Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway – A One Stop Shop for Ideas

The recently opened Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway offers students, postgrads, alumni and staff the opportunity to feel out, test and nurture their fledgling startup ideas. They also have the opportunity to see if the life of an entrepreneur might be a possible or worthwhile career path to follow.

To help them with their questions and to provide support in determining the feasibility of ideas and creating a pathway of development is Executive Director, Mary Carty and Program Manager, Natalie Walsh.

LaunchPad is centrally located on the Concourse at the heart of the NUI Galway. No matter what background the students have or what degree they are pursuing, they can come to LaunchPad discuss their ideas.

Mary says that, “If they have an idea or they want to pitch something or present something, they want to build out some skills or they are just curious, they can just come in and talk to us and we’ll help them to figure out what’s next in their journey.”

Mary is herself an experienced entrepreneur having been CEO of Spoiltchild, an award winning design and development agency, and co-founder of Toddle, an email marketing system for small businesses. Prior to LaunchPad she co-founded Outbox, an incubator for young women with tech ideas.

“I pretty well understand how you start something, how you develop something, how you grow something.”

The number one question she hears is, “Is my idea a good idea?” To which the answer is, “We have to figure that out. This is the first stage of the conversation. Let’s figure out if this ideas has legs and what are you going to do next.

“We use the lean business model. That’s very good as it focuses very much on the problem that you want to solve. It focuses on the customer end – what the pain is and how you are going to help the customer solve that problem. It is a very interesting flip of the mind for a lot of people.”

LaunchPad is funded by the Blackstone Foundation in partnership with the Galway University Foundation.

Blackstone LaunchPad already works with over 500,000 students across the United States. In Galway, over six hundred students signed up for the program in the first month.

The space itself is mainly fitted out with benches and bare tables – no computers. “We wanted this space to be very collaborative and open so students could come in and talk about their ideas and work on their canvas. We have a well-used blackboard and people can become as hands on and as creative as they want.”

“We are signing up people from across the colleges. So that’s arts, humanities, social science, medicine; then, obviously, science and business as well.”

Mary says that LaunchPad is, “A one stop shop for ideas. Our aim is to help you to get you to the next point from where you are at with your idea.”

It is expected that some users will go on to other incubators and accelerators while others may go through the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at NUI Galway.

“The pipeline is there and there are pathways that people can follow and we can help people to figure out where to go next.

“We have StartLab. PorterShed is going to come online. BioInnovate is here. The TTO office is here. No matter where you are at in your career or in your evolution as a startup there’s a place for you to go.”

Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Steve Blank and Eric Ries have done great work in providing engineers with a way to test their product ideas in the real world with real people. They have provided processes and systems with built in, all-important, feedback loops.

They made widespread the concept of the minimum viable product (MVP.) They formulated a process where a product in its most basic workable is shown to the world at large and note is made of the response. These notes can either or endorse or refute the product creator’s work and vision and suitable action is taken. The the product loops back to the MVP state again and the process. It is a methodical and useful way to ensure that a business creates a product that people want.

While the Lean Startup movement has provided a core set of practical tools to the startup there still remains a plethora of questions that also need answering. The most important being, what constitutes a good idea for a product or service that is worth pursuing for profit?

A good place to start looking, if not for a direct answer but an intelligent way to think about the subject, is in Peter Thiel’s newly published book written in conjunction with Blake Masters, “Zero to One.” It refers to the idea that, “Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.”

He goes on to say a page or so later, “…by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” And then declares in the next paragraph, “Zero to One is about how to build companies to create new things.”

While a lot of Steve Blank’s work is formulaic, and usefully so, Peter Thiel prefers to think about business from the aspect of first principles. The future that we create is grounded in the work of today. To make that future a peaceful and prosperous one we need new technology which in turn requires new approaches. Peter Thiel’s aim is to provide an, “..exercise in thinking. Because that is what a startup has to do: question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.”

That is an ambitious goal in itself. Thinking is hard and thinking originally is very hard. In fact we only have to look around us to see that thinking is so hard that most people avoid it at all costs.

To set the scene he describes the factors that led to the Dot-Com bubble of the late nineties. As CEO of PayPal during that period he had a ringside seat as the drama unfolded. He says that there were four major lessons that entrepreneurs seem to have derived from the experiences of those dramatic times.

1.) Make incremental advances
2.) Stay lean and flexible
3.) Improve on competition
4.) Focus on product, not sales

All of these ideas seem highly sensible and lie at the heart of many a startup’s strategy for going to market. However, Peter Thiel overturns these assumptions. He replaces these four general points of business strategy with some of his own somewhat contrarian ones:

1.) It is better to risk boldness than triviality
2.) A bad plan is better than no plan
3.) Competitive markets destroy profits
4.) Sales matters just as much as product.

In rejecting the lessons learned from history, the same lessons that have built in Silicon Valley one of the most powerful centres of wealth creation the world has ever known, he puts forward a very coherent, consistent and challenging alternative idea. He is adamant that, “To build the next generation of companies, we must abandon the dogmas created after the crash.”

So what is wrong with most of the companies being started or built today? Lack of differentiation caused by lack of original thought is his answer.

Commodity businesses have always had it hard. You set a price and a competitor with the same or similar product can undercut you. If your product is not differentiated enough then you have no choice but to undercut them in turn. It soon becomes a race to the bottom where profits are foregone for the sake of market share. The deciding factors in such a scenario are deeper pockets and greater business efficiency. The result is invariably a mediocre, at best, product.

Traditionally, economists regard the ideal market place is at its most efficient when governed by the forces of perfect competition. Peter Thiel points out that this is a fallacy and that a company that operates in a market that is in perfect competition is a market where no one makes any money at all.

The solution, therefore, is not to copy anyone else but to think for yourself and have faith in the originality of your own ideas. Use your uniqueness to your advantage. Create your own market and become a monopoly.

Peter Thiel’s assertion that the only way to make real money is to have a monopoly of a given market is a challenging idea. We have laws against monopolies and no customer likes to have only one choice of a service provider. However, if you want to make money being in effect the dominant provider of a given service or product is the only tenable and financially worthwhile way of operating.

If you take his point that real change and real growth comes from original thinking made manifest in new technologies then that original thinking constitutes the creation of a natural monopoly. At least for a certain amount of time. Which brings us to the idea of durability.

In what may be an interesting explanation as to why companies like Amazon are barely profitable The authors write that, “For a company to be valuable it must grow and endure.” And that while growth is easy to measure, durability isn’t. They are not fans of, “measurement mania,” and they believe that management time and energy should be focused on building a monopoly by wise use of brand, scale, network effect and technology.

To do this a company must start small and “dominate a large share of its market.” A company then grows by sequencing its growth to grabbing bigger shares of larger markets. Contrast this line of thinking to the current belief in startup circles that a that the ability to scale quickly is somehow a precursor for success.

They go on to be quite specific in that, “The perfect market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.” The huge advantage is that once you have found the business whose customers meets that criteria then you have the opportunity to create your own future, right or wrong. You can avoid being taken down by competitors undercutting you or being dictated to by the bigger players stomping around in the sandpit you share with them.

A little after halfway through the book we come to, “‘Thiel’s Law’; a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.” As a founder of
Founder’s Fund
, Peter Thiel has had the opportunity to review many startups from an investment perspective. When he studies the teams, (he is not an advocate of sole proprietorship because it limits what kind of company you can build,) he looks for how well the founders know each other and how well they work together. He places great value on how easily complementary skills and personalities mesh.

He then goes on to discuss the legal and financial aspects of a startup to which an entrepreneur should pay special attention. For example, “Recruiting is a core competency for any company, It should never be outsourced.” A particularly valuable rule that he had at PayPal was that he made every employee responsible for just one thing. It had two benefits. It made it easy for him to evaluate an employees performance and that, “…defining roles reduced conflict.”

The authors then go on to argue that humans and computers are separate categories and are not interchangeable. They ask us to change the question surrounding this problem, how can we use computers to replace people with the much more practical question, “How can computers help humans solve hard problems?”

This is a book that is all about questions. But the answers are only something that you, as an individual, can provide. The questions are a tool to give you access to thinking more clearly about a problem as opposed to providing the certitude of a right or wrong answer.

Peter and Blake have posed seven questions that every business must answer. I suggest that the opportunity to understand the thinking behind the formulation of these questions and the opportunity to answer them yourself is reason enough for you purchase the book.

1.) The Engineering Question
2.) The Timing Question
3.) The Monopoly Question
4.) The People Question
5.) The Distribution Question
6.) The Durability Question
7.) The Secret Question

There is much more to read and learn in this book. It is fairly short but unlike most business books it is dense with useful ways to think about business and startups in particular. Staying true to his promise at the beginning, he uses questions to help us access his ideas and in doing so having us think for ourselves.

I would recommend this book to anyone thinking of going out on their own. The questions that the authors pose are challenging but they are designed to elicit answers that are uniquely yours. They help provide a path that leads to the building of uniquely differentiated products and understandings of what constitutes a successful enterprise.

GoPrezzo’s Startup Survival Guide to the Dublin Web Summit


Image: PRslides.com. One of the hundreds of tech startups pitching at the Dublin Web Summit 2013

Out of the 10,000 attendees at this year’s Web Summit over 2,000 are listed as the founder, CEO or employee of a technology startup. Most of these companies are manning stands in the main hall and hundreds are pitching at one of four dedicated stages running from morning until evening. With a sea of entrepreneurs vying for attention, how can a startup make it worth their while?

It’s exhausting but worth it, says GoPrezzo founder and CEO Aaron Taylor. GoPrezzo is a casual mobile gaming tournament platform with a base in both Belfast and New York. This is their first time at the Web Summit and it’s been a busy few days.

“The most important thing is that you’re meeting like-minded individuals,” says Taylor. In an environment like this, the key thing is to meet as many people as possible. “Meetings can lead to great opportunities. Get yourself out there and make people aware of who you are.”

One wonders if startups have come here hoping for instant success or if they’re envisioning the longer play. “A lot of people are probably here looking for the big sell or the big round of investment but the likelihood of that is obviously slim,” says Taylor.

He sees the Web Summit as a fact-finding mission in part; as long as startups are organised and have meetings set up in advance it’s useful. “Come here with an open mind, soak up the atmosphere and just wait and see what comes out of it.”

The tech startup game is a crowded market so differentiation is important, says Taylor. While GoPrezzo is in the mobile gaming space, the service it offers is just different enough to stand out; it’s a tournament platform that connects brands to gamers.

As a relatively young startup, GoPrezzo’s Web Summit highlight has been meeting other similar startups: “It’s been good to meet others who have passed the fund-raising stage and are now trying to scale their business and find distribution partners.”

Despite all the buzz and activity at the Web Summit, it all boils down to three basic questions for every startup here, says Taylor: how do we get funding, who’s actively funding and how do I make my startup look as attractive as possible to the funders.

Perspective: Graham Royce & Irish Tech


True-colour image of Ireland on an extremely rare, cloudless day.

Out of a population of 4.59 million there exists in Ireland a potential workforce of just over 2 million people. (Currently, the unemployed account for a sickeningly large 14.3% of that number.) However, by virtue of education and temperament only a very small subset of those available to work are either willing or able to involve themselves in the challenges of entrepreneurship in the tech sector.

For the budding or experienced technology-based entrepreneur who feels compelled to make manifest an inner vision to create a great product or those who may simply fancy their chances, then there is no shortage of facilities and help. Enterprise Ireland contributes funding to 33 incubation centres. There are also a number of enterprise centres situated around the country.

For those moving from academia into the commercial world there are 10 Technology Transfer Offices. Each of them based in a third-level insitution.

Then there are programmes like Launchpad and Catalyser at the NDRC in Dublin and Endeavour in Tralee. These courses are designed to give a real-world shape to an entrepreneur’s vision within a compact time frame.

Of course funding is an issue but if (a big if) a project fits the right profile and is able to tick the right boxes then monies are available.

In 2010 (most recent figures) Enterprise Ireland (EI) was involved in the allocation of €463.6 million of government funds, “For the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets.”

EI contributes a portion of that money to a number of seed and venture capital funds. In combination with these other funding organisations over €500 million was available to Irish entrepreneurs of which just over €80 milion was disributed over the period 2007-2010.

Contrast with the US where in the last business quarter of 2011, $1.8 billion was invested in 238 software companies. Although, it is not fair to make a direct comparison due to the different sizes of the Irish and US economies, population and so forth. But in the global economy of tech innovation and enterprise these figures give a good indication of the size of the game being played and where Ireland really stands.

Graham Royce, Mentor at the Hartnett Centre, Limerick Institute of Technology, and Manager of the New Frontiers Programme which is run in collaboration with Enterprise Ireland.

At the moment he is currently assessing the potential of over 80 possible participants for the next Enterprise Start programme.

An essential issue with Irish tech entrepreneurs, he claims, is not one of brains or ability but of attitude, “To me the big thing is not so much about the money being there or not being there. It’s about get off your arse and do it. Those guys in the tech world who have an inkling of an idea of what it is all about and know where to go and what to do have literally got off their arses and done something. I don’t know what it takes to switch people on.

“If you talk to people in Silicon Valley it’s not a case of, “We’ll see.” It’s about how do we do this? Who do we need to talk to? We need to talk to that person there or this person here. Get that person on the phone.

“The attitude in America is completely different. They’ll give me a whole list of names of people I can talk to. It opens up the doors and sets things going. Whereas if I talk to someone here…It’s like the old-fashioned can of treacle, where you open the lid and stick the spoon inside to prise anything out.”

Despite the consequences of the economic boom having turned out to be so dire, Graham claims that not everything everything needs to be tainted by the fallout.

“The Celtic Tiger wasn’t all bad. There is this impression that all of the Celtic Tiger was absolutely horrendous and it wasn’t. Some phenomenal companies were produced in that time. Towards the end of the Celtic Tiger in 2007 and 2008 there were some really big hits. Also, it is the companies that started in 2008, 2009, 2010 that are coming to fruition.”

Despite the reluctance of many Irish entrepreneurs to step down from the stands and whole-heartedly engage with the game of business Graham emphasizes that raw talent is not the issue.

“Each month I go through the 25 top startups from Silicon Valley. Last month, eight of the companies had received between $5.5 and $8.3 million dollars. None of those eight companies would match what’s being done in this building, in Galway or in Cork but look at the money they have been given.

“Silicon Valley is awash with money but it is not necessarily awash with good projects.”

With that in mind, Graham says that we should focus on the creators and innovators, the people who have ideas and are able to implement them.

“We can put sales people on top but we cannot build techies. For techies to be in the position to start up companies it takes years upon years of work. What we want to do is understand the technical person, understand his idea and turn it into something people outside can see.”

Dublin Startup Weekend

Dublin Startup Weekend is taking place across the weekend of the 25th of February at the Digital Hub in Dublin. The organisers Sean Murphy and Amy Neale were so “blown away with what people were able to achieve over the weekend” at the last Dublin Startup Weekend held in May 2010 that they have decided to run it again.

We spoke to Amy, who is a Program Manager at NDRC which is s an enterprise focused on translating research output into commercial products, about what will be happening this year.

How did the idea for Dublin Startup Weekend come about?

“It came about through myself and Sean having a discussion about the need to do something in Ireland that emulates the type of things that happen in the States. We are both very interested in startups and the genesis of ideas and how they form. Also, all the different skillsets and how they come together. We were interested in bringing those skillsets together at the very earliest stage.

“We had both heard of Startup Weekends taking place in the States and thought it was just a fantastic way of kick starting ideas and getting them off the ground. We got in touch with the guys in the US and they were interested in doing something in Dublin so we worked with them last May at the first Dublin Startup Weekend.

“Sixty people came along on the Friday night. The came from a really diverse set of backgrounds. As you might imagine there were a bunch of software developers but we also had designers and people who were interested in startups in general coming along. Over the course of that weekend six teams formed and they worked like crazy and did a show and tell on Sunday evening.”

Who can come?

“It is open to everybody. But when people purchase tickets they will need to state on the website whether they are technical or marketing or design. That is so we have a good idea of the mix and we can better target publicity as we start selling tickets over time.

“It is important to stress that it is completely not for profit. We are doing it for the community but we need to cover the costs of everyone’s food over the weekend. That’s what people’s tickets costs go towards.”

What can people expect to happen?

“What tends to happen is that about 20- 30% of the participants will come along with a strong idea of what they want to build over the weekend. The rest are coming along with their skill sets looking to join in with a team. There will be access to wireless, whiteboards, markers, workbenches and various other materials that are needed to get going.

“It is a really good way to meet people with skill sets other than your own. That is the fundamental reason people should attend. Plus the experience with the facilitators (soon to be announced) over the weekend means you stand a really good chance of being able to build something over the weekend. This is the chance for the participants to see if an idea can get off the ground over the course of fifty-four hours.”

The Dublin Startup Weekend takes place from the 25th to the 27th of February at the Digital Hub. You can register and buy tickets by visiting the Dublin Startup Weekend website.

There is also a Facebook Page where you can let people know you are attending and share related posts and links.

David H. Hansson from Basecamp: Starting Up in the ‘Real World’

David Heinemeier Hansson is one of the creators of Basecamp. It is a web-based application designed to help people share and coordinate the ongoing work they have to do on their projects. At Technology Voice we use it primarily to keep track of to-do lists and schedules, but also for other things such as shared document editing. Last year, David gave a talk at Future of Web Apps which is being held again in London in October, and we thought we would share some of our notes from his session.

Doing a startup in the real world

Something you often run into is this notion of the real world.  The real world is a pessimistic place, no good idea is going to change anything, and often is a phrase that is put to you in a negative way: “It wouldn’t really work in the real world”, “people are not going to pay/sign up/care for that”. The real world is full of only people, not individuals, not different kinds of groups. People don’t all think the same way, but that is how it is presented.  

The problem with the real world is that it is presented as if it has a monopoly on reality. Arguments aren’t fleshed out because of pre-existing assumptions that X won’t work in the real world. The real world can trigger all your worst fears – I’m going to fail, it’s going to fail, etc. The real world is a nasty term, and there are serious consequences for taking it at face value. Lots of people have been discouraged from trying things out because of the real world.

The first thing you have to do as an entrepreneur is ignore anything anyone claims as the real world unless properly evidenced. Even then double-check it for yourself. Living your life based on nothing more than what other people’s opinion is of what constitutes reality is insane. Don’t let the ‘real world’ govern your ability to succeed.

The formation of Basecamp

David had a real task and a real project called Basecamp which launched in 2004. It wasn’t supposed to work in the real world. There were only three people working on it in their spare time. David was the sole programmer.  There were all sorts of objections along the way as to why it couldn’t work:

  • Too simple.
  • Basecamp hardly does anything – message board, to-do list, calendar – what’s complicated about that?
  • Anybody could do it in their spare time.
  • People are already using Outlook.
  • Couldn’t work, too simple.

But guess what?

Simple things work

People like simple things simply because most people have simple problems. There is an endless list of simple devices solving simple problems which were utterly discounted by those purveying the conventional ideas of what works in the so-called real world.

For example (and there are so many of them), the first review on Slashdot by Cmdr Taco regarding the iPod said: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame!” The  Flip camera was never a critical darling. Video recording – been around for ages. Innovative – all these big guys have it narrowed down. Quality – beaten on most counts. Yet, despite all real world rationalisations, someone puts a crappy video camera with one USB connection and it sells millions.

Too simple? Strong indicator it is going to work

Conventional thinking says you need a business plan to prepare for the future. Fact – nobody knows the future. Things go up, things go down, things you didn’t think would work! Companies too big to fail disappear from view. If a business plan had been a necessary prerequisite, Basecamp would never have been done. Plans rarely ever work: ask any general.  

If it involves writing it down, your business plan is probably too complex. That time is better spent doing rather than writing about it.

The power of no

The number one attribute to being able to make progress is the power to say no. No, not going to do this feature. No, not going to target this customer. “Basecamp within my firewall?” No, totally different business for that.  

Listen to your customers.  But sometimes you listen and say no. Doesn’t mean you have to say yes. If you will say yes automatically, why bother listening in the first place.

The ability to say no is the most treasured power an entrepreneur has at their disposal and they should use it often. David could not remember a no that he really regrets, but can name plenty of things he has said yes to that he regrets.

Trust your people

It is not about the talent. It is about the environment. “Hiring rock stars is a reckless way to run your business!” It is total nonsense. A much better and saner approach is to have a rock star environment. Let people be who they want to be.

Forget about company policies and all the arbitrary bureaucratic impediments to letting people express themselves as fully as possible. Most company policies are based on mistrust and fear. Assume employees are not crooks, liars or cheats (as per normal corporate policies). Of course, the downside to this sort of thinking can lead to crazy policies like “trusting people”. Well, I never. At Basecamp, all staff get a credit card linked to the company account. One rule: spend it wisely.  

The secret to a having a workplace filled with trust is to hire reasonable people in the first place.  

Easy

Easy isn’t easy to do – it’s pretty damn hard to do simple. It is more about you and your style and what you are trying to accomplish.

It’s easy to create something simple. How did we get an easy-to-use web application?  We chose to have a really simple domain because we wanted simple tools for simple needs.

Don’t be a startup: be a business

David despises the categorisation of startups as a separate business entity almost as much as he loathes the obstructive conceptualisations of conventional real-world thinking.  

People have being starting things since the beginning of time, and calling it a startup doesn’t pull you away from the fact you are creating a business.  

A great idea has to be worth enough to someone that they are willing to pay you for it. A great idea is not enough.  A great way to access the validity of your own business ideas is to ask yourself: “Would I want to pay for this?”, “Would I reach for my credit card?” The baseline thinking has to be that these ideas are going to come together as a business and you have to focus on it being a business from the get go.

Execute and persevere

Focus on execution and perserverance. Mediocre ideas with fantastic execution can be an awesome success. This is because ideas are almost worthless when it comes to creating a new business. But almost worthless is not the same as completely worthless. Have faith and patience in the ideas that you do come up with. Invest yourself! Invest your time and don’t listen to statements about the real world – you’ll be just fine.