June marked the end of my first stint with a start-up program.
Called ‘The Validator’, and affiliated with Monash University, and its Generator Incubator, the program was forced online, the way we all were, at the last minute.
For me, the online experiment was half the attraction. I like to be the first in line to try something new. Unless it’s a food challenge, or involves spiders in some way, shape or form.
Having submitted the application, without first checking to see how long the commute might be, the opportunity to renege on my hastily-made agreement to make a three-hour, round trip trek once a week, via at least three modes of public transport, to blustery Clayton, was a step back to my undergraduate days that I was quite prepared to forgo in order to ‘go remote’.
(As you may know, I’m not against jumping on a tram, or a train, and heading out into the night to hear someone talk about things that they know more about than I do.
I have a whole blog about it: http://www.techandthecity.blog
This blog, in fact.
In practice though, the pursuit of self-development has its limits, and the outer edge of those limits are generally confined to Melbourne Myki Zone 1. Time is money after all.)
What is The Validator?
The purpose of ‘The Validator’ is to take an idea from nothing to ‘viable product’ in a five week period, which is a few weeks less time than ‘normal’ for an accelerator.
Five weeks is a challenge, but it’s eminently doable if you know:
- what you want to do,
- what you want to call your start up (and the name is available.)
- the scope of work that needs to be done to get you where you need to be;
- who your competitors are;
- who you most need on the team, in terms of skills and reliability, and have them locked in which I didn’t have; and
- what the gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in look like, which I did.
What was it like?
It was fine.
Those of you familiar with the blog know that I’ve become an accidental expert in ‘who does what’, and where, in the start-up, design thinking and entrepreneurship community in Melbourne.
What you may not know, is that I have three full degrees and I like using them.
What can I say?
I like learning.
Having visited most of the pitch nights and accelerator sign-up nights in the greater Melbourne area, and worked my way through all the free Lean Canvas, CX, MVP, design thinking, wire framing and Agile related training on offer, I was hoping that my alma mater would have a point of difference that might be distinctly ‘Monash’ flavoured.
Something that would connect the dots between my education, my business idea, and the world of start-ups.
Due to Clayton being outside of my transportation comfort zone, I hadn’t seen or experienced Monash’s answer to Unimelb’s MAP; Deakin Spark, Swinburne NEXT, Wade Institute, RMIT Activator, Stone and Chalk, Le Wagon or Moreland’s ‘Converger’. Having applied to join the program as an alumnus, I had high hopes of being able to leverage my degrees, and in particular getting access to library resources, that an ordinary alumni membership doesn’t permit, and connecting with specialist materials researchers. (Although, that last part was probably pushing it.)
What did I learn?
For those who don’t know: in start-up circles there are three basic frameworks that people use to do what I would call ‘small business planning’ – Lean start up, Minimum Viable Product (MVP) bootstrap, and design sprinting / thinking.
While they are very cool frameworks, they are just three more frameworks in a menu of useful, workable models that you can use and should have in your tool kit if you’re any kind of management consultant.
I’m well aware that the choir seems to be singing from the same Silicon Valley text book. (Eveybody does a pitch night, and everybody uses Lean. Hence, the search for something different.) And I’ve been curious about the devotion digital natives have to real-world gatherings since before COVID.
I cannot get over, and I will never understand why organisations, in general, are so unable to leverage technology to get things done remotely, but in particular, the start-up community, which plays such a central role in developing these tools in the first place.
Call me crazy, but I expected that people in the business of coming up with ideas for ‘how we’ll all be doing things in the future’ ought to be able to ‘walk the talk’ on how to get things done, futuristically, today.
To my way of thinking, you cannot do your best, at anything, if you only have one way to get it done.
In 2019, I used Mural.co to help a client host an online co-design sprint remotely, internationally and asynchronously.
I’m 46, an Arts graduate and a public servant.
What’s your excuse?
The rigid focus on process and the need for in person services for ‘ideation’ to happen, don’t bode well: as if cycling through cookie-cutter Lean canvas; focus group driven ‘product’ development, and Kan Ban inspired design sprints, (which used to be known as “brainstorming”) rather than strategy, and creativity, insight or timing, are the key to having a definitively good idea, is confusing, and unsupported by the weight of evidence.
I’m only citing Harvard… Most of their start ups don’t make a return on investment, but the ones that do, make up for the hundreds that don’t.
They don’t call them ‘moonshots’ for nothing.
If you’re an undergraduate, or a high schooler, (or else you’ve never worked on any business or project planning tasks in your working life), then these Silicon Valley text book tools are a great 101 introduction to starting a business.
And to that extent, the offering works well.
But at 46 years old, I’m the average age for a start-up founder in Victoria.
People my age have the advantage that we’ve already learned a thing or two, about business, including what not to do. Probably the hard way.
Why else did you think that we’re here?
It begs the question: is there such a thing as an accelerator for peopl who aren’t totally new to business planning?
People who don’t need to learn to pitch, because they have their own equity to back them?
Quite why every program in Victoria assumes the cohort needs seed funding, and we’ll have to pitch to get it, instead of loaning money from a bank, or dipping into the mortgage, and is teaching rudimentary business planning skills, when the average age of a start-up founder is closer to fifty than twenty, boggles the mind.
What forty something doesn’t have any equity?
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that people acting as though something overwhelming and weird isn’t happening right now, (or worse, adopting a pandemic driven strategy for ‘growth and customer acquisition’) comes across as being, well, just a little bit maniacal and tin-eared.
For myself, whilst I like stationery, Post-It notes and meeting face-to-face, just as much as the next person, that doesn’t mean I’ve thrown out all the other ways that I’ve been able to get my work done, any more than it meant that I couldn’t organise a design sprint remotely, asynchronously, successfully and internationally, using Muralo.
Personally, I think there is an opportunity cost to misreading and misjudging your timing, your tone and your audience in public life, and that you should always look at doing market research, and launching your ideas into the world, through a PR lens.
The ‘need for speed’ is important to ideas that have a first mover advantage, but the viability of most businesses involves an element of timing. The pressure to go through the motions needed to launch my business when I had no intention of doing so in the midst of COVID was unexpected.
Whilst I agree with my hosts, that you absolutely can do consumer research during a pandemic, unless you’re unconcerned that the results won’t compare too well to what they would have been under pre-Covid circumstances; (or what they’ll actually be post-Covid19, and across the next three years or so, of this disease wreaking havoc.)
Covid is not a condition that any of my business start up ideas have factored for, and I don’t think there is any harm in holding back on them, until that changes, and the new normal emerges, since it affects their profitabilty and by extension, my comfort level with them.
If you don’t mind?
Let alone expecting me to do at least fifty to one hundred cold calls to friends who are stressed out and learning to work from home and worried that they’ll never have a social life ever again.
On the whole, I thought the approach was biased toward Software as a Service, which wasn’t my business model, and I’m fairly confident that this particular start-up idea would be better supported and suited to a Technical University incubator, that has a materials and manufacturing base.
(Macquarie University, I am looking at you!)
I also really have my doubts about the ability of bootstrap validation to put the ‘v’ in an MVP. The V stands for ‘viable’ and there are shades and degrees of ‘viable’.
A human life can be ‘viable’ for a day or a hundred plus years. If the difference is a bit of mindful effort and pacing, why not apply it?
It may surprise you to learn that:
- the start up play book does not know what small business planning is;
- design thinking isn’t across all the other methods it could be drawing on to develop evidence;
- the unreliable results and needless expense of cold calling were not seen to be a reason NOT to do them
- neither was the disruptive effect of COVID on my
market research victims customers.
- surveys and online tools that generate data and reportable insights, that make them preferable and more efficient, to my way of thinking, were also actively discouraged in favour of cold calls;
- all businesses are valued at a half a million dollars by default, which seems at odds with everything from loan criteria, to Shark Tank, to corporations law, so WTF?
- viability is defined as fooling enough people onto your mock website, on the promise of a product being created, sometime vaguely in the future, in exchange for money down (nice work if you can get it) or an email address, today. As a consumer, I already hate this so much I will NEVER buy from you. Do not do this.
- technology101 should not be assumed.
- Law101 should not be assumed
- Universityness should not be assumed.
It’s a little-known fact that I would rather use data analytics, (or else feign death in the workplace,) than use statistics. So, if I say to you, that your evidence gathering method is biased, expensive, unreliable, discriminatory, unsuitable and time-consuming, believe it.
I don’t think you can be serious about ‘the way of the future’ and at the same time apologise that you only had a few weeks to pivot your offering, because it never occurred to you that you might need to go online, or worse, that you hope that things ‘go back to normal soon’ because the pandemic means you can’t do your work properly anymore.
I thought this was a design-fuelled, tech revolution?
Don’t misunderstand me, I love gel pens, Sharpies, stickers, stamps and post it notes in fluoro colours more than someone my age, with my responsibilities, and degrees, really ought to, and I have several of the above-mentioned items festooning my desk as we speak. But. That doesn’t mean that I use them in my outputs, precisely because they aren’t the way you do things when you’re a grown-up lady.
I think remote delivery is going to be the new norm, and things will never go back to the way they were.
Is that not normal?
Last but not least, I want to know where the Monash was in my Monash incubator?
Where was the program that leverages what we already taught you?
In my degree, I was taught a slew of methods for generating ideas, and
I was taught that social science, isn’t science, and that ‘validation’ as it’s now known, is flawed, unwieldy, and expensive.
It annoys me that design thinking, which is so good at eliciting credible
and workable ideas for innovation and change, relies so heavily on such a
shitty, expensive, and crude method for producing evidence as focus groups and cold calls.
Social action research is unreliable, statistically invalid and unrepresentative. It’s also been the butt of jokes, since before I finished primary school.
Designing questions that don’t lead the respondent to answer one way only, and setting up focus groups that aren’t biased toward English language speakers, alpha personalities and self-interested, squeaky-wheel types, is a technical art form that few people are actually any good at.
Do accelerators not know how inefficient and expensive it is to gather data using cold calls? Or how ironic that something that is supposed to speed things up is using COLD CALLS?
Gen X, my people and the people before my people, come equipped with a ‘get off the line at all costs’ response to unsolicited calls, because we learned to dread this ‘gotcha’ method when it was deployed to sell us insurance we didn’t need or want.
I screen calls from unknown numbers all the time. It’s one of my smart phone’s most valued features.
So why the sudden resurgence in popularity?
The success of Husqvarna, Nintendo and IBM weren’t built on half-finished ‘products’.
Bill Gates never did Lean canvas.
Steve Jobs didn’t work in a call centre asking his friends what they reckoned about his ideas.
And I think you’ll find that Toyota invented Agile.
So I ask, hand on heart, on behalf of all of us who know and remember who Peter Drucker, Michael Porter and W. Edwards Deeming are, and what they contributed to management theory, that you’re now calling a bunch of other off-brand names, is there such a thing as an accelerator for people who are the average age or older for a start up founder?
And can this new entity please help me plug the gaps in my technical knowledge and understanding?
For example: why I would use Wix or SquareSpace or WordPress or Shopify? Or build in Bubble or Outsystems? What is Ruby on Rails, or R or Java? Do I use Here or Google Maps? (‘Here,’ obviously, because Sam is a mate) And lorks a lordie, why can’t the industry find a way to get me a domain name, hosting and email IN ONE TRANSACTION?
Riddle me that.
Now that is the incubator, that I would pay to see.