The great privilege of my job is the opportunity to pattern-match across multiple industries and organisations, all trying to invent the future. Here’s some personal lessons learned from 2016.
- It takes more than tools. We spent years developing Startup Science as a toolset but at the start of this year it hit home that we had taken a bunch of stuff for granted because startups do them naturally. When we made a big list of elements to look at in an ‘innovation system’ we realised that we were missing elements to measure. We came up with our Innovation Capability Profile and now we look at things like Psychological Safety and DMZs that allow a different approach to risk and experimentation.
- It IS rocket science. And voodoo magic… if I hear someone else say venture building “is not rocket science” one more time I am going to blow. I have heard it a few times this year and it is generally from people who have had zero experience as a founder starting a company. It is easy enough to read a book and do the same moves described in its pages. But DOING IT…. that is difficult. FEELING WHAT IS RIGHT… that is difficult. Looking like a startup is easy. Being one that succeeds… that is difficult.
- We can’t ignore hard. I have looked around myself this year and seen lot’s of people struggling. Founding a startup is brutal. Not the choice if you want an easy life. As a leader in this space, it is easy, but reckless, to push through while people are struggling inside. And there is so much to gain from emotional honesty in a team. If you lead a team, can they tell you they are struggling? If you are struggling yourself, have you shared that with someone?
- Australia is amazing. In 2015 I was asked to present a seminar on why entrepreneurs should come to Australia at the Tech in Asia conference. It was hard to find good reasons. While we always rate highly in terms of mindset, we still have limited sources of funding, it is super expensive to live here and talent is really hard to find as our tiny population is fully employed. Then I started working with the research community and looked inside the cookie jar. Our universities, the CSIRO and various other government agencies are creating marvellous inventions. As this community finds their entrepreneurial mojo, great things are starting to happen.
- Innovation is surprising and hidden. I learn this fresh every year. The best ideas and talent are not in TechCrunch. They are hidden and surface when I am not noticing. I first learned this looking at the warehouses in Eastern Creek talking to truck drivers at Coca-Cola. This year my favourite was meeting Rob Kinley, a scientist and founder of Future Feed. So quiet and understated, Rob told me how he worked on a farm in Canada and observed that cows on one side of the farm were producing significantly less methane (through belching when digesting grass). These cows were on the ocean side and it turns out they were eating seaweed. He has now developed a food supplement that reduced greenhouse gas emissions in cattle by 80%+ and cattle create more greenhouse gas than cars!
- We don’t do enough with our superpowers. We are so busy disrupting, we are not paying attention to our wake. As we disrupt jobs and industries, there is more we can do to help those that are affected. We at Pollenizer got very worried about this when Ford closed their factories in Victoria this year and ended 1,000 jobs with thousands more to fall in the ecosystem around them.
- Still no acqui-hires happening. Small acquisitions, usually done to acquire a talented team, are still rare in Australia. Each year I hope to see them increase because they make a small army of entrepreneurs slightly wealthy and able to re-invest in the next wave of companies and talent. It is an important element of Silicon Valley that we need.
- Still not enough investors. This is the point where investors wade in and tell me there is plenty of money for ‘good startups’. Certainly there is more money than ever but it is largely controlled by a handful of large funds with a few individuals investment theses driving what is investable. I’d like to see more diversity and more risk taking.
- EVERYONE is scared of customers. It is amazing how much can be learned from open conversations with customers. And yet I still hear every excuse under the sun about why that is not possible for founders. We all make excuses because we are scared. Scared they will ignore us. Scared they will tell us we are wrong. Scared they will complain. I do this shit every week and still catch myself coming up with excuses. EVERYONE is scared of customers. Get over it and go and talk to them.
- If there is nothing at stake, is is easy to fail. If it doesn’t hurt when it fails and there is nothing to gain if it succeeds, why bother? Why make it amazing? Sometimes people just don’t give a shit in the end. So things quietly die.
- Show us! Demo. I have seen so many moments this year where founders have delayed showing how their product works and people have not understood what it is. Even when a product is very early and just a mockup, I now look to show it so that people understand it. I still see people trying to explain things with words and failing to get impact. It should be possible to show a product and people go ‘Oooooh… I love that….’
- Growth Hacking is evil. Well…. Sometimes. Brexit, the US elections, Australian politics, terrorism hysteria, compassion fatigue… we’re starting to realise how the social media driven world we are all part of creating is creating shallow bubbles of knowledge that we can’t be bothered escaping from because it is harder than pressing the LIKE button without reading. Those of us that read everything there is on ‘growth hacking’ know everyone is doing those same hacks – click baiting, building in easy defaults, creating addictive habit loops. None of these things promote depth of thought, diversity, compassion, hard things. They just keep us clicking the things which give us those little blasts of rewarding dopamine. Like billions of rats in a lab.
- What is the transaction? No one does anything for nothing. If they say they do, they are not being honest. I have started to ask “What is the transaction?” to get clarity on a give and get that might make something work? Why are you a mentor? Why would someone come to an event? Why buy my product?
- Knower/Learner. Tim Parsons joined Pollenizer this year and introduced the idea of Knower/Learner. It has changed how I work fundamentally. The idea is, that we do better if we are a ‘Learner’ rather than a ‘Knower’. Knowers say “That’s not how it works” and shut down curiosity, evidence and insight. Learners say “How can we find out how to do this better?” and open up possibilities and the pursuit of impact. I am often a knower, and I value the framework when I catch myself.
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