Our first What I Wish I’d Known event left all of us at ustwo with a serious case of the warm and fuzzies, as well as a ton of practical career advice – so we were eager to get another one in the diary. This time, we got into the nitty gritty of entrepreneurship, with a panel of industry leaders serving up no-holds-barred advice for founders past, present and future.
One venture capitalist, two seasoned founders, an early stage founder and the head of a co-working space – we gathered a panel that represented the entire startup lifecycle, and boy did their discussion reflect a broad spectrum of experience. We dug into it all, from the importance of product, to approaching fundraising, who makes a successful founder and other big questions.
But before getting into the discussion, we welcomed the audience into the event space at Protein studios, where we had Victory Gin waiting to limber them up with plenty of cocktails. The Moodnotes team were there too, dishing out Mood-totes, exclusive badges and insight into their product.
It was heartening to see a mixed crowd coming to see an all-female panel – doing this is part of ustwo’s commitment to address the broader gender imbalance of the London tech scene, and give attendees of all genders, ages and cultures the chance to hear from four awesome women. And, when compére Nafisa Bakkar polled the (hopefully truthful) audience, only a minimal percentage had just come for the free booze – most in attendance were actually early stage or potential founders.
Thank you to Muna Ally for photographing the evening – contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To kick off, Nafisa asked our panelists to think about what has inspired and motivated their career progression. A shared trend among these leaders, despite varied day-to-day roles, was the idea that they struggled with authority or were ‘bad employees’ – and this was something that stimulated them to forge their own path.
For Alex Depledge, this meant founding her own business, Hassle. Sarah Drinkwater, on the other hand, suggested that this has helped inform the breadth of her CV – she’s worked in publishing, journalism, created content for start-ups as well as growing the tech community with her current role at Google Campus. She now proudly identifies as an ‘obsessive generalist’ with a multitude of experiences to draw from.
Sitar Teli also identified with not enjoying being an employee. This, in part, drove her to found Connect Ventures – why wait 20 years to become a partner, when you can start a firm yourself?
Can everyone be a founder?
Entrepreneurs are everywhere (or at least that what it feels like in Shoreditch). With everyone and their uncle trying to get their idea off the ground, it's worth discussing – can everyone be a founder?
For Sitar, founders must be comfortable with uncertainty, willing to make decisions based on limited knowledge, and then quickly be able to recognise if it is working or not. One of the most undersold skills for a founder is the ability to become a successful manager. This leads us to think that the success of the founder is dependent solely upon the person – it’s also about the team they build and, most vitally, the value of their idea.
Overall, she felt being a founder might not be for everyone but that it's always a great education. Sarah followed on from this by highlighting that ex-founders get hired fast – it’s a process that develops a multitude of skills that can be re-deployed in more established companies as well as showing leadership potential.
Building a team
As our panelists spoke about building their own businesses, they all emphasised the importance of finding the right team to support you and how integral this is to scaling effectively.
Attracting the right talent can be especially tricky for a start-up that can’t offer the stability or financial security of the big players. Jo Roach took pains to recognise this challenge and suggested you can use other selling points to attract talent – the promise of working on a viable and exciting product, a greater input in building the business, the chance to try on different hats and stretch your capabilities. Sitar agreed – in her experience the best developers are not just attracted by equity, but also the level of technical challenge.
This led the discussion on to the importance of finding a balance between generalists and specialists – being able to recognise when you need technical expertise or a jack-of-all-trades to develop your offering. In the early stages of MakieLab, Jo emphasised how important it was to have people who are ready to muck in and learn as you go. Those used to working in tightly defined roles or in more inflexible, corporate environments, don’t always take to working outside their comfort area – a necessity in any start up.
Equally, hiring people with expertise beyond your needs wastes both your money and their capabilities. Sarah suggested thinking about teaching yourself the skills to get together a convincing pitch or MVP – and then investing in specialist talent when your idea is validated and funding lined up.
Killing Your Darlings
So, what makes a start-up idea viable and when/how/if to quit it?
As our panelists pointed out, the digital product market is highly saturated. In that climate, Alex argues, your product needs to be at least ten times better than anything else out there. In the case of B2C products, your consumers act as a litmus test on this count. If your platform meets their needs, they will not only use it – they will pay for it.
However, this does not mean your idea must be shipped perfect and fully realised. In fact, our panelists felt that flexibility and agility are key for early stage companies. The ability to adapt is important in building confidence with your investors and users alike. Sitar explained that whilst they normally invest for an initial 18-month period, she knows after a few months if it is working or not. This realisation acts as a checkpoint where the founder can respond by adapting their offering, iterating on what they have learnt so far or shutting down shop.
When founding Hassle, Alex highlights a turning point when she recognised the model as it existed was not working – forcing her to reevaluate and really dig into the data to work out what was going wrong. It was at this point that they were able to recognise a trend. People were looking for cleaners, and their current platform was not offering that service – meaning a pivot of their business model to cater to this demand.
The product and the pitch
Throughout the evening, our panel grappled with the tensions between product and pitch. A problem which was perfectly encapsulated by a question from the audience – if we all agree it's about having a great product, why is the pitch still so important?
For many founders the realms of work life and personal life are inextricably linked – their energy, time and money cannot be discretely divided. These companies are an extension of the person that creates them. And this is reflected in the way that investors chose to invest – their confidence in the person can overshadow their confidence in the product. Alex, for example, cited how her personality and drive was
Sometimes, this makes it feel like the system is stacked against those with a great idea but little experience with VCs or without the confidence to pitch to investors. However, the pitching process also acts as a ratifying process that helps you consolidate your offering by articulating the value of it. Sarah sees it as an opportunity to sell yourself and also become sure of yourself and your idea – if your product holds up in the pitch, you can be more certain it holds water.
However, our panelist generally agreed that it is a process that needs ‘demystifying’ and is, in many ways, an act of theatre. There are encouraging signs that this is changing. Sources of investment are diversifying – people from different walks of life are entering venture capitalism and the internet is offering up crowd-sourcing opportunities and still has huge potential when it comes to democratising investment.
For more ‘What I Wish I’d Known’ inspiration, watch the entire panel discussion below or alterntively, check out our past event.
More on our panel
Nafisa Bakkar, Founder – Amaliah
Nafisa is the co-founder of Amaliah, a fashion site that collates modest clothing options for young Muslim women. She was named this year in Forbes as ‘one-to-watch’ for 2017.
Alex Depledge, Founder – Hassle
Alex Depledge is the straight-talking businesswoman behind British tech success story Hassle.com. Alex’s achievements in building one of the most acclaimed startups to emerge from London’s Tech City has made her into one of the UK’s highest profile female entrepreneurs.
Sarah Drinkwater – Head Of Google Campus London
Sarah heads up Campus London, Google’s first physical startup hub, providing founders with work space, mentorship, educational programmes and access to a vibrant and supportive network. Previously, she started Google’s global Maps review community, worked in content for startups, advised brands on their social media, and worked as a journalist.
Jo Roach, Founder – MakieLabs
An accomplished operational and creative business leader and BAFTA award winning digital director-producer, Jo founded and launched the world’s first 3D-printed toy company.
Sitar Teli, Venture Capitalist – Connect Ventures
Sitar Teli is a founder and managing partner of Connect Ventures, a venture firm she started in 2012 with her two partners, Pietro Bezza and Bill Earner. Since its founding, Connect has invested in over 30 companies across Europe, including Citymapper, Typeform, CharlieHR, Boiler Room, Pact Coffee and Marvel Prototyping. Prior to starting Connect Ventures, Sitar was at Doughty Hanson Technology Ventures, where she led that firm’s €2.5m investment in SoundCloud’s Series A.