Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Archive for the ‘Nanodome’ Category

Triage for startups…

It’s been a strange few days here at the hub of Nanodome’s Evil Empire (I wanted to call it the “NanoPlex”, but our lawyers advised that another evil empire had got that basic meme pretty much locked down already, so best leave it alone).

Firstly, out of a clear blue external sky came (mostly by coincidence) a succession of opportunities to pitch… for which I didn’t immediately feel ready. Don’t get me wrong, I love pitching – show me an entrepreneur who doesn’t relish a platform to talk about his/her world-dominating money-making obsession and I’ll show you someone who’s probably not quite there yet. Basically, eating up the stage is one of the things we do best.

Secondly, out of an equally clear blue internal sky came an epiphany, a succession of ideas inviting me to pivot – new security camera-related devices to design and build, each offering new sales angles and opportunities in my core market. Basically, makeing what seems to many a very staid, dull-as-ditchwater industrial technology and (with a bit of luck) make it contemporary and almost hip (if you squint a bit).

Of course, while all this is going on I’m wading through the perpetual treacle of late project development – trying to fix up non-working prototype boards, fill all the empty gaps in the codebase, etc. So I’m basically being pulled hard in three different directions: big-picture finance changes, big-picture product epiphanies, and gritty small-picture stuff.

In many ways, this is the eternal startup ‘triage’ debate: to which of these three should entrepreneurs give priority? Getting the backing right, getting the intended product right, or executing what you’re already doing right? And I’m going to say straight away that trying for any kind of “doing all three” answer is just a cop-out: that option is very likely equivalent to saying “doing all three badly” – unless you just happened to have arrived here on a small craft from Krypton, you have an all-too-human amount of energy and attention.

One thing funded entrepreneurs often advise is to “take the money (in fact, take as much as you can), stay in the game“, which would seem to be a strong argument for making polishing the pitch the top priority. However, my strategy mentors would advise me to “aim for the sexiest, biggest marketplace“, which would seem to point to working on the product epiphany. Similarly, my sales mentors would advise me to “make the existing product work, make it shine“, because as a hardware company, getting your product demo working well changes everything (in particular valuation, as well as negotiating any kind of customer funding).

Naturally, the longer you spend caught in analysis paralysis about what to focus upon, the less of all three options you end up doing. As with hospital ERs, every situation is different, but for me right here right now, I’ve decided to think about adding a teaser slide on alternative products (to buy me time for getting that angle really right), and to continue working on my camera, hopefully to get the last few development issues ironed out in time for (Lord strike me down for even considering such foolishness) a live demo to investors.

Perhaps I’m crazy to choose that particular path, but to sell equity in my camera company, I ultimately don’t need Powerpoint even half as much I need a working camera.

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Throw away that startup script…

OK, let’s imagine you just happen to bump into someone on the street you know slightly, and they ask the drainingly obvious question: how’s your startup going? What should you say?

Just as with newlyweds being asked how’s married life?, there’s a huge temptation to stay bang on script by giving a TechCrunch-style answer, with every notable keyword stressed in just the right way:-

  • “It’s going brilliantly”
  • “We had a great meeting with customers last week”
  • “The prototype’s looking fantastic”
  • “We’re starting to get mentions in the press”
  • etc

All of which may well be true, but reeling such stuff out doesn’t move your thinking beyond startup clichés. You see, the way you talk about your company in general helps shape your instincts when presenting with investors (and, indeed, with suppliers, clients, customers, and end users) in particular. So, think of every random conversation not as a rehearsal for drafting your next breathlessly progressivist Wired-style press release, but as an opportunity to better connect with the people connected to you who would like to support you.

I think that if you want to cultivate long-term, rewarding, sustainable relationships with these people, you need to write your own script. If you stopped to think about it, your startup probably has twenty or thirty angles on what it’s doing (and its own unique struggle to move forward) that other people would find pretty fascinating. Few people are genuinely exposed to the realities of entrepreneurship, preferring instead to loosely fantasize about ‘working for themselves‘ (hint: however you’re employed, you always work for other people, specifically your customers), so even the simplest insight into what you’re doing can be quite an eye-opener.

For example, my own startup (Nanodome)’s list of twenty or thirty such things would include:

  • lessons to learn from James Dyson’s mistakes
  • what’s so cool about Henry vacuum cleaners
  • why Taiwanese engineers are so great
  • why Coalition entrepreneurship rhetoric annoys me so much
  • the politics of global electronics
  • what it feels like working in a financial vacuum
  • the wobbly future of security cameras
  • business schools and the missing decades
  • Silicon Roundabout roustabouts
  • why OpenCoffee rocks, etc.

All of which is simply stuff on my mind every day that affects how I do what I do, and that alters where I’m trying to get to: really, the locked doors, compromises, mismatches and ‘life hacks’ that you won’t find on the business pages.

Yet these things are the very ones you need  to teach yourself to talk about – the network of insights and angles that make you and your startup unique. Practise doing this, and very quickly you’ll find that presentations and pitches become a pleasure – people will approach you after your timeslot has finished to hear the rest of the story. Take pleasure and joy in communicating these, and you’ll find that everyone will find it much easier to “tune in” to your world. Throw away that startup PR script, write your own!

Besides, who’s to say that the person you meet in the street might not secretly be looking to invest in your company? You honestly never know!

Nanodome status update…

I thought, given the bold implicit claim on this blog’s mast-head, I ought to at least mention in passing how far towards its mythical future $1bn valuation Nanodome has progressed over the last few months. The honest (i.e. startup theatre-free) answer is: it’s hard to tell – as always, there’s good news and bad news…

The short-term good news is that Nanodome’s electronics all work fine (all that I’ve tested, anyway; thanks Bob!), insofar as the two bootloaders, the firmware, Linux, the video display & basic image processing are all functioning fine. Today, I’m plumbing the image sensor into Linux’s V4L2 layer (but wondering why the keyboard handler is so stubbornly silent). Of course, every startup worth its salt has a near-endless supply of Walls to get past, so none of this is really huge news, but all the same it’s always nice to have new stuff working.

The short-term bad news is that I’ve been engaged in a bit of bootstrappery, i.e. doing basically the same kind of insanely high pressure getting-the-hardware-and-software-all-working-together for another UK security camera startup (albeit only for a few days a week). The reason I think bootstrapping is a problem is that  – though it does pay the bills, which is great – it almost always slows your main development down to a snail-like crawl (or do I mean ‘ooze’?): it can also be a hard habit to kick once you’ve started. Still, what can you do?

The long-term good news is that I’ve recently had a bit of a conceptual pivot, in that I’ve worked out how to apply a fair-sized part of Nanodome’s core tech development to the gigantic fixed camera market: and now have a distinctly contrarian view on what cameras in that segment should be aiming for over the next five years.

The longer-term bad news is that this means my level of ambition for Nanodome is now approaching VC grandeur levels, at a time when – despite sky-high government pro-startup rhetoric – new companies find it hard to borrow even £25K from a bank, all the while UK angels’ wallets continue to accumulate more dust than new investments. Still, with IFSEC coming up in mid-May, the best business development play will probably be to put together some kind of deal there – with a bit of luck, Nanodome will have plenty to show by then. 🙂

Pivots vs epiphanies…

When a startup hits a market brick wall and has enough cash and investor confidence to change direction radically, it’s a Mike Maples (high level) ‘pivot’. Essentially: a market-driven strategic shift.

When a startup uses early customer feedback to drive its next product/service iteration, it’s an Eric Ries (low level) ‘pivot’. Essentially: a test-customer-driven tactical change.

However, when an entrepreneur suddenly grasps a significantly deeper aspect of the complex relationship between his/her startup, its people, its technology, its market and the underlying societal trends it’s betting on, that’s an epiphany. This may or may not lead to a pivot: but it certainly enriches all aspects of the startup by joining them together in a more connected, thought-provoking way. Essentially: an intuition-driven change of mind and heart.

Having just had such an epiphany yesterday, I can tell you it’s both exciting (because it helps you see your startup’s future roadmap more clearly) and unnerving (because it helps you see what you should have been doing differently in the past). While it’s happening to you, though, it feels as though the ground (specifically the “ground truth”) of your startup is shifting beneath your feet.

The background to my epiphany: having just read a long LinkedIn discussion exchange on latency in IP pan/tilt/zoom cameras (don’t glaze over, I’ll get to the point quickly enough), I suddenly realized why I disagreed with almost every single contribution to the exchange. Informed by 25 years experience developing computer games, I simply could not see how the latency introduced by state-of-the-art video compression techniques (such as MPEG and H.264) could ever be acceptable for interactive control of PTZ cameras. In what I see as an increasingly interactive world, this kind of video compression comes over as anti-trend.

But from there I suddenly grasped how my long background in the computer games industry made me ideally placed to be designing and building a new PTZ camera – for this too is an interactive video system (albeit one without Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario to help sell it). And from there it became clear to me that the tiny board I’m currently bringing to life is at heart an industrial games console. And from there I saw that a key part of Nanodome’s vision should be to make its PTZ cameras more interactive, rather than go anti-trend just to fit into the IP ‘new world order’.

So now I have a brand new set of thoughts to help me respond to the presentation deck provocation: “Why are you so uniquely qualified to meet this business challenge, to take it all the way to market and beyond?” Today’s answer: “because I have one foot each in the computer game and security camera worlds, I’m perfectly placed to design and build properly interactive PTZ cameras”. OK, as answers go this is still a work-in-progress: but you can at least see where I’m going with it.

Have you had a startup epiphany recently?

Startups, angels, and milestones…

As your tech startup grows, it’s always a huge relief to reach milestones – particularly when (thanks to the way bootstrapping makes development cheaper but s-l-o-w-e-r) they can be a fair old while in coming.

Yesterday’s big milestone here in Nanodome Towers was getting our final camera PCB to boot from a memory card far enough to print  “Hello world” out to a serial console. OK, it ended up at 57600 baud rather than the 115200 baud I had intended, but who cares? It worked! Next I’ll sort out the clocks & the memory, and then try to get it to boot from Linux (machine type 3248 “Nanozoom, for any passing ARM Linux people): but all of that should now be a matter more of graft than of prayer… fingers crossed, even so.

(Just so you know, the PCB’s 3V3 line ended up slightly lower than intended, so all I needed to do was remove the undervoltage detector chip and it came out of reset fine. A Swiss Army Knife hardware mod!)

All of which is not quite chill-the-Krug excellent, but a fantastic (and tangible) milestone nonetheless. Even so, there’s a bigger point about progress and startup finance to be made here. For… what is a milestone, exactly?

For angels, milestones are usually a linear sequence of de-risking plateaux, i.e. each milestone should clearly remove a source of development uncertainty, and hence reduce the startup’s financial exposure to fail cases. In this case, if the assembled PCB hadn’t worked at all (and we had no idea why, and could see no way of fixing it), chances are we would have had to design & build afresh around a completely different SoC. And how much would that cost? Oy oy oy!

Yet for entrepreneurs, milestones are a parallel sequence of moves towards full engagement with their market, i.e. each milestone should tangibly improve access to market opportunity. For example, having a demonstrably working set of boards (and particularly all assembled as a working camera) arguably gives Nanodome firmer access to bank finance as well as the ability to make ever more persuasive product demonstrations to its customers.

(This is why entrepreneurs are often advised to include both a “past milestones” slide and a “people” slide in their Powerpoint presentation ‘decks’ – the former to show what has already been achieved, the latter to give investors confidence that the people running and implementing the startup’s ‘vision’ will be able to overcome the innumerable day-to-day hurdles to hit future milestones.)

Of course, both positions are equally correct: they’re the twin sides of the coin that’s eternally bouncing on its side, like the bomb above Springfield’s dome in The Simpsons Movie. And startups need to combine both financial pessimism and market optimism if they are to be at all realistic: in the past, this has sometimes been cited as why entrepreneurs need angels to counterbalance them, a yin to their yang.

Yet these days, UK angels seem unable to see beyond their traditional side of this coin, and seem collectively unable to build up any sense of faith in startup people’s abilities to solve problems in order to reach future milestones. They write entrepreneurs off as having “reality distortion fields” (a dismissive way of saying ‘charisma’) while writing off their skills as irrelevant, inapplicable or simply overhyped. At the same time, many (if not actually most) of the entrepreneurs I’ve met over the last year seem as a generation to have already internalized this whole lesson, this whole yin-yang balance. They don’t need angels to tell them how difficult the world has become, they already know – it’s their world.

All of which leads me – at long last – to today’s quasi-religious irony to ponder: that angels seem to have lost their faith in people and/or in the future. So, your starter for ten is: does an angel without faith deserve to be called an ‘angel’ at all?