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Zero Money Startup

Startup ventures: no money? No problem!


Ian H Smith

New tech ventures face many hurdles, not least access to capital. Regardless of whether you are a startup or a spinout tech venture, if you are trying to convert 'brainware' into monetisable software to solve a compelling business or consumer problem, there is a better way: be customer-funded.

The best investors in a startup or spinout venture are customers. They rarely take equity in your firm, they don't sit on your Board telling you what to do - but they do have the ultimate vote in whether your Value Proposition truly meets their needs, or not - since they are voting with their money (and sometimes their careers) in becoming paying, Early Adopter Customers.

Firstly, lets look at the barriers - or perceived barriers - to enabling a startup or spinout tech venture to be truly customer-funded:

  • Cost and time to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
  • Willingness of customers to invest in products ahead of completeness.
  • Placing trust in new, unknown brands and little understood products.

As explained below, new digital innovations created as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) apps can be designed and developed through making use of prebuilt business logic in the cloud: these are Tech Accelerators. This is often overlooked, where many startup tech ventures end up reinventing the wheel, by unnecessarily building SaaS apps ground-up.

Identifying the Early Adopter Customer as investor is key. This is expanded upon further below, focusing on what a true Early Adopter Customer looks like, and how to engage with them.

At the end of this blog post, go through the Startup Checklist to see how you respond to these tough questions that I have gathered over the years from venture capital, angel and industry investors. Let me know what you think.

Converting Brainware into Software

Tech innovations come in many forms, but this blog post is oriented towards software: specifically, technology that is typically packaged as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) outcome, and delivered on a public cloud ecosystem - variously described as an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). Leading IaaS and PaaS players are: Amazon Web Services; Google Cloud Platform; IBM Bluemix; Microsoft Cloud (Azure); and Salesforce Heroku.

When you look at digital innovation today, the tech platforms are becoming increasingly similar in underlying architecture. Yet many startups burn precious time and money 'reinventing wheels': often recreating tech platform infrastructure that already exists, rather than concentrating on what makes them truly distinct. What's needed here is Technology Accelerators.

Applying Technology Accelerators

Of course, there are different classes of prebuilt technology.

For sophisticated, 'cognitive computing'-based digital innovation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning becomes available in the form of prebuilt platforms, such as everisMoriarty or IBM Watson. Whilst AI and Machine Learning is a broad canvas, 'painting by numbers', in the form of prebuilt business logic can be the difference between building a Minimum Viable Product on-the-fly versus requiring sums of money beyond the reach of the startup or spinout tech venture.

As new regulatory processes get introduced, the perceived barriers to digital innovation rise. For example, the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires organisations and citizens to better understand this new legal framework in the European Union (EU) - which will also be embraced under UK laws. GDPR is all about how citizen data is managed and shared - placing the citizen in control of sharing consents - and making organisations more accountable and responsible for data security and privacy. Rather than reinvent the 'GDPR wheel', startup and spinout ventures can collaborate with other like-minded early-stage firms, who can provide the technology and know-how to achieve 'GDPR compliance'. A good example here is Citizen.     

Digital innovation may be solving a problem with Service Design. This may be, effectively, the optimisation of People, Platform and Processes. This is usually a natural fit with visual development in the cloud — underpinned by Design Thinking. What often results is the creation of end-to-end apps that transcend the boundaries of individual organisations and departments. The technology facilitator for this is a high performance application Platform-as-a-Service (hpaPaaS) or Low-Code Platform. This means creating end-to-end cloud apps, mostly without coding — just 'drag-and-drop' visual development — and an end to the excessive fragmentation of enterprise IT.

Visual development is sometimes referred to as ‘declarative development’: effectively, a method of creating software without writing syntax code and via ‘configuration’ of pre-built modules (‘objects’ or ‘entities’) and use of ‘drag-and-drop’ interactions, using a desktop PC and mouse pointer device.

Anyone who can edit a spreadsheet is able to create apps with drag-and-drop tools and related ‘wizards’ or forms.

Referred to as ‘clicks, not code’ a non-developer can use the hpaPaaS technology to build the business logic and automate workflows. This is where user interface (UI) components and page layouts are automatically generated with Responsive stylesheets — supporting desktop, tablet and smartphone user devices and popular Web browsers, such as Google Chrome or Apple Safari.

Identifying Early Adopter Customers

When startup or spinout tech ventures consider engaging Early Adopter Customers, they often believe that selling ahead of completeness of product or service is not possible. They are wrong: Early Adopter Customers are inherently risk-takers, willing to engage with new value propositions. This is why understanding and identifying the 'psychographic profile' of an Early Adopter Customer (business or consumer) is key to targeting and winning business for a startup or spinout tech venture.

The Early Adopter Customer is the 'responsive' prospective customer.

Startup or spinout tech veNtures need users or other participating stakeholders in any digital innovation process to be responsive. So, from a psychographic profile perspective, what characterises the ideal early adopter, as digital innovator?

At a human level this can be measured by what psychologists call a 'Need For Cognition (NFC)': a personality variable reflecting the extent to which individuals are inclined towards effortful cognitive activities.

Stakeholders who are inclined towards 'effortful cognitive activities' means people who like problem-solving, who embrace challenges - and who ask, and respond to insightful questions. Need For Cognition (NFC) is also related to openness and conscientiousness (Sadowski & Cogburn, 1997). This reflects both openness - a curiosity and tolerance of new ideas - and conscientiousness - a willingness to engage in effortful thought (Verplanken, Hazenberg & Palenewen, 1992).

So, how can you identify Early Adopter Customers, using everyday social media and email marketing tools? The answer is to provoke responses from target business or consumer decision-makers who are inherently inclined towards 'effortful cognitive activities': people who ask and respond to insightful questions, as defined above.

In practice, Early Adopter Customers are those empowered, motivated people who recognise the problem you are solving, and who, beyond agreeing with your approach, are motivated to make a timely move towards taking up your 'call to action'. This is where Early Adopter Customers can engage at the earliest stages of a startup - not waiting for the 'Beta' test. Making Early Adopter Customers part of the design and development process also means adopting the best practices related to Design Thinking. Ultimately, it means remembering this:

You are not your customer!

By engaging Early Adopter Customers from day one (or closest to day one) you are able to incentivise these businesses or consumers to become paying customers - contributors to the funding of design and development phases, where no external investors exist. Incentivising Early Adopter Customers is key to enabling the Zero Money Startup. It is also the ultimate validation of your ideas - and the creation of what is essential versus 'nice to have' in your Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Building Receptivity, Rapport and Trust

Startup and spinout tech ventures should operate with two rules from day one:

#1. You are not your customer. However passionate you are about your product or service, always remember that customers are the only people who can validate your Value Proposition.

#2. Customers are the best investors. Whilst financial investors (VCs, et al) may be an inevitable part of the mix in your venture, large medium or small customers are always the best investors.

So, what follows these rules is a big questions:

How do you win Early Adopter Customers when you don’t have your product or service fully built - or maybe, not even available in an Alpha or Beta state?

The answer to this question is Demand Creation Selling: a sales method ideally suited to the startup or spinout tech venture. This means applying a sales method that enables you to win customers in advance of completing (or even creating) your new Value Proposition, or engaging Early Adopter Customers, instead of/ahead of a commodity-style procurement contest. This is the opposite of Demand Fulfilment Selling, and is explained further here: Sales Method.

In addition to reading more about how Demand Creation Selling works, entrepreneurs and managers creating startup or spinout tech ventures should be aware of a basic truth: people buy people first - and products or services second. A common mistake made by startup and spinout ventures (especially in UK and Europe) is a tendency to focus Web design and content entirely on their product or service, and have no story about who they are, and why they started the business.

Your Startup Checklist

Here is the Startup Checklist: some very simple but tough questions that venture capital, angel or industry investors have asked me or my clients over the years. This applies with, or without non-customer funding for any startup or spinout tech venture.

Elevator Pitch
Can you describe your opportunity in one sentence – or, at most, in one paragraph?

Ability to Execute
Is your ability to execute feasible for an unknown small start-up?

Intellectual Property Assets
What are your sustainable intellectual property (IP) assets in the face of hyper-competition that characterises all technology markets? No patent or solid copyright = no sustainable IP.

Real Customers
Do you have one or more real pre-committed or actual customers? No customer(s) = no investment.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage
How are you going to effectively compete with incumbents and new entrants?
What is the source and long-term sustainability of the company’s differentiation?

Meaningful Value Proposition
What is the serious problem your company is trying to solve?
What evidence is there to suggest that there is a compelling need for your value proposition?
What value would customers attribute to this problem?
What bad things happen if the customer delays or declines a buying decision?
Why is no one else offering this solution?
Who are the key competitors – current and future?

Return on Investment
What is the clear path, timeline and the return for the (customer as) investor?
When does the company become profitable?
What size will the burnrate be until profitability?
How long is the buying and selling cycle?

Culture and Values
How many hours per week do the founders put in to the business?
How will the company conserve cash and get all of its employees to think like owners?
What compensation packages does the company intend to offer employees?
Are the incentives of key executives, founders and (customers as) investors aligned?
What essential elements define the company’s culture?
How is the company vision clearly communicated to and understood by all employees?
Are the right employees located in the same place as each other?
What percentage of the investment goes towards executive team salaries?

Risk Mitigation
What can go wrong and how will you survive it?
What alternatives are available to the company if a major risk materialises?
Which of these risks could be fatal to the business?
What alliances could help the company mitigate risks?

Sales and Marketing
Do you have an experienced sales and marketing player in your leadership team?
How do you compensate the sales organisation?

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