Simon Calver, Partner at BGF Ventures writes:
In the past year we have held receptions for founders and key members of the tech eco-system across the country to discuss issues relevant to them and although we have not invested in a Cambridge company to date we hope to change that soon.
I chaired the panel discussion at Girton College where about 80 people joined the BGF Ventures team to discuss how startups can build an effective technology brand.
Our first speaker was Joe Braidwood who headed up marketing at SwiftKey for four years, before the company was sold to Microsoft for $250 million.
Before Joe moves on to his next (as yet unannounced) tech venture in the Valley, he shared a raft of advice for companies that are starting out. “Even when you are dealing with tech that you think is going to be radically better than the status quo…that is not enough,” he told the audience. “What we discovered the hard way was that the only thing that matters is the market’s view of your product,” he said.
“We were convinced that we would sell to one of the big phone manufacturers – a Nokia for example. But the OEM industry has proved to be stale and a difficult market to sell into.”
SwiftKey realised that they had to have a good story to tell about their product but in order to convince people that this was a good piece of technology they needed to gather evidence.
SwiftKey built an app that people could download and experience how the tech could radically improve the typing experience. Happily people loved the product in their millions, downloading the product and "We were able to put together case studies based on their usage. All of a sudden OEMs were suddenly paying attention. They couldn’t refute the millions of downloads,” Joe said.
‘Overnight’ success takes a while to prepare for (!) and it took six years to get to that point but that was one of the key reasons that SwiftKey was able to exit last year.
Claire Ruskin is the CEO of Cambridge Network, our partner for the event. She shared with us the big lessons that she has learnt over a long career that has seen her launch a startup, Cambridge Silicon Radio or CSR, that went on to become a unicorn and was eventually sold in 2015 to San Diego’s Qualcomm. Ruskin has also worked on both sides of the Atlantic as a strategy consultant supporting many tech companies.
Claire’s first lesson was that not all people want to lead, even many clever people are happier to be led than lead. “I learned early on that people were willing to follow if you take ownership of things, work hard and cheerfully,” she says.
Another lesson: pride comes before a fall. Things don’t always go well, but you’ll weather the storm with the right focus and attitude.
During her time at PA Consulting, the company spent a lot of time trying to change the brand but didn’t realise that ultimately the brand is the product; it’s more than just a logo. It is what you do that really matters.
And her biggest takeaway from working with early stage companies was that strong leadership is critically important. This is something I can personally agree with: one of the biggest factors in whether a company succeeds or not is the quality of the leadership and is one of the key factors we look for when investing.
Matt Kingdon, co-founder and co-chairman of ?WhatIf! Innovation and long ago a colleague of mine at Unilever, also had great tips for those wanting to build their own business. ?WhatIf! was founded in 1992 and is a consultancy that helps people to develop their ideas and companies to become more entrepreneurial and innovative.
Matt’s first tip was that it really helps to know what you are fighting for. “Really know your customers. If an unfulfilled need makes you angry, then you have a purpose or a mission. It’s very difficult to grow a business, unless you have that fire in you,” he said.
Another piece of advice from Kingdon was that it’s very important to have a framework which should cover your purpose, your proposition and your position in the world: “That is the bedrock of everything,” he said.
The messages were well received by the room. Richard Summers, founder and science director of CrowdCat, a company that is using neuroscience to help brands interact with their customers, said: “Building a disruptive startup is full of tortuous choices, so many situations where the stakes are high and there is little information to go on. Listening to the wisdom of a bold thinker like Matt helps you reaffirm your faith in your instincts, invest in the core of what makes you different and think even bolder when it comes to fulfilling your customer’s needs.”
Gonçalo de Vasconcelos, CEO of startup SyndicateRoom, an online equity investing busines, said: “Investors throughout the entire equity journey always value the management team; it was good to hear that BGF Ventures subscribes to the same school of thought, particularly looking at the resilience, experience and leadership skills in any company they invest in. SyndicateRoom will definitively be introducing relevant companies in our portfolio that are looking for later stage funding to BGF.”
So our first trip to Cambridge left us at BGF Ventures wanting to go back for more - and I’m pretty sure we’ll become frequent visitors.
One final piece of advice from the ebullient Matt Kingdon: you also need to be able to describe exactly what your company does in a really easy way and have an operating model that is straightforward, that people can buy into. Keep it “pub simple” was his advice. I’ll drink to that.
Eleven tips to building a successful startup*
- Bring human values to business
- Ban business words
- Make sloppy prototypes – this minimises the risk of overinvesting in something and forces you to move quickly
- Go from idea to prototype in five days – if you can’t you’ll be working against yourself
- Every month in a startup is like a quarter in a big company
- You need some runway to make mistakes and reiterate
- Companies are getting smaller and small companies don’t have the competitive disadvantage that large businesses have
- Team work is everything
- Resilience – sticking at something, while having the ability to learn – is fundamental to being a successful entrepreneur
- Paranoia is a fantastic virtue
- Don’t be an asshole
* Great ideas from our panellists: Joe Braidwood, Claire Ruskin, Matt Kingdon