“He’s a very naughty boy”

About sacrificing the pub on a Friday night in order to hear the author of  the book that startups consider their Bible.

Lean startup fans start here

BA Business Life May 2105

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Friday nights were slain by the Lean Startups?!

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.”

If you don’t recognise this line then you haven’t seen Monty Python’s cult film, Life of Brian. Inadvertently, Brian becomes the founder of an insurrectionist religion and lauded as the son of God who will free his people from the oppression of the Romans. I am reminded of this when I find myself in a university lecture hall for the first time in 20 years.

It is a Friday night in central London. And even in those distant, candle-lit days when I was a student I don’t recall ever making it into a lecture hall on TGIF party night. Nevertheless, the vast auditorium at the London School of Economics is packed to its very modern rafters.

“Some people get very angry that I call this a movement,” says the speaker. “But I don’t know what else to call it… I really didn’t mean for this to happen.”

But here he is. And he finds himself thousands of miles from his home turf in Silicon Valley. The halls are similarly packed in cities all around the world. “It’s the same everywhere,” he says.

Eric Ries sought to bring some rigour to the startup process in a book calledThe Lean Startup, which promotes innovation through rapid experimentation and customer interaction. Over the last few years this has become, dare I say it, a bible for entrepreneurs and startup entrepreneurs.

Core concepts you may be familiar with include the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) and the ‘pivot’. The MVP is how you test your idea in the real world as efficiently as possible. The pivot is a way of “changing strategy without losing the vision” of your business. You might pivot when several iterations of MVP reveal that some of your assumptions about the world are mistaken.

So here we are on Friday night talking about MVPs. The bars and restaurants of London in early spring echo with emptiness while their erstwhile patrons raise hands like a conifer forest and ask: “I want to be an entrepreneur but where do I get ideas?” and “Do I have to move to Silicon Valley or is it OK to stay in London?”

Three things strike me. The first of these I’ve made clear — Friday nights ain’t what they used to be. The second thing is the staggering number of chat windows that students have open on their laptops while attending a talk. But for the soft clatter of keys, you would never know they were talking.

The third is the Monty Python thing. People are being turned away for want of somewhere to sit. What accounts for such enormous worldwide appetite to be an entrepreneur?

“I don’t think you should aspire to be an entrepreneur,” was the advice to one questioner. From a business point of view, that’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s pretty hard to passionately aspire to be an entrepreneur and then wait for an idea to throw your energy behind. What you can do is hurl yourself into the acquisition of deep knowledge in one domain or another or you can go to work with or for entrepreneurs.

And if and when you have the idea and readiness to build your own business then you will have something to throw yourself wholeheartedly into. Such was the advice and, well, sure. That makes sense. Yet I’m pretty certain that the number of people with the desire to “be” an entrepreneur is greater than the number of people who have a specific, burning business idea. I reckon the numbers don’t add up.

If that is so, then the success of the Lean Startup ‘movement’ must have tapped into something. And yes, the dream of becoming a twentysomething social media gazillionaire accounts for part of it.

But that doesn’t make a movement. I suspect it’s simpler and more profound. I think the reason is found in meaning and self-determination. These LSE students are entering a world where 50 per cent of jobs will be automated out of existence and years of professional training and qualifications can be replaced by an app on their phone. Work for many will be found in the gaps left between robots and algorithms.

People want to maintain (or take) some control of their destiny. And ideally they’d like to believe there are some rules. The allure of startup culture is people trying to grab a part of the steering wheel of the world for themselves. Ries put some rigour around the process and this provided a set of rules.

“Startups are organisations that operate in extreme uncertainty. Everything is an experiment,” he says. And this is how to survive.

Yet they aren’t commandments. “It’s not a religion,” he says again and again. Maybe people wish it was.

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“..writing code, changing the world, usual weekend stuff”

Dalton is 15. Apart from that, he’s very likeable. I don’t want to be ageist. But, what’s he doing here and why is it agitating me so much? It’s the weekend and I’m in a room full of 150 hackers who’ve been burning the midnight oil to build the best technical solution in a coding competition run by online storage company, Dropbox. It’s an old-school hackathon and it’s true to stereotype. I estimate that we’re talking 99 per cent dark hoodies; 70 per cent spectacles; 66 per cent male; 88 per cent highly caffeinated. And 99.3 per cent adult.

Then there’s the 0.7 per cent. Dalton. Utterly unfazed, holding his own among a crowd of hard-core coders. He’s just getting on with business: writing code, changing the world, usual weekend stuff.

And that’s the cause of my anxiety. What I’m thinking: give us grown-up breadwinners a chance, kiddo! Take it easy while you can. I consider speaking to the organisers and having him removed but they think it’s all great. Wrong! Surely, there should be some sort of protection for all those who have ever actually used a landline telephone for the purpose of conversation or who have switched TV channels through the mechanism of personally applying manual pressure to the TV set itself.

Maybe I’m being paranoid. I weigh the thought. Exhale. Perhaps this is just a panic attack triggered by too many of the hackers’ intense energy drinks. Then, just as I begin to get some perspective, I recall chortling about those crazy folk in Silicon Valley. I read last year that the SV demographic that is experiencing the fastest growth in plastic surgery is the middle-aged computer programmer working in the tech sector. Approaching their mid-30s they begin to discover that they are too old for the ping-pong table and bean bags. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have told an audience at Stanford back in 2007.

Stories of older workers being ousted because of their age are legion. And by ‘older’, I mean they’re in their late 30s. Eighteen months ago a question posted on Quora, the online question and answer hub, asked: “What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35?”

In the Old Street tech scene I’ve never felt that sort of pressure despite having grown up in an age when typewriters were used and “cc” meant something. I’m pretty sure the same ageism doesn’t exist in Tech City. One ‘mature’ startup I’ve worked with did indeed find that tech investors confided that they had a mental model of what a startup team looked like and it wasn’t people over 30. But that didn’t happen until they crossed the Atlantic.

And there’s Dalton. Schoolboy. Hacker. Canary? Are the times changing over here, too? I mean to find out. Fuelled by Red Bull I march over to confront his mother. Because yes, Roslyn, the mother of this demon teenage coder, is also at the hackathon. I speak to her, determined to put her straight about the risks that bringing unnervingly cool young hot shots could pose to relics like me who want to continue in employment through their 40s and beyond.

Don’t you see? I explain. We could be in trouble here. We should protect each other. Form a guild. Keep the knowledge to ourselves. Create barriers. Invent jargon. And then Roslyn puts me straight on my facts. Dalton, it turns out, attends a hackathon every weekend. And he isn’t doing this to consign me and my cohorts to the scrapheap. Rather than seeking to gain an advantage over the golden oldies (or elders and betters — depending on your perspective) he’s here to learn and be inspired.

It’s about education. The syllabus is designed for a world that is ordered and predictable. It’s a world where kids learn facts and deal with questions that have wrong answers and right answers. If life ever was that clear it certainly isn’t any more because change simply comes at us too fast. We inhabit a world of permanent acceleration. Whatever may be right this morning may well be wrong by the time you next visit your Twitter feed.

“I want him to learn that anything is possible. That people can have ideas and turn them into reality within a weekend,” says Roslyn. “This isn’t what they teach at school. So we come to Old Street to work with all these people who have crazy ideas and who, for fun, try to build them into prototypes in a weekend.”

This calms me. The cult of youth hasn’t overtaken Tech City. Rather, the problem weighs on the shoulders of the young who are trying to outrun their education, which can’t keep up with a world that changes at each blink. Dalton asks if I’d like a chamomile tea and I think maybe we can collaborate.

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Turbo-charged learning

How a fifteen year old who crashed a hackathon taught me a lesson. BA Business Life April 2015

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Doga Yoga and the Old Street Scenius

“When I first met Robbie, I don’t think he even realised he would become this famous,” she said. And from her handbag a dog barked. Hello Robbie.

I’d been getting on with business and staying out of trouble in my favourite Old Street coffee shop when I meet the Maltese Terrier.

Robbie’s business partner is Mahny Djahanguiri and she is the world’s leading authority on “Doga Yoga”. Mahny and Robbie have been featured in newspapers, magazines and TV shows around the world. So they’re a bit famous. And definitely more famous than Robbie first imagined when he was a young pup.

As I’ve described previously, such Silicon Roundabout coffee shops as these are like the London Underground. You operate in your own bubble, fight for your elbow space, mind your own business and get on with it.

This suits me fine. I’m taking a mini sabbatical from working in, with, for or even near boot-strapped startups. As much as it’s exciting and meaningful it’s also all-consuming and exhausting and I’ve only recently exited one in a process unlike anything else except that scene from Interstellar where Cooper rides the cosmic wormhole to the fifth dimension and realises he’s back where he started.

But here’s the flaw in such sabbaticals if you live and work in this neighbourhood: Once you’ve been through a few accelerator programs as a co-founder, mentor or elite-scavenger-of pizza-and-beer you see an awful lot of familiar faces. It’s hard not to bump into people you know from one startup or another and you get talking and before you know it the dormant virus of startup excitement re-awakens. If you don’t stomp on the buzz right there, you’re making introductions, then you’re pitching in, and suddenly you’re in another team. At midnight you stagger home with the milk lamenting like David Byrne: “Well, how did I get here?”

I welcome the winter. Turned up collars, pulled down hats, near permanent darkness; It’s easier to walk the streets without inhaling a startup conversation that catalyses the bug. I mean, Summer is hell. Startup ideas float in the light breeze of enthusiasm like a thick pollen cloud. Winter, you’ve got a chance. You just have to be disciplined; Don’t give the startup contagion a chink of light. This is why I’m fiercely protective of the isolationist tendency of what I call working-coffee-shops and remain determinedly plugged in to my own space once the steaming bowl of psycho-coffee arrives.

But damn, when your neighbour’s handbag starts barking and the conversation turns to doga yoga then all of a sudden the game’s up and there goes your iron willpower. Curiosity takes over. You let your guard down.

And we get to talking about books we’re writing and this, it seems, is our shared interest which is just dandy because it’s safe. Dumbass. I should have known better. Because of course it turns out that Mahny and Robbie have come to East London to seize the digital potential of Doga Yoga. Sure, Doga Yoga might have its spiritual home in West London but disruptive digital business-models come from this side of town and so here they are.

And like everything in this startup scene the idea swiftly does the dance of the seven veils and reveals that it’s fascinating.  It’s one thing to consider Robbie doing a show-and-bark in a yoga studio. But Robbie on Youtube, the App Store and LinkedIn is, well, it could be big business. The familiar pattern starts. Business models unfurl in the imagination and then they unravel but only to be replaced by two or three more.

Brian Eno, he of Roxy Music, coined the word “scenius”. His point was that creativity springs not only from folklore’s lone genius but also from the social sharing of ideas, passion and interest. And here Silicon Roundabout shows its hand. It’s got the critical mass of entrepreneurs, experience and enthusiasm to provoke the serendipitous clash of ideas that spits out a better idea. And increasingly our “scenius” has the money, mentors, and know-how to turn these new ideas into businesses. This is a tipping point.

The next trick is to perpetuate the growth and success. To do this the roundabout must remain open to outsiders rather as well as stereotypical startup founders. It’s precisely those outsiders who come with yoga mats or arrive on four legs or who in any other way do not fit the model who are most catalytic. They keep driving innovation and create new businesses.

That’s why it’s great to see Mahny and Robbie here. But as more people flock to the area there’s one downside and it’s very personal; You really can’t help bumping into people with ideas and passion and ambition. I try very hard not to and it still happens. So if you ever find yourself subscribed to a video channel of Robbie the Maltese Terrier performing trance dances then it just may be the product of the Old Street scenius.

March 2015 column for British Airways Business Life magazine

 

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Doga yoga and the Old Street Scenius

March 2015 column for British Airways Business Life magazineMarch MagicRoundabout

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A Whole New Ball Game

Old Street’s spirited startup culture is proving more and more attractive to City high flyers, says Richard Newton

This is My February 2015 column about Silicon Roundabout for British Airways magazine, Business Life

When curious robot anthropologists of the 22nd Century dig through the sediment of London’s City Road they will remark that the clusters of human artefacts change dramatically in the space of a few hundred metres.

Jetpacking through what they deduce were once the financial institutions of meat world they will find huge steel and glass trading floors. They will see tailored jackets on the backs of chairs, silk ties, spare pairs of polished shoes and opposite the chairs will be banks of fixed screens.

Chortling over their bitcoins, the robots will observe that one of these buildings has the parochial name “Bank of England” etched onto the wall. A few hundred metres north they will squawk, backfire and shudder. The ugliest roundabout in the world will be as ugly as it ever was. “OMG, Really?”, one will exclaim. “And they couldn’t do anything about that?”

They’ll shrug their shoulders : “GeoBot, are you sure this is where the dreamers flocked…?”  The GPS drone will vibrate: “…Computer says yes” .

They will press on and near the roundabout they will uncover the remnants of a different tribe; here they find smaller working spaces jammed with laptops,ping pong bats, strewn pizza boxes, towers of paper coffee cups and barely a bathroom to be found. On the walls are posters urging “Fail Harder”, “Move Fast and Break Things” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”.

Slightly baffled, the bots will scratch their radar dishes. Their history database confirms that during the 2010s the locus of exciting work is startups. The direction of the brain flow is from the cash-rich, well-appointed offices of multi-nationals to the bootstrapped, high risk, cramped co-working spaces of startups.]

Such robo-befuddlement is understandable. Robots love logic yet startup culture is all about deeply human values: Dreams, mission, meaning and common cause. T-shirts are a big deal and worn proudly. You work on a startup, either as the founder or one of the first employees, because you are on a mission in which you personally make a difference. So the company’s success is a direct reflection of you and your input. That makes it pretty easy to be wholehearted. You wear the Tshirt.

Of course this ambition and passion doesn’t equate to knowing what you’re doing. You’re building the ever-newer-new-thing which, by definition, hasn’t been done before so you’re working it out as you go. That’s scary and thrilling.

Failure is the anvil of success in startup world; You expose your idea as fast as possible to the cruel real world. You want to expose the flaws in order to learn fast and iterate. The faster you find what’s broken the quicker you can fix it. Because failure is such a valuable learning tool it’s lost its stigma. Failure, after all is not the end but the learning that begins the next stage: Maybe you “pivot”  towards a revised direction or perhaps you kill this dream and point the team in another direction.

These small groups of failure-hunting t-shirt-clad coffee-shop-warriors are building a culture.  Supporting them and feeding off them is an eco-system of accelerators (bootcamps for founders), co-working spaces, coffee shops, mentors, investors, meet ups, magazines, online noticeboards, events, tshirt printers, freelance market places, 3D fabrication labs and specialist producers of “explainer videos”. And in a cluster like Old Street you find that all these people are wholehearted in their mutually-reinforcing missions. A few hundred metres away you could lose a few million dollars in an afternoon. Your gut tells you it must be hard to be wholehearted in such an environment.

Which is one of the reasons that refugees from the professions and big business are curious about startup life. One former colleague now coordinates a three month training program that helps people make the transition. What’s normal to her is a revelation to her students. And this is just one of several international companies that help people drag their mindset from one default setting to another, that of the startup. That tells you there are lot of people wanting to make the move.

As the robot anthropologists pick through the rubble they’ll find that startups formed their own culture with their own terminology (pivot, disrupt, failfast, accelerator, minimum viable product),  a codified methodology of failure (read The Lean Startup), flags of allegiance (stickers and Tshirts), global indices of progress on the road to growth (Angelist, Crunchbase), common leisure activities (werewolf, ping pong) and journals (techcrunch, venturebeat, the next web).

Rifling through old pizza boxes, and scribbled-upon napkins GeoBot, Marvin and Hal 9000 try to locate the catnip, the prize, the elusive thing that lured people to this part of town.  But meaning and mission are intangible; Gut feel and wholeheartedness get scrambled in their algorithms and there’s nothing to be found. They shake their baffled aerials and jet on.

 

 

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Your space or mine?

“In his first report from the frontline of London’s startup scene, Rich Newton finds a place on the bench”

This is My December 2014 column for British Airways magazine, Business Life

The man on my right accidentally-on-purpose elbows me. And it’s perfectly acceptable. I’m encroaching on his space and in this coffee shop, especially on this particular bench, space is precious. He looks familiar. No doubt he’s another Old Street startup founder, as I am. He’s tall and blond. Estonian? Swedish? Maybe American? No – he would have said something. I guess I must have seen him at one of a dozen startup ‘meet-ups’ I’ve been to over the last few weeks since I moved back from Texas.

Our laptops comprise just two ships in an armada of Apple products lined up on this coffee shop bench. This particular bench is by the window. It’s prime workspace. Hence the cold war conducted with elbows, drummed fingers and an arms race of wires, tablets, phablets, phones and chargers.

He was here first but he left a gap (schoolboy error) and I’ve wedged myself in between him and another contender. Without doubt she also works in a tech startup. Observe the stickers plastered all over her Macbook: tech conventions, hackathons, demo days and myriad unknown-yet-familiar-sounding startups. These are campaign medals,creds.

Fake-casually, I turn my iPad over. She can’t help but notice the back cover stickers: SXSW 2014, Techstars, BBC Labs, plus a bunch of startups she’s never heard of in Austin, Texas. Back atcha. Austin, the fastest growing city in the US for the last four years, is twinned with Hackney, the London borough that adjoins ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Not a lot of people know that. My last startup is based in Austin but it was born here.

The ugliest roundabout in the world sits above Old Street Tube station. It’s an appropriate landmark for what used to be an East London no man’s land between the City and residential Islington. After the dot-com crash in 2000 the low rents attracted a bunch of bootstrapping internet startups that still ‘believed’ and when they noticed that they’d clustered, they self-mockingly dubbed the scene ‘Silicon Roundabout’. This attracted yet more startups. And eventually the moneymen glided over, sniffing the air. Consequently, that particular form of low rent magic dissipated. Office and residential rents climbed as investors, accelerators, property men, quangos, and corporate giants such as Google planted flags.

And following the capricious law of unintended consequences, now that the money is circling the startups, the bootstrapped startups themselves are in danger of being squeezed out. But that’s for another column. For now the entrepreneurs still pour in from around the world. And this, as my neighbour’s elbow reminds me, brings up the matter of supply and demand for physical space.

Bootstrapping is truly an art form of the internet age. Almost your entire company can be summoned up from your keyboard – accounting, legal work, project management, storage, distribution, design and even stickers. All but one thing. You. You still occupy physical space and you, in your dogged non-virtualness, insist on some space in which to, you know, be.

And maybe a few inches of bench space is all you need. Which is when you notice that every year you say the same thing: “The invasion of coffee shops must have peaked. Must have!” But no. Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop that is both next to a coffee shop and opposite a coffee shop. Each is stuffed like a troop carrier with a brigade of caffeinated, mission-oriented, earbud-isolated, sharp-elbowed pros like me.

When I set up my first company I was told that as a rule of thumb the minimum amount of office space you needed per person was a square metre. Those were the days, grasshopper. I dream of a square metre. So does Jens. Or Bastian. Or whoever this demon is.

The swarm of coffee shops has mirrored the rise of Silicon Roundabout and its entrepreneurial army. Or even facilitated it. Coffee, WiFi and a flat surface for your laptop: such are the table stakes for bootstrapping your business. It’s symbiosis. We depend on the coffee shops. They depend on us.

Who doesn’t know that JK Rowling nursed a cup of tea all day long in her local café while she wrote Harry Potter’s early adventures? When it comes to paying office rent by the cup, she was an innovator. We have crossed the chasm. Now the early majority are all at it.

My neighbour packs up his weapons and turns to leave. “All yours, mate!” he grins. He’s a Brit. Blimey. In Old Street. 

 

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