Startup on a shoestring: a heuristic for thinking

This article is the seventh in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Dec the 1st, 2016.

A startup, while it works to make revenue with its product or service, incurs essential costs. A shoestring budget calls for resourcefulness and creativity in building the business.

An earlier column discussed building the MVP on a small to vanishing budget. The Tl; Dr for this column is as follows: You pay for some things, you do not pay for some things; you should take your time to understand which is which.

The advice applies whether you are bootstrapping or playing with someone else’s, i.e. an investor’s or a VC’s, money.

How to know which is which? There is a thumb rule for that too.

For all startup related decisions, ask yourself: “Is this expense helping me advance our startup’s objectives?”. If the answer is “yes” then go for it, provided the cash in your bank account allows for it. If the answer is “no”, just stop and reconsider.

If you fear this will take all the joy out of your life, there is a third possibility: re-purpose some of your treats and desirable experiences such that they serve both your startup and to enhance your personal joy. Founders, rightly or wrongly, are not often able to separate work and non-work in ways others can. The approaches that work often address this peculiarity of the founders’ existence. Some call it leveraging, I call it maximising several of your life’s purposes in one go.

But since life is less than black and white, this week we have some tips, gathered from the trenches, which will hopefully give you a spur to more creative ideas. Some of these tips may not be new to the more experienced founder.

First off, we cannot manage what we do not understand or measure. The very first thing to measure and track is your weekly spend. Tracking gives us data, and data can help us make smarter choices in many instances. I once asked a founder, with a professed love of a specific drink at Starbucks, to estimate how much money she spent on Starbucks annually. The number was eye-watering. She then chose a two-pronged strategy: she now makes her coffee at home using ground coffee and a cafetière, and she holds work meetings in Starbucks so she can occasionally treat herself, while writing off the expense as a legitimate business expense (check business expense rules in your country with your accountant before applying this blindly).

Second, get creative, and discover “free” or “freemium”. Identify the business costs that you can keep low. Do you really need that co-working office space, or can you work from your home or shed in early days? Communication costs can be reduced to quite low with generous free minutes on mobile plans but it may be wise to keep them for making those calls, where you cannot use Skype or WhatsApp-to-Whatsapp calling. Identity the business-critical stuff you cannot afford to lose and make backups. Some of the best established project management tools such as Asana and Basecamp get you started with a free account, sometimes with limited features and you can then upgrade to a paid plan for additional features and more projects. New tools come along with free offerings, but be alert to their data export policies in case they go bust and you need to move to a different platform. Did I say make backups?

Third, manage your costs of training, learning, and staying up to date with stuff essential to your business. Most publications these days tweet out their best pieces. The web gives access to a lot of materials on software skills to business news. This column series is a good example of such materials. Find libraries, ask friends to give you their subscription copies once they are done.

Fourth, in doing all this, do not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Do not scrimp on coming across as a professional, whether it is how you dress when you meet a potential customer, advisor or financier, or whether you turn up on time. I can see some of you rolling your eyes at this. Perfectly fine, if you feel comfortable turning up to meetings with a customer, while not showered, wearing clothes that smell, and late! Remember in the early days, founders are always selling. Choose the impression you want people to take away.

Finally, get a grip on tax rules for business expenses. Ask your accountant. Write off every single legitimate expense. This should not be hard if you have paid attention to the point at the beginning. Getting a grip on what you are spending is essential to staying within a shoestring budget.

In the next column, I will address a question I hear very often, my advice on the issue, and the reasons for it.

Startup on a shoestring: building the MVP

This article is the sixth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Nov the 15th, 2016.

“You may be a business man or some high-degree thief,
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan is not known as a business advisor but his words are worth pondering.

A startup may be your dream, your personal pain point, your vision but unless you find enough people to say “yes, we share this pain too” and “yes, we will pay for the pain to go away”, there will be no startup beyond your dream. This is where building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) comes in.

An MVP, as founders will know, is a bare-bones prototype that can be used to test if the dream should remain a dream or if some elbow grease may help its realisation. Its value in getting early adopters in is significant.

Early adopters are different beasts, psychologically speaking, from later adopters. They get your drift, your vision; they will use a less than perfect product and give you feedback; and you will gain several things. You will gain some early champions, you will get to see how the product works in the hands of actual users not just the people who designed it and how it needs to change, and you will get a better idea of what you need by way of talent to drive the startup.

Open source tools and cloud services enable quick building up of MVP for web based services. But not all startups are building web services or apps. How does one build an MVP for a physical product? As the following examples show, the web can be immensely useful in these contexts too.

Svaha-USA makes STEAM-themed clothing for children. Some mums asked them for STEAM themed dresses. Before swinging into action based on some feedback. Svaha-USA chose to test the wider market by setting up a crownfunding campaign for their first such collection. Not only was the campaign oversubscribed, they built a new following and now STEAM themed dresses for mothers are an integral part of their offering.

The founders of Onnix Bags in London, aiming to offer customisable, handcrafted bags at affordable prices, started by building a community first. Practising artist Austin Kleon’s advice, Show Your Work, they shared their process of design and building supplier relations with the community. This community came through in a big way when they ran their crowdfunding campaign, and you guessed it! They benefited other founders in their community by sharing in great detail how they went about their campaign. Where markets are finicky and unforgiving, such as in fashion and personal goods, building an MVP could go hand-in-hand with early marketing and brand building as Onnix successfully did.

Similarly, Que Bottle, the Bay Area based makers of collapsible, food grade silicone bottle, tested the concept in a secret but global group of founders, before launching their crowdfunding campaign which was swiftly successful.

Of course, one could always develop and distribute a finite number of prototype product or devices and collect feedback but the upfront capital investment may be substantial. Founders with a track record and solid social capital, such as Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, who founded Touchkin, a mobile predictive healthcare startup in India, may find the path to raising funding eased somewhat.

You may have noticed the emerging theme here. To ease the path to success, it helps if one is plugged into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and both ask for help and share your learnings. While entrepreneurship ecosystems may differ slightly in their cultural origins, the core values of paying it forward and helping one another are notable in both the Silicon Valley and London ecosystems. As the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem matures, these values are already taking hold and helping strengthen the ecosystem.

Many founders see themselves as outliers or iconoclasts. But in reality, most of us are ordinary with extraordinary dreams. That iconoclast bit is true only for a minuscule number. And even those would benefit from knowing about, joining, and participating in the local founder ecosystem. Many ideas are tossed around in these communities, but only some make it to the MVP stage and even fewer become successful businesses. There is, of course, no better cure for founder loneliness, more on which later in this series, than to see a whole community, who understands you and empathises with your pain and helps you deal with it.

There are two angles to the startup on a shoestring budget. This column focused on building an MVP before going big, the existential aspect of building a startup on a shoestring budget. In a later column we will discuss how founders can keep costs low.

Autonomous cars and luxury marques

Aston Martin, James Bond’s car of choice (except when he went through a BMW phase), showcased a powerboat at Monaco Yacht Show this year. Writing in the Financial Times, Philip Delves Broughton laments that Bond’s legacy is being junked by this luxury marque and outlines the dangers of brands diversifying into unrelated categories, especially those far away from the brand’s core, while also acknowledging the financial pressures that may have brought about the powerboat.

Those are great arguments; indeed they are in line with the “we have heritage” argument that keeps many a luxury brand in that strange place where they are simultaneously desirable and at the risk of going out of business very fast. Those are also arguments that arise from a steady state style of thinking applied to the stark challenges faced by luxury businesses.

The challenge is altogether different. Existential, in fact.

As autonomous vehicles get on roads outside the Bay Area, indeed here in the UK not far from the Aston Martin Headquarters, the existential crisis facing luxury marques in cars is too urgent to ignore. They overwhelmingly pitch their cars as being about the pleasure of owning and driving a car as beautiful such as the Vanquish (I have my preferences but please feel free to imagine the marque that makes you go weak at the knees here!). There is a primal connection between the man and the (stunning) machine that is at the heart of the purchases of such cars.

With autonomous cars around the corner, the makers of such luxury cars may go out of business altogether.

What will be their offering, their raison d’être?

What deepest desires in our hearts will they be appealing to, with their beautiful — but self driving — cars?

Yes, I hear you cycling through Kübler-Ross. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

Meanwhile, let’s not pretend that the Aston Martin AM37 powerboat is only about the financial bottomline. There are existential choppy waters ahead. Aston Martin has found one way to navigate them. Unlike Bond, makers and purveyors of such luxury vehicles may not live to die another day. They have to think fast to remain relevant and in business at all. More previously unthinkable business models may be forthcoming from luxury car makers.

Mr Broughton meanwhile can perhaps take solace in the possibility of the next boat chase on the Thames featuring an Aston Martin! Bond’s heritage may be alive and well. For the time being.

Motivation as a design assumption

Holacracy. MOOCs. Food labels.

Holacracy isn’t working. MOOCs have low completion rates, and an estimated 90% drop-out rate. Food labels to help consumers make informed choices show mixed effectiveness and decidedly no downward impact on public health concerns re obesity.

Other than not working as well as optimistically assumed in their wake, they have one more thing in common.

Their design assumes that people have self-motivation in heaps, and when faced with choices, they draw upon that self-motivation to make the best decisions for themselves.

From organisations, to education, to nutrition and health, the assumption of the “highly motivated and self-interested individual” does not stack up.

The reality is different from the design assumptions made.

As Buffer found out from its year-long no-managers experiment, people were expected to direct and motivate themselves, the lack of managers soon became overwhelming, and an implicit hierarchy emerged nonetheless.

Similarly MOOCs assume that a highly motivated and self-driven student is the only kind around. A self-motivated student will benefit from auto-didactic methods disproportionately more than a peer who isn’t so driven. As a teacher, I can attest to these phenomena too: students have variable levels of motivation, cognition and learning capacity; they may or may not understand the sequentiality of learning certain modules i.e. prior art in a field, which, of course, is more essential in some fields than in others; they may not understand some content and that can be demotivating in itself; they may not have the time or dedication to complete assigned readings; and last but not the least, they will always have have questions and if not, a facilitator teacher can make them question their tightly-held beliefs in a setting that makes them think.

In other words, willpower depletion, by the many demands made on us by life, is a real phenomenon.

The design problem that technology entrepreneurs keep dreaming of does not have to bring about “disruption”. It is more complicated than that.

The design problem is to keep people with varying motivations involved, and progressing.

If at all we achieve step change or “disruption”, the design challenge is to do so the existing tools of facilitation and enabling, along with new tools of technology and emergent social contexts, to address the same problems of variable motivation, cognition, and commitment to learning.

A designer assuming a bottomless pit of self-motivation in its audience sooner than later discovers the ordinariness of the human condition.

Influencer marketing and the luxury marque

Eight years ago, I was pondering the meaning of “authority” on the web. Fast forward to 2016 and the language has moved on. It is no longer about authority but about influence. Brands, including some luxury brands, are engaging in “influencer marketing”.

The web is awash with “advice” for luxury brands on the criteria for choosing the right influencers; these include relevance, reach, engagement, previous brand endorsements, and that old chestnut called authority.

But should luxury brands engage in influencer marketing at all?

I have no doubt there are some, who were influenced into buying a Breitling because of John Travolta, a bonafide and accomplished pilot and a 2007 inductee into the Living Legends of Aviation. Travolta was the face of Breitling until in 2012, Breitling shocked many by picking David Beckham. Beckham is a famous former ace footballer but now mostly a celebrity model, who reportedly turned down Calvin Klein but later appeared in Giorgio Armani and H&M ads — for underwear.

How are Breitling’s brand values aligning with this new choice of influencer? What aspirational quality or relatable values is the brand projecting with David Beckham? Notwithstanding his sporting prowess, Beckham is a peculiar and unimaginative choice of influencer for a brand that, since 1884, has been known for engineering innovation driven watches.

IMG_3407During the AW16 shows in Milan, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele officially invited — and collaborated with — Trevor Andrew whose love for Gucci had made his “Gucci Ghost” persona well known and gained him a huge following on Instagram (31K at the time of writing). Andrew bought his first Gucci watch at age 17 with the money he earned snowboarding. Gucci wasn’t giving him money to talk Gucci all this while (for the various shades of disclosure between bloggers and luxury brands, read this). He is no ordinary influencer for Gucci to engage with. He has his own creative lens on things, including to his music — he is a man of many talents — with a rip-mix-burn approach he puts to practise and that resonates with web users. Web culture has indeed moved on from the early binarity of creator v consumer, to co-creation and hacking.

Does Andrew resonate with Gucci’s brand values? They are, after all, rooted in the Italian and Florentine heritage and craftsmanship. Where does Andrew fit in? Perhaps with Gucci’s fashion leadership and success with authenticity? Andrew is authentic, creative, successful with his own style of craftsmanship. There is synergy perhaps, and Gucci put its money where its mouth is by producing a collaborative collection with Andrew.

Both brands Andrew and Gucci have influence over their audiences.

But in the collaboration, who influenced whom? It is hard to tell. It is more like a circle of virtuous mutual influence! This kind of serendipity, overlaid with a strategic twist is not available to all luxury brands.

Luxury brands are currently torn between many dualities. The democratic nature of the web, versus the exclusive, aspirational image of a luxury brand. The reality of who is spending the money now, versus the need to build relationships with the potential customers of the future. Even the heritage claim becomes difficult to ride on, when the brands are addressing markets with their own heritage vastly more expansive and richer than the luxury marque’s own.

Amid all this, the question — should a luxury brand engage in influencer marketing at all?

My considered answer to that is No.

A luxury marque is, at its core, a Veblen good. Influencer marketing — including the lazy marketer’s option of celebrity endorsement, never mind their tenuous relationship with sales — on the other hand is an attempt to get in on the bandwagon effect (economists call it “interpersonal effects on utility”). Influencer marketing, given all the variables in the mix including the influencer’s own “brand” and its values, is cognitive dissonance-inducing in the luxury brand discourse.

“But, but what about the young generation and our engagement with them?,” some might ask.

The clue might lie in a 600 year old brand that somehow survived and thrived.

With the old fashioned idea of always being the keeper and regaler of the brand story, the craftsmanship story, the collection story. Even the influencers it has worked with in recent times are now collaboratively embedded in its glorious historicity.

When it comes to influencer marketing, true luxury marques need to remember just this:

Don’t borrow someone else’s influence. Be the influence.