early stage

A country is hit by the entrepreneurial bug and start-up culture

jamaica startup women

Guest post by Susana Garcia-Robles (@RoblesSusanaro)

September 9th:  Arriving at my destination to speak at a Venture Capital conference sponsored by a local government agency.

September 10th and 12th: Attending the inauguration of the country’s Start-Up program and meeting the women behind that initiative and Startup Weekend. Listening to the manager of a prestigious private sector incubator. 

September 11th and 12th: Meeting tech entrepreneurs and participating in pitch events showcasing the winners of two local pitch competitions— one run by a local university, the other  a National Business Model competition spearheaded by a US fund manager who visited this country last year, fell in love with it, and has supported different entrepreneurial activities since.

September 12th: Meeting with a woman who runs mentorship programs for entrepreneurs. Meeting with potential  investors in VC/PE funds. Meeting with regulators.

Can you guess where in the world I am? If you are thinking Silicon Valley, Israel, or Brazil, you’re wrong. 

I’m in Kingston, Jamaica.  And I’m witnessing history in the making.

When I started working with the public and private sectors in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean more than 16 years ago, the world –in spite of the Internet boom – was a very different world than the one we live in today. We were beginning to experience the power of the Internet. Globalization was an issue discussed at an academic level. In Europe, the Euro had not been implemented yet. The region was not an investors’ destination, and there were subjects pending to be taken care of before we could be considered as a region with potential: poverty, economic crises, corruption, weak institutions, and lack of innovation better described us then.

Fast forward to 2014. The region has improved dramatically: many people who belonged to the Base of the Pyramid are now entering the middle class. No global or regional crisis has originated in the region  in a long time and better yet, we showed resilience during the last global crisis. Democracy is established at large. Globalization, coupled with access to technology, has shortened geographic distances, making access to information and knowledge available all over the world. 

Add to this mix the benefits of many countries having a young growing population known as the Millennials. They were born and live in a world where technology allows them to reach out to anyone they want, learn and work in informal settings, and be informed of what’s going on in the world as events unfold. Most importantly, they have developed a sense of belonging to a global community where they can work together in teams.

And this is what’s happening today in Jamaica. The  entrepreneurial bug has infected this country  and there is no cure for this.

I have met these Jamaican entrepreneurs and they resemble any other entrepreneur from any country that has a well-established VC industry. They are full of drive, trying out their ideas to make them into viable business models that can attract financing.  Angel investors, incubators, accelerators, MVP, pivoting the model, are part of their daily lexicon.

Together with many actors that come from different sectors of the country, the MIF is helping this ecosystem thrive: establishing a culture where risk of failure is accepted as part of the innovation and start-up creation process (fail fast, learn from your mistake, get up and move on to try again!), where being an entrepreneur does not mean having lost your job and not yet found your next one, but a life choice.

So…  yes, there is a Start-Up Jamaica, a Startup Weekend Jamaica, a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, a Jamaica LAB. And entrepreneurs are running start-up companies like Herboo, DocuJam, and Regal Farms Ltd.

Best of all, the Jamaican entrepreneurial movement and early-stage industry seem to have a greater participation of women than in other countries like the US or Brazil. Women are running the Start-Up programs and incubators, and start-up teams have women founders!

The future is bright for this island committed to fostering innovation from both government agencies and the private sector. At the MIF, we are working on a project with the Development Bank of Jamaica to strengthen this growing ecosystem for venture capital.

Meanwhile, major players in the Jamaican economy are getting involved as well. Jamaica’s largest bank, National Commercial Bank (NCB), and the Jamaica National Building Society (JN) are the companies behind Start-Up Jamaica, the cellular company LIME helped establish the infrastructure for Start-Up Jamaica’s awesome space. 

Have you seen signs of the entrepreneurial bug in Jamaica? And where do you think it will be seen next? 

The Benjamin Button Startup

baby startup

Guest post by Suhail Kassim

A new startup is like a baby

A startup needs to be cradled and nourished. Even so, there is no certainty that the baby will grow up to be a lean mean fighting machine. In this post, I begin to investigate the phenomenon of some exciting startups which then refuse to grow up — the “Benjamin Button” startups.

Introducing the Benjamin Button startup

A very small minority of entrepreneurs seem to be amazing at finding the right sort of help in their early days. They join rock-solid incubators, find top-notch mentors, maneuver their way into active university forums, win famed business plan contests, know where the hungry angel investors sit. These entrepreneurs are obviously off to an awesome start. Destined for greatness, right?

Not necessarily. Many (if not most) of these startups struggle to fulfil their potential. They stubbornly refuse to scale-up, linger on until they lose relevance, then meet a slow yet inevitable demise. The internet is littered with outdated websites of nascent ventures that never monetized. The chrysalis never transforms into a butterfly. 

I call such ventures “Benjamin Button Startups”, named after Benjamin Button children who refuse to show signs of growing up.

Startups fail all the time, what’s the big deal?

In my personal experience, there is a growing trend of highly promising startups running into the ground. This trend is disturbing for at least two reasons. 

Firstly, this sends a hugely discouraging signal to all other startups: if these poster children fail, despite everything going in their favor, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Secondly, outside startup hotbeds like the Valley, the early stage ecosystem is typically not vibrant. It often has limited resources that can only support a few chosen entrepreneurs at a time. Hence their imperative to succeed — and thereby to return more to the ecosystem than they took out of it — is higher. When they do not, it causes a small ripple. Just a few such ripples could shake up the already fragile ecosystem. The already wary seed investor will turn away, LP funding will ruthlessly re-route to greener pastures, incubators will be left with tarnished reputations, the Fortune 500 executive will politely decline to mentor the university business plan winner. 

What makes a startup a Benjamin Button?

Sometimes it seems to me such startups are victims of their own early success. The founder confuses the “first big win” with the ultimate destination. He/she gets caught up in all the attention, the award ceremonies, the media buzz, the blogosphere hype. Some entrepreneurs succumb to the heady temptation to become celebrities today instead of business moguls tomorrow. They end up doing a ton of calorie-burning activities like giving guest lectures, mentoring other startups, speaking at jazzy forums. As a result, they stay stuck in the “successful-student-startup” mode instead of growing up. And if the founder does not grow up, the startup won’t either.

There is also an element of hubris. Entrepreneurs sometimes think the same skills needed for early wins will carry them through scale-up. This is almost invariably not the case. Early stage success can happen through blue sky thinking, strong personal and professional networks, hyperactive multitasking, good mentors, and a couple of passionate co-founders. There is adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush. Scaling up, on the other hand, needs grit, patience and the ability to fight boredom. It needs long nights out working on a particularly stubborn piece of code while dining on ramen noodles. It needs the founder to hyper-delegate and decentralize or risk falling into the “Founder’s Trap”. It needs a different kind of mentor and adviser — not someone who can ideate but someone who has actually implemented. 

Also, for VC-stage companies, the VC is always more demanding — and less polite — than the angel investor. Unlike a basement startup with three high school friends who are bootstrapping off their pocket money savings, here the money runs out quicker: the VC-stage venture needs to pay its “employees” (it’s no longer just the co-founders) market-pegged salaries (and, gosh, benefits!) — and I’m not even including joining bonuses and annual bonuses and small stock options to the first 100 employees… . In some ways, starting a venture is akin to a part-time Masters program, while scaling up is like a full-time PhD program. Not every MBA gold medalist is suited to do a doctorate in business administration.

Finally, there is the culture of failure. Some ecosystems reward failure — the Valley places a premium on “fail fast, fail early, fail often” — which reduces the tolerance level needed to slowly but surely cultivate a fledgling startup, leading to premature demise of ventures that should have succeeded. Other cultures punish failure — and in such places, the founder is tempted to grab whatever minor victories he/she can — whether it be to speak at a forum or give a newspaper interview — at the cost of focusing on the core business itself.

See also Time To Start a Business – or Not. Illustration: covenant-harvest.org

Have you witnessed instances of Benjamin Button startups? If yes, do you agree with the reasoning above? What are the other explanations as to why this happens? Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts!

With Disruptive Innovation, Customer Is Not Always Right

disruptive innovation

Disruptive innovations and customer feedback

A recent study by ChubbyBrain.com listed the top 20 reasons why startups fail. The #1 reason, ahead of funding, product quality, pricing and other popular ones, was “ignoring or not seeking customer feedback”. However, there are two sides to this.

If your company is launching a disruptive technology, or a at least a truly innovative product, and you really believe in it, taking initial customer feedback at face value may not necessarily be the best way to go. A classic example is the walkman. When Sony was building the product in the 1970s it reached out to potential customers to learn what they thought of it. The most common reaction was to say that the walkman was a stupid idea! Who would walk around listening to music, instead of enjoying it while sitting back in the couch? How would you run errands or even jog with “speakers” on your ears, not hearing what’s going on around you? Had Sony been discouraged by this feedback, it would have probably discontinued the project and missed out on this huge hit.

If not a disruptive innovation, follow the rules

Now, if your product, like the vast majority, is not starting a new market or doesn’t require change in attitude or lifestyle, then of course the story is different. You should adapt to your clients as much as possible, not expect them to do so. This sounds intuitive, but many entrepreneurs (including myself in the past) think their product is so great that the problem, really, is with the rest of the world that doesn’t want it the way it is. Distancing yourself from your “baby” and taking client feedback into consideration is fundamental, both in the product development stage and thereafter.

At the end of the day, it is a judgement call. Do you believe so much in what you are doing – and how you are doing it – that you are willing to risk ignoring customer feedback? Are you breaking a paradigm of sorts to expect to be right over the majority of people you are supposed to serve? Only a very small percentage of startups would fall in this category. If you are one of them, you will have an uphill battle to change people’s behaviors; but one that can have a huge payoff.

See also Not All Angel Investors Are From HeavenImage: pocketcalculatorshow.com

What’s your experience with disruptive technologies? Leave us a comment!

An Idea Is Just That – Not Yet An Innovation

Innovation idea new business

Innovation and new ideas

I am frequently approached by people who want to share a new business idea with me. Some are actually good, others, well, you know. Usually the pitch is accompanied by a good amount of mystery and secrecy: “Andre, I’m telling you this because I trust you, but don’t tell anyone; this could be big”. So let me summarize what I tell friends who approach me like that.

Turning an idea (hopefully) into an innovation

First, don’t worry too much about secrecy. Your new idea is likely not as much of an innovation as you think, it has probably come up before in one way or another. And even if it is (almost) that great, you will only be able to go somewhere by sharing it with other people who can give you useful feedback and leads. The chances of someone stealing your idea are probably slimmer than you turning it into a business without sharing it with others. Competent people are busy and know how time consuming and risky it is to start something new.

Second, ask yourself what YOU would bring to the table. Are you business savvy? Have the relevant technical skills? Money to invest? An amazing network in the industry? Lots of time to spare (on top of at least a bit of one of the former)? If you answered “yes” to one or more of the questions, then great, you should move forward. Try to find the people and resources needed to complement your skill-set and hit the road. But if the answers are straight “no’s”, I need to say you should probably let go and try to think of another idea.

To illustrate this, once a friend came to me with a pretty good idea for a mobile app. However, he didn’t know a thing about starting a company or building an app, didn’t have money to invest, didn’t know anyone in the industry, and was not willing to invest a good chunk of his time on it. Seriously? Don’t expect that someone will start a company with you just because you had a decent idea, especially because the idea will evolve/change as the business matures. You need to bring something concrete to the table. Ideas are just ideas… We all have tons of them.

See also Not All Angel Investors Are From HeavenImage: shutterstock.com

Have you ever had a business idea? What did you make of it? Leave us a comment!

Time to Start a Business – or Not

new venture new business startup

What to ask yourself before starting a company

Before launching a startup, an entrepreneur must ask him or herself the following question: Can I support myself for the next 18-24 months? This is specially important if you’re in your late twenties or early thirties.

It doesn’t matter where support comes from. It could be your parents, your own savings, your partner’s job, or a liquid asset you’re willing to sell at some point. It could even come from your first investor, such as an angel, although very rarely outside investors are willing to pay you a (decent) salary, especially in the early days of a startup. The important thing to remember is that it will take longer than you think before your company is making money to pay you, or an institutional investor joins in with a paycheck.

Don’t expect short-term returns when starting a company

Drawn into the excitement of launching their ventures, entrepreneurs usually underestimate the sacrifices to come. Optimists by nature, they assume that something great is going to happen within a year: a successful pilot or beta launch, an investor, even a first client. Not gonna happen. Success stories about entrepreneurs who dropped out of college or left a job to support themselves on credit card debts are very sexy but incredibly rare. They do however get all the media attention. You won’t read a piece on TechCrunch about the entrepreneur who ran out of steam, shut down his company, broke up with his girlfriend in the process, and had to go back to his parents house.

The concept of time is very different for bootstrapping entrepreneurs and… well, the rest of the world! While you’re bleeding and resources are drying up, potential investors and clients will tell you comfortably: “Come back in six months or when you have more clients”. It’s a brutal catch-22 and it will drive you crazy unless you can’t support yourself and get into real world’s time.

If you’re in the early twenties or otherwise can afford it, screw it, take all risks! Starting a company – successfully or not – will be a great school anyways. If that’s not you, by all means, do also go ahead and pursue your dreams. But make sure you first do some planning on the personal front, soldier.

See also MBA For Entrepreneurs Can Still MatterImage: fotolia.com

Have you ever launched a new venture? How did you support yourself? leave us a comment!