Innovation doesn’t have an end date – or life in Perpetual Beta

beta11One thing we pride ourselves on at Workible is our culture of constant innovation.  “Perpetual beta” – as I heard it put at innovation hub, Ideo, in Silicon Valley a couple of years ago – beta being the term that technology companies have used for years to describe their testing period.
This term made a lot of sense to me.  You see, technology is never really finished – not if you’re serious about it.

It’s why companies like Facebook and Google have massive teams of developers always looking at additional features, user experience tweaks and a better, smoother user interface.

Recently I heard my friend and entrepreneur Dale Beaumont put it a different way.  He said “if you’re not innovating and moving forward, you’re not standing still, you’re actually moving backwards” and that’s because everything around you is changing and increasing pace.

It’s really true.  Never before have things moved so fast or has the pace of change accelerated at such a speed – and it’s only going to get faster.  You don’t have a chance to build your technology, move it into the market, see how it settles and then decide what’s next, instead you release it, fix it along the way (or fail fast) and keep innovating while you’re doing it.

That’s perpetual beta.

To be able to do that, however, you need to keep a finger on the pulse of the market.  You need to have an ear on the ground, to listen to the chatter and gossip in your industry to uncover what the pain points are then plan to address them.  You need to watch what others are doing, not just your competitors but other businesses in other verticals that are being innovative then apply those innovations to your industry.

In our space, we see businesses all the time who are trying to take the “same old, same old” approach to recruitment just with prettier logos or by throwing large amounts of money at big brand ad campaigns – but that’s not innovation.

Every industry is currently being disrupted, not just by doing the same thing a bit differently but by doing it totally better – and ours is no different (and, we are leading that charge!).  For some industries that’s really hard (recruitment is one – they’re not early adopters) but it’s going to happen – that’s a given.

You only have to look at what businesses like AirBNB and Uber have done in their markets – by doing something totally different they’ve really put a cat amongst the pigeons, so much so that governments in some areas are actually trying to close them down.

But people love them both because they’ve simply offered a better way of doing things – and they’ve done it by thinking outside the square.

But, are they done?  Absolutely not.  Uber’s last capital raise was $1B and Airbnb’s was $1.5B (yes, billion!!) showing that those companies are still expanding – and innovating along the way.

Innovation is not an idea – it’s an attitude.  It’s applying a “how can we do it better” every day.  It’s about being constantly frustrated and dissatisfied with what you have, and knowing that you still have a long way to go.

We often get asked when Workible will be finished.  The answer is never.  The fact that the whiteboards in our office are covered with hundreds of coloured post-it notes for new ideas, features and improvements are testament to that.

It’s as frustrating as hell.  If we could wave a magic wand and have 500 developers working to make all of those post-it note ideas a reality, I’m guessing that the board would quickly fill up with even more ideas to replace them.

That’s what true innovation is.  Constant change.  Never ending improvement.  Out there ideas.  What if’s.  If only’s.  Continual frustration.  Limitless opportunities.  Perpetual Beta.

And we love it.

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Innovation doesn’t have an end date – or life in Perpetual Beta

Why do startups wear their capital raises like a badge of honour?

Yesterday I was reading an invitation to an event for startups.  It looked like a great event.  The company running the event apparently runs these regularly as, on the bottom of the invitation, they mentioned previous presenters they have featured.

It went something like this – “Joe Bloggs, raised $XM,  Fred Nurk, raised $XM, Jane Smith raised $XM”.  That got me thinking.

It seems to me that the measure of “success”, in the startup community anyway, is not the number of customers you have, not the turnover you have, but the funds you’ve raised.  Call me cynical, but since when is this true validation of a successful business?

I question whether some of these businesses are just drinking their own Kool Aid, caught up in the hype of startup world where the more you raise the bigger the hero you are.  You’re paraded around on startup stages about your superhero status, without anyone looking behind to see if you have a viable – or sustainable business – and possibly giving other starry-eyed startups the idea that you don’t have to have a solid business, you just need to be able to raise money – over and over again.

I saw this Kool-aid drinking in person several years ago on my first trip to Silicon Valley.  My Co-Founder, Alli and I, had just won our first ever pitching competition (before it, we didn’t even know what a pitch was) and the prize was a trip to TiECon in Santa Clara.

At one of the sessions, a gentleman named Rick Morini was being hailed as a god after steering his early stage startup through raising around $50M US (in three rounds) and using that to acquire 300M users.  His company, Branchout, was a job-finding platform that mined Facebook for jobs and job referrals by going through your friend network.  He proudly told a captive audience that he’d done 3 rounds after pivoting from a “sports fan” business, for which he’d also raised money.  (Um, for the record, that’s not a pivot, that’s a whole new business.)

Mr. Morini was being celebrated as a wunderkind after these massive raises and was talking about his unbelievable growth.  Duly impressed, Alli and I came back and started doing some research into Branchout and found a stack of forums with disgruntled users who were fed up with their Facebook contacts being “invaded” and wanting to know how to get out of Branchout.  Within a month, this business had lost half its users and the pundits were predicted that, at that rate, it could be defunct before the end of the year.

Branchout “pivoted” again and again but it just didn’t last and, just recently, it’s dev team and database was sold off leaving investors with a substantial deficit and proving that raising funds is not a measure of your success.

But that’s just one of hundreds of examples.  In thinking about this article, I did a whole lot of research into failed startups and the figures are staggering.  They parallel the well-known ABS statistic that states that around 90% of all businesses fail.  The difference is that a lot of startups fail with a lot of other people’s money.   And there’s plenty of local examples of big raises that have gone sour – we just don’t parade them on stage (although, interestingly, we did when they raised).

An article on TechCrunch gives this good example and quotes, “It’s also possible to raise too much money. Inexperienced executive teams sign up some customers, raise a big round and get a little out of control with high-priced office space and Google-esque perks. Then, for whatever reason, growth slows and all that capital quickly disappears.”  They cite the example of Ben Yoskovitz, the founder of Standout Jobs (interestingly another company in our space) and a postmortem written in 2010 by CB Insights. “I raised too much money, too early for StandoutJobs (~$1.8M). We didn’t have the validation needed to justify raising the money we did.”  He went on to say that “raising money felt like winning.”

That kind of media is, however, all too rare.  Rather than looking to set examples of businesses who’ve found a great product/market fit (the backbone of every successful business) or those who’ve gained great sales traction, or customers of a great calibre, we make heroes of those who’ve raised money.  Why is that?

Why are startup events full of “how to raise money” and “how to pitch” sessions instead of “how to grow a business” sessions or sessions on building killer – and in-demand – technology?   It appears we’d all rather hear sessions about Uber’s or Airbnb’s latest $500M round or how Pinterest or LinkedIn had raised millions – well before they had any revenue model.  The message is apparently – “don’t worry about revenue, they didn’t”.  Newsflash – “they” are the the exceptions rather than the rules!

Maybe it’s my business background but, to me, there just might be a lot of startup Kool Aid drinkers who are going to fall on their own swords.

We all hear questions about whether or not we’re in another “tech bubble”, whether all this money-throwing at startups is going to end in a bad way.  In my humble opinion, it might.  It could just take one or two big, bad stories to end sadly and this fantasyland we all currently live in, may also end.

My problem is not with raising money.  My problem is that we seem to define success with how much you’ve raised – and yet that, on its own, is no definition of success.

Yes, we have raised money – and we’re very aware of our obligations to the investors who have staked so much faith in supporting us in that way – but we certainly don’t pin our success to the value of our investment.  We try to reward our investors with revenue and customers and building great (and valuable) technology.

Would a $50M investment help?  Absolutely!  Would it make us superstars?   No, not just by raising the capital.  However, if we could take that capital and turn it into significant (and I mean 8, 9 or 10 figure) annual revenue, user traction, an enviable client base and long-term sustainability, then yes it would.

But then, I guess I’m old school.

NB: The opinions in this article are the author’s only.

Why do startups wear their capital raises like a badge of honour?

Some Uber-Valuable Reminders + My Top 10 Entrepreneurial Lessons

lightning_bolt

Last month I was asked to deliver a masterclass on “How to Launch a Successful Small Business” presented by Uber and General Assembly (GA).

I’ve been a GA Instructor for a few years now so I’ve done a number of purpose-run classes where a corporate teams up with General Assembly to provide value to their clients, employees, or network.

But for some reason, when I turned up to the venue and the elevator doors opened up to a room full of Uber drivers, I was surprised.  I suppose I’d been expecting a mix of aspiring entrepreneurs invited from the network of Uber customers and GA students, not men and women who already have their own small businesses as Uber drivers.

For some reason, I instantly turned into “Negative Nelly” and thought, ‘Oh man, my presentation has not been tailored to this group. These people already have their own small businesses – they’ll be so bored.’

By the time I was on deck, ready to present, it was standing room only and I was still thinking that they were really only there for the free food.

But, boy, was I wrong.

When it came time to wrap up my talk and move into Q&A, I still had little indication that what I presented had resonated with anyone in the room.  I asked if anyone had any questions and for a few moments…. crickets.  I even started to slide stage left, thinking “oh well, job done.”

But then the floodgates opened.  One after another, audience members raised his/her hand — there were lots of “thanks”, questions and, best of all, stories of their own side businesses and ideas.

One man described how he’d just quit his job thanks to Uber and was now a full-time driver developing a startup on the side.  And, while listening to his story and the others like it, it struck me how in line the Uber opportunity is with the ideals that drive Workible — giving people the power to customise their own work lives.  Whether Uber is a supplementary income, a full time business or a means to another end, it’s empowering men and women to achieve their goals.

Even after the Q&A, I had a swarm of people continuing the conversation, swapping cards, and requesting the slides.

For me, the experience was a reminder of the futility of snap assumptions and the value of sharing our stories and knowledge, whether directly or indirectly relevant, because you never know when a lightning bolt may strike.

So, with that in mind, here are 10 of my own personal entrepreneurial lessons that I shared with the group that night:

  • Get uncomfortable — Never in my life have I been so consistently faced with opportunities to step out of my comfort zone as I have as an entrepreneur.  The more I take those opportunities, not only the less scary and more invigorating they become but they are the most sure-fire way to take a giant leap forward.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that can happen is they say “No.”  — That goes for investment, sales, customer/ user feedback, employee engagement, partnerships and more.  You’re not going to get anything or anywhere if you don’t speak up. 
  • Do everything you can manually, then automate/ build. — You can waste a lot of time and money rushing to automate a process that you haven’t thoroughly tested.  Best to avoid shortcuts and understand the in’s and out’s first.  
  • Make it work, then make it better. — This one falls under the “fail fast” adage in startup world.  Don’t overcomplicate things.  Do the absolute minimum required to test and see if something works/ is wanted, then take the next step. 
  • You’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes are good as long as you learn from them and bounce back.
  • You can’t do everything, but in the beginning you’ll have to.  Know when it’s time to let go.
  • Your time is precious. Be picky with who you spend your time with (especially potential clients who despite loving you or your product – after weeks, months, sometimes years – just aren’t ready to buy).
  • Keep your competitors in your peripherals, but don’t let them distract you.  It’s important to know what’s going on in the industry, but if you’re always looking over your shoulder, how are you supposed to get ahead of the wave? 
  • Get out of your own way, stop worrying about “what if” and do what’s best for the business.
  • No one really knows what they’re doing.  There is no right time or perfect pedigree that prepares you to kickstart a new business – just jump in and get dirty, learn and fail, get knocked down and get back up. You’ll never regret it.
Some Uber-Valuable Reminders + My Top 10 Entrepreneurial Lessons

Making risky choices – and owning the consequences

CollectiveI’ve just read the most inspiring, daring piece of writing courtesy of the incredible Lisa Messenger.  Lisa is the Founder and Editor of The Collective magazine and, I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, one kick-ass – and gorgeously feminine – lady.

The piece was Lisa’s editorial in this month’s Collective magazine.  This month’s issue features a women, facing away, walking out on a ledge over New York City with only a man’s hand holding her back.  While it’s a fantastic picture, it’s an interesting choice for a magazine cover.

This image symbolises every that The Collective stands for – taking risks, getting out there and being gutsy – but that’s not why it’s such a brave choice.  Lisa admits that the reason it’s a brave choice is that, simply, famous faces sell magazines – and this is not only not a famous face, it’s not even a face.

In her editorial, Lisa mentions that she’s wanted to do this for months but, with her magazine empire growing into new markets, she’s needed to conform with famous faces to sell the magazine to new readers.   But this month, not only did she take the risky leap, she also accepted full responsibility for what might be a really bad decision.  In her own words “I’m prepared to take the risk, and prepared to take the hit”.

I admire this gutsy woman in so many ways, her transparency and complete honesty is so refreshing in what can sometimes be an entrepreneurial world of self-serving “spin”.

For entrepreneurs, each day is all about pushing boundaries and going against the grain – and, by doing that, you expose yourself to potential criticism about those possible bad decisions.  But, at the end of the day, if you’re prepared to wear the consequences – and wear them proudly – those risky decisions could be the best ones you’ll ever make.

No one ever made it big by being mediocre and so, if that’s your goal, you need to take those risks.

We do it every day at Workible.  We take risks – and we’re absolutely prepared to “fall on our swords” if they’re the wrong ones.  Sometimes we do, but most of the time, those decisions, while they might not be the big ground-breaking event we hoped for, give us valuable learning experiences.  And every now and again, one proves to be a killer idea.

We realize that if we don’t make risky choices sometimes, if we’re not prepared to go out on that ledge, we may stay mediocre forever – and, for an entrepreneur, that’s an awful thought.

Lisa, I so admire your need to go against the grain and take risks and I don’t think this cover is a mistake.  If fact, it just might be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

Lisa’s reminder in this editorial piece was this – “everyone is equal – the only difference is attitude and mindset.”  After a month of meetings with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the magazine publishing world in NYC, such as Vogue’s matriarch Anna Wintour and Conde Nast’s  CEO Chuck Townsend, Lisa’s statement that “they are just normal people like me, doing the best they can in their chosen field and in life to make a difference in the world” shows that these are just ordinary people making – and owning – big, risky decisions.  It also brings to mind a saying my Co-Founder, Alli Baker (another superstar woman) used to always say.  In conversations we’d have about people doing extraordinary things, Alli would say “My Dad always says, they still put their pants on like us, one leg at a time”.  Yep, they’re ordinary people.

So here’s the kicker…

We all have the capability to do great things, but, if we really want to achieve something extraordinary, we have to be brave enough to risk really pushing the boundaries and making those big, brave decisions and to take the hits – and the learning experiences that comes with them – if they don’t work out.  And we have to proudly own them.

(BTW if you haven’t yet, pick up The Collective Magazine.  It’s an amazing, inspiring read – each and every issue.)

Making risky choices – and owning the consequences

Silver Linings and Clients that Kick Butt

Friday didn’t start out so hot.

Long story short:  A client alerted me that a “partner” of ours has been proactively trying to poach their business from us through some pretty deceptive sales tactics and slippery, unscrupulous technical tricks.

Once we worked out what was happening and how, she had some pretty choice words to say about the offending business… “unethical,” “appalling,” even “bully”… to name a few.   I have to admit, there were a few more floating around in my head.

But the point of this post isn’t to lament the betrayal by an alleged partner.  We’ll deal with that in due course.

No.  I felt compelled to write about this experience because it’s a testament to the strength of our client relationships.  I’m really proud that we’ve been able to foster such a great relationships with the companies we work with that not only will they stand by us when another organisation tries to lure them away from Workible, but they’ll also go to bat for us. (In this instance, my client called the red-handed company more than once that day to tell them what she thought of their practices).

It’s great reassurance that our focus on client relationships and continually adding more value for our clients is the right path.  In a hot market like HR Tech, we’ve established firm foundations that give us an edge against competitors — big and small.

it-was-never-a-dressAfter all was said and done on Friday, my client sent me this image and a few of her “Thoughts for the Day” that I’ll share with you below:

  • Competitors are a reality – not a surprise
  • Your product will always be chosen for the value it brings your client
  • So the way to compete is to constantly increase your value for the client – not outdo the competitor
  • Be the ones that set the agenda and walk the path with expertise and integrity – you want to be proactive – not reactive.
  • Know what you are and what you are not
  • When all else fails – and you do not want to seek alcohol as a solution – sunshine, chocolate and TED talks.
So while Friday started off not so hot, by the end I felt pretty great.  In the words of my client, “Bring it on!!!!! Kick butt is what we do!”
Silver Linings and Clients that Kick Butt

Why it’s imperative that we take time.

thinkingThere’s only one word for my To Do list – aaarrrgghh!!  Each day, more seems to go on it than go off it.  So when I checked my diary last week and realised that I was “out” for 3 days at a conference, my immediate thought was “can I really afford the time?”

After spending three days at an industry-based thought leadership event, my thought now is “can I afford not to?”

As an entrepreneur, there’s a never-ending list of things to do and without a limitless budget for people to do it for you, all too often we find ourselves at the coalface doing all the little stuff – as well as the big stuff, so taking time out seems an absolute luxury.

But it’s not.  It’s an absolute must.

Over the last 3 days, I’ve had time to THINK.  And that’s part – a big part – of my job.

I’ve been able to get another look at the ecosystem that we operate in, hear industry thought-leaders talk about where things are heading and look at what else, and more importantly, who else is doing what in it.

This gives me the time to think about what we’re developing, features we need and how we’re going to stay ahead of the pack by continuing to innovate and come up with best practice solutions for our clients.

It’s also given me time to brainstorm with Alli, who is having a similar experience to me, so that we can share ideas, thoughts and “where to from here” strategies on how to continue on the path to achieving what we want to.

So here’s the kicker….

It’s so important that we do this – as it is for any entrepreneur.  It’s not a luxury to take time to think, to go to events, to mix with industry colleagues, it’s a necessity.

Why it’s imperative that we take time.

Where do you draw the line?

do not crossYesterday we had an interesting conversation at Workible about where you draw the line in marketing – and what’s fair game.

As a growing business, we’re always looking at unique ways to get to the market and a recently published tech success story was at the centre of our “how did they do it” discussion.

Some googling soon uncovered some interesting forum and blog posts about some tactics startups had been using (but not admitting to) and that instigated a discussion about where a company draws the line.

Let me be frank, the tactics used by some of these companies were certainly not straight up – but nor were they illegal or fraudulent.  They were, however, very clever and resulted in a huge traffic windfalls to their site (and possibly away from a competitor’s) and, ultimately, was a major part of the huge success they are now enjoying.

Others we came across were arguably even more dodgy, giving the company a windfall in users but giving the users a terrible user experience – and therefore possibly not gaining many true active users – and making us wonder whether they had really thought it all through or whether or not it was simply a “grab for analytics” to make the company look better to a financier or acquirer.

So where’s the line in business?  What is healthy competition and what is just not right?

The more time we spend in the start up world, the more we realize that all is not what it seems.   What appears to be random luck is seldom that.  It’s much more often smoke and mirrors  or edgy marketing than it is “right place, right time” and it’s all covered up by the term “growth hacking”.  And then there are outright lies about traffic, users and growth – something that puzzles us because, let’s be frank, it’s not too hard to check.

Talk to real growth hackers and they’ll tell you that growth hacking is really about looking at metrics then working out ways to do small incremental improvements everywhere that, put together, give you increased growth in users and/or traffic and not that one big idea that changes everything.

Very few growth hackers will admit to sneaky tactics that mine other sites to get users, or re-direct traffic or piggy back – these seem to be more the domain of the early startup teams – who use “desperate measures in desperate times” – the early days that can make or break a startup.

I’m not sure that we came to an actual conclusion about what was fair game and what wasn’t but our discussion did lead to marketing in general. In the offline world, if salespeople go out every day to try to poach business from their competitors, doesn’t that make these online tactics also fair game?

As an entrepreneur, the whatever it takes attitude is what you need to succeed.  Start ups are hard so you sometimes need to step off the moral high ground and just do what it takes to survive.  It all depends on where you, as an individual, draw the line on what is simply smart marketing versus what is down and dirty behavior.  At the end of the day, that’s up to the individual.

At Workible, we prefer to err on the side of caution.  We don’t lie about our users or our traction.  We don’t need to.  Our technology speaks for itself.  We’re not trying to be the biggest kid in the playground – we don’t need hundreds of thousands of users because we are a Saas platform.  We’ve specifically chosen not to play where everyone else does, there’s no point.  The biggest players have the general market sewn up, so why go head to head with them?

We’ve taken the disruptive path – picking a niche market and solving their problem with innovative technology and a new way of doing things.  Have a look at the big disruptors in the market – they’re not taking on the big guys, they’re doing things very differently and reinventing the way things are being done.  For us, we’re reinventing recruitment in our niche.

Does that mean we don’t take clients from others?  Absolutely not.  That’s just healthy competition.  Do we use growth hacking to grow?  Totally.  But that’s just smart marketing.

As for where you draw the line, well, that’s up to the Founders.

Where do you draw the line?