How to start a social startup: knowing when you’re right and wrong

After some initial skepticism, I’m now much more into the lean startup way of doing things. Although I’d read a bit about it beforehand, it was one of our investors at School of Everything who really pushed us to follow the methodology rigorously. At first we found it really difficult but after a year of trying I think we’re much better at it and I just wanted to put down some thoughts about one of the things that we’ve had to battle with over that time, which is knowing when you’re right and when you’re wrong.

For the uninitiated, the basic premise of lean startup is that you shouldn’t actually build anything until you are sure that you have customers who are willing to use your service and pay for it. This comes from the fact that building technology is the most expensive bit of a startup in the early days because it takes a lot of time to do well. Steve Blank calls the process ‘customer development’ rather than ‘product development’.

So the first step of lean startup is that you need a hunch to test. It’s really nothing more than that. Just an idea about how you could solve a problem for people. It should be nothing more than a sentence or two written down. Then you need to get out of the office and test that hunch with real people.

We tried this with an idea we called School of Everything Groups. Our hunch was that people wanted to learn things in small groups and needed a simple tool to help them organise the groups. We told people the idea and showed them a simple presentation of the process. So far, so good and lots of the people we talked to said yes that was a good idea and that it was something they would use. So we went away and started designing up a Minimum Viable Product. It was little more than a Google Spreadsheet and some automated emails but it worked for us and people came along to all the groups we organised. At the same time we were also sending questionnaires to our existing members asking them for their feedback and whether they would use it. We got over 150 responses with nearly 80% of people saying yes this was something they would use. All sounds good right?

Well there’s another side to the story which with hindsight was more important but because we were keen to get things done, I think we ignored. Some of the people we were talking to about the idea were just saying ‘meh’. They were saying it very politely to the extent that we went away thinking they would use it, but actually their criticisms were quite damning. I won’t name names but there are three quotes that looking back I remember quite clearly.

  • “It sounds good but it’s just not something I would use. I’m the sort of person who goes along to things, not the sort of person who organises things.”
  • “Me and my friends are just looking for occasional interesting things to do together in the evenings and weekends, not something to do every week.”
  • “Yeah I organise a lot of these things already using email and Facebook”.

Statistically they were a tiny amount of the feedback we got but they actually summarise all of the problems that the idea would face. It showed that we would be very dependent on ‘organisers’ and we needed a way of reaching them. It showed that people would be reticent about long term commitment to a group and it showed that potential organisers already had ways of doing this that we would need to vastly improve upon. There were also a few other warning signs. A lot of people said it fitted in very well with the ‘big society’ agenda which was very much in the headlines at the time. It think it was easy to think that because the idea ‘fitted in’ with a bigger agenda it was better than it actually was.

And sure enough, as time went on and we developed the idea further, we found that the proportion of excitement to ‘meh’ gradually shifted towards the latter. When we started to ask why we got an interesting answer which we were able to act upon and is now working very nicely, but it meant going back to the drawing board and scrapping a lot of work we’d already done.
The leap was to make the group sessions one-offs and resulted in us creating School of Everything Specials. Now we have people buying the stuff we’re offering and we can learn with real data how to improve it piece by piece. It’s early days but it seems to be working. If you’re in London, you can sign up for our weekly email of interesting one-off classes here.

I struggle to know how we could have worked out that those few negative insights were more important than the many positive ones. Part of me thinks you need to go through the mistakes in order to get to the solution. You need to get to what Steven Johnson and Stuart Kauffman might call a case of the adjacent possible. We certainly couldn’t see ‘Specials’ until we were close enough to make the tiny leap from one idea to another. In lean startup terminology these changes of direction are called ‘pivots’ but I think there’s a lot more work to be done on interpreting the information you collect in order to decide which way to turn.

The trouble with one ring to rule them all

Ah, Startup Britain, that was a fun week. I don’t think it went exactly according to plan. My take on why the launch went so badly wrong is that there’s no such thing as a single startup community in the UK. There are hundreds of smaller loosely joined communities with their own subcultures and attitudes to themselves and each other and that’s a wonderful thing. But it means that any attempt to create an overarching brand is going to annoy a lot of people.

Just to explain a little more, it’s pretty common for government to assume that the ‘entrepreneurial’ community is the important one. But actually the most talented people don’t go to the bigger (more mainstream) events because they attract some fairly awful people. In London they can be described as the ‘social media experts’. The talented people who are doing the interesting work, wouldn’t be seen dead there. Take things like Dorkbot — there’s not a sniff of startup about it. If things get too ‘cool’ the dorks run a mile and they rarely speak to journalists. A friend told me last night about a ‘proper inventor’ he’s working with who blew the roof off his garage when experimenting with changing the coolant in a gadget he’s developed that could just change the lives of millions of people. He’s unlikely to want to be part of a national campaign or even a startup — he just enjoys tinkering.

I think this is why there’s been such a negative reaction to Startup Britain. A lot of people don’t identify themselves as startups. A lot of people in these communities aren’t that British. And there are thousands of people doing and making interesting things who just don’t want any profile. They want to invent things. I’m not anti Startup Britain, I guess I’m just pointing out why I think it created a reflex response from many of the people who it wanted to involve. It’s the problem with anything that tries to be ‘one ring to rule them all’ and one I’ve seen in other domains — Make Poverty History springs to mind.

My view is the organisers would be best focusing on asking what people want and then going away and developing discrete offers for people based on that. A sort of lean startup approach to creating an industry body I guess. I get the sense from their tweets later in the week that might be what they’re doing. Some of those should be actual offers for startups, others should be laser-like campaigns to get government to change things. The CBI and IoD are frankly useless when it comes to helping small companies so it should be easy to do better.

And the Startup Britain people shouldn’t overclaim about what they’re doing — which I think just through the way they attempted to launch they already have. They should read Matt Jones on how much gardening is required to make these things work and be a little more humble about their part.
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