Earlier this year I started a start-up. Two of them actually.
One is a technically driven strategy platform working under the code name Plannr born from some work I did with Facebook last year.
The other is a publishing idea.
Earlier this summer I made the decision to focus 100% on the publishing concept, partly because it was closer to being revenue positive and also because I loved it a bit more.
I also love Plannr, and it may be restarted, but what I love most about it at the moment is what I learned from it.
For six months I was based in the Google start up campus around Old Street in London, met as many people as possible and immersed myself in as many things as possible. A dramatic change after a decade in highly creative, innovative and potent advertising agencies.
There is a very different lifeblood in the world of entrepreneurs, of course a high degree of motivation but also self-responsibility. There are hundreds of people in London and most any city around the world today investing their personal money and time in making something happen. There is a real pressure you see in people’s eyes when they know they need to make it work, not just move on to another client or meeting if things don’t pan out.
It gives a swiftness of movement and forces entrepreneurs to confront the full scale of what it takes to make an idea happen and worry about their weaknesses. Entrepreneurship is a team game and there is no such thing as “not my problem” or being “too busy”. Consequently it attracts the most strong willed and optimistic people out there. It is awesome.
The past couple months I've returned to adland doing some consulting work on integrated concept development and execution for both tiny boutiques and mega-big agencies. So I thought I’d jot down a few points of perspective gained over the past year. I ended up with 8.
Ideas are easy
There are thousands, maybe millions of ideas floating about. Some good, some less good. As Ferran Adria, the most creative chef in the world, said to me “ideas aren’t the problem, doing them is.” At a time when any idea is possible in infinite ways, how you execute is the most important thing to worry about. In truth, ideas are small, doing them is the big thing. Doing them is what matters, the only thing that matters, and doing them brilliantly is bloody hard.
Ideas aren’t stealable
There is a notion ideas are something to protect, as they can be stolen. Very early a good friend advised “nobody can make your idea your way.” In practice the more people you show it to the more you stretch and strengthen the possibility of the idea. This doesn’t mean to take every comment on board, but every comment helps form an independent view of what one should or shouldn’t do. Also, people love having a coffee if the subject is talking about an idea that might be famous one day.
Ideas are fragile
As the owner of an idea you spend a lot of time with your idea. The idea becomes incredibly familiar, which is good. It also becomes easy to continually evolve and morph what the idea is. At times this is vitally important, at other times one much watch it isn’t out of boredom or undisciplined. The idea must always link back to the core problem you are solving, not a technique or something shiny. This understanding is typically at the core of great ad agencies.
Often people confuse an idea with features. For example Facebook’s product is connecting people, it does this through a number of features such as your wall, mail, messaging, photos, etc. Speaking with Jay Bergman of start-up golden child Hailo, he explained his greatest challenge is feature creep. Especially at the beginning. Every feature adds an exponential degree of complexity and resource demands, build an idea that has the potential to grow (conceptually and technically) but be desperately brutal with what features you start with. Bloat kills. The husks of overbuilt and complicated unsold “digital” ideas litter agency graveyards of servers and filing cabinets.
Ideas aren’t digital
Real people don’t give the slightest moment of consideration to the word ‘digital’. It is a meaningless hollow shell of a term used by people too lazy to be specific about what they actually mean. People care about ideas, they care about what it does and how it makes life better. Everything uses digital technology today, it’s life, not a specialty. Any agency requiring any job role with digital at the front is failing themselves. Have technical experts who execute but ideas and strategy mustn’t be confined by the artificial silo of “digital”. Rarely did I hear the word digital on the campus, people speak in ideas and tasks not vagities.
Ideas are small
Smart start-ups are obsessed not with the 1 billion potential users, but the question of who will be the first 10. Then the next 100. Companies are built by recruiting one customer/user at a time starting from zero. This forces real discipline in who you are going to engage, how you will reach them and why they will care – product development questions as much as marketing, more so really.
Ideas are technical
I’ve previously spent a lot of time with a hand in the Vancouver tech community and I find the Vancouver and London scenes total opposites. Vancouver is full of technical ability but lacks ambition in its ideas. Vancouverites are generally content with millions, London universally wants billions. London is full of ambition and big provocative ideas but lacks desperately technical ability. Most ad agencies also struggle to balance either the creative ambition or technical excellence. Most creative agencies are all ambition without technical excellence. Most self-declared “digital” agencies are all technical ability with little creative ambition. There is a middle ground a few dance in, and is in my opinion the holy ground for the next generation of companies and brands people will genuinely care about.
Ideas repel ads
Part of getting advice is giving advice. The most frequent counsel I give to fellow start-ups is to use anything but advertising as your business model. Too many too early look to ads as a magical tap of money. It is lazy and the idea thus devalues to simply be a hook to deliver ads. Sure like Google or Facebook you can make crazy money if that’s your thing but for users the presence of ads dramatically changes the context of the experience. Frequently it brings negative value, detracts from user experience and associates your brand with the same banal advertising content already plastered across the internet. However, if the presence of ads adds value to the user, for example Kiip, that’s good.