening with a bit of preamble, followed by much discussion about the company’s business model.

This is a pet peeve of mine. In all my years in the industry, I have never worked out why so much time is spent on models of businesses, instead of working on the actual thing.  What are these models good for, and why do we keep creating them when there is a business to be run?  In the very wise words of Derek Zoolander, why are we building tiny businesses for ants?

That is not to say that the business world is the first sphere of human endeavour to make this mistake.  Just look at biology, where people have wasted years of research on evolution, despite the fact that it’s only a theory. I could sit here making up theories all day! Yet scientists continue to beaver away on the basis of some historical figure’s half-baked idea, proving that some habits are hard to break.

So how can you avoid this business model mistake? The only way is to go out and do it! Don’t tinker in the toy shop – build your business to scale, and do it straight away. If investors ask about your business model, point them to your business actual. They will have no choice but to be convinced.

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Entrepreuninsight: Wikiwordia

I love Wikipedia.  There I’ve said it.  While it may be dismissed out of hand in academia, for the everyman it has become an indispensable tool, primarily when it comes to avoiding ridicule. Where actually is Budapest?  Wikipedia. What does FIFO stand for, again?  Wikipedia. Who on earth is Thomas Piketty? All together now, Wikipedia.

However as useful as Wikipedia is, I soon found that it had its limits.  While it is able to tell you who Sepp Blatter is (a Swiss football administrator), in doing so it relies on words to communicate meaning.  I found myself thinking, what if I didn’t understand words?  How would I possibly even use Wikipedia?  I myself would sometimes not know the meaning of a word in a Wikipedia entry (e.g. administrator), leaving me feeling lost, confused, and unable to find the meaning of that word anywhere on Wikipedia!

It was this mixture of general concern and personal experience that inspired me to start Wikiwordia – Wikipedia, but for the words of Wikipedia. While this may be a startling concept, it has caught popular imagination, and new users have been joining at a rate of knots.

Far from a competitor, Wikiwordia is the perfect companion for Wikipedia.  If you are stumped for the meaning of a word, our Wikiwordia app can tell you what that word means.  For example if, while browsing through Wikipedia pages, you come across a difficult word like “Dictionary” in Samuel Johnson’s entry, and can’t quite recall that word’s meaning, simply click on it, and Wikiwordia’s API interfaces automatically with Wikipedia to help you out (indeed I must do so myself!  Words are tricky, aren’t they?)

As well as constantly refining the app, and most importantly building up an exhaustive list of Wikinitions based on our own proprietary research, we are also constantly building out additional services, in response to requests from our users.  For example we are currently developing sub-app-app Wikiwikiwordia, for those people who don’t understand words they find in Wikiwordia.

Like Wikipedia, Wikiwordia is a non-profit.  Where Wikipedia “exists to bring knowledge to everyone who seeks it”, Wikiwordia exists to bring knowledge of the words of Wikipedia to everyone who needs it.  With your help and continued support, I hope that we can do that.

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Making small business more like big business

Google was founded in 1998.  Facebook was founded in 2004.  In a world that has been transformed by companies that are younger than the legal drinking age, the startup has gained an almost mythical quality, with even the most cursory of Google searches yielding multiple articles encouraging  startup behaviour in larger, more established companies. Large companies with paltry single digit revenue growth are clamouring for startup gold dust, rethinking strategy, R&D and even hiring policy along the way.  However I am here to argue that the opposite should be taking place – why aren’t more startups acting like multibillion dollar corporations?

This may be against the currently held wisdom, but the numbers back it up.  Forbes’ top 10 companies in 2013 made c. $175B in profit last year, while most startups don’t even generate any revenue.  The latest and greatest startup tech companies might be valued in billions, but Walmart’s market capitalization is c. $250B.  So why on earth are business gurus imploring these leaders of industry to imitate their lesser cousins?  The sooner early-stage companies start to act like big corporate, the better.

As an entrepreneur, how is it best to go about this startup transformation?  The first step is obvious, which is to focus on shareholder value at all times.  While your shareholders are probably limited in number (indeed it might just be you), that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adopt this crucial tenet of big business.  It doesn’t matter if your lead developer’s latest idea could get you 100,000 new users, what does that mean in terms of market capitalisation?  It doesn’t matter if a new idea might change the way in which people interact online – if it doesn’t increase your shareholders’ dividend then you don’t want to hear it.  These things are important to big business, and as an aspiring big business, they are therefore important to you.

Having realigned your company’s focus, the next thing to do is to introduce some bureaucracy.  Big corporate has lots of hierarchy, and so should you.  Establish a layer of managers between you and your front-line workers.  Hire some managers to manage those managers, with management team leaders to oversee it all.  Introduce committees, bringing in people with disparate views, interests and competencies.  Make sure that all decisions have multiple stakeholders, with diverse and vested interests.  Only then will your startup start to mimic the dynamism of big business.

When hiring your myriad management structure, the approach is well-established – competency-based questions. Often startups focus a lot on company fit, and technical skills, when they should in fact be worrying about times their employees have historically dealt with conflict.  What about your employees’ self-reported track record when it comes to team-work, and overcoming difficult problems?  I, for one, would never hire anyone who couldn’t give me two examples of times when they have implemented change in their organisation.  I would strongly recommend that you don’t either.  Rely on competency-based questions, and you will get the loyal foot-soldiers your company needs.

Having established your structure, and hired your employees, how should you go to work?  The key is to be as prescriptive as you possibly can.  Some foolish startups encourage “free time” and “employee creativity”.  This is to be discouraged, as it wastes valuable company time, and company time is company money, and company money is shareholder value.  Lest you even consider wasting shareholder value, I will refer you to my first point – Shareholder Value, Shareholder Value, Shareholder Value.  If you focus on that, you won’t go far wrong.

These changes may all seem large scale, and fundamental, and that is because they are.  But if you are serious about making your business a big business, they are changes that you will do well to make, and you will surely be glad when you have done so.


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