For the last five years, I've been trying to decide if I would entirely stop working with startups, keep a regular but minimal activity, or keep on trucking and running (or participating) in various programs totaling about 120 startups a year. Spoiler alert, the answer is a little bit of all of the above. But before we get there, what's my problem with startups?
Startups are boring
I know, we shouldn't say that aloud or (worse) write it. But hear me out; I've been working with startups since 2008, and when they're in the zero to twelve months part of their life, it's always the same three issues that are at stake:
- Understanding the problem solved, which in turns defines their market, their value, and the monetization strategy.
- Ensure the team is as functional and well-balanced as possible from the get-go (dev vs. market) while growing its network and ecosystem.
- Get them to ship or sell anything in prof-of-concept mode ASAP.
These are 98% of what will trip a startup at the seed stage. Solve this, and their survival chances become exponentially better.
So what's boring about all this?
Well, it's always the same, no matter what field the startup is in.
Of course, there will be some variations if we're in MedTech or social media, but really not that many. I was recently discussing with the head of one the largest incubation program in Paris, and while he didn't say their job was boring, they're facing huge churns with their junior teams of consultants and program managers. As soon as they get the job (which, again, is not that difficult, to begin with, if very specific), they quit pursuing more exciting things to do.
Not ChatGPT yet, but...
If you follow me, you know that it's the key reason we launched a simple yet deadly effective online training program just before the pandemic (luck is never overrated).
And, as we speak, Stéphanie and I decided to entirely pause our involvement with startup incubation programs beyond this training format. As it is, we can work out a few collective sessions to drive the points home, followed up by one-on-one clinic hours to get into the weeds only when needed. That works and minimizes our involvement.
This, in turn, frees tons of time to get involved with startups that are not startups anymore. Scaleups or would-be scaleups. Those who typically got their series A funding and no longer face run-of-the-mill problems. Whether we discuss the next step in business strategy, how we adjust or pivot the business model, what's the best approach to getting multinational. And it's not that it's just more interesting for us to work in that zone; it's also where we deliver the most added value.
I'll publish a recent customer case in a few days; stay tuned.
Why not stop entirely?
If we get in radical honesty mode, another aspect of the discussion should be why we should care about startups, to begin with. I'm not going to shock anyone if I told you that in the years when we still were working 50/50 with startups and corporates, the balance of our revenues was not 50/50 but more like 25/75. Shouldn't that be enough incentive to drop this segment of our innovation consulting activity?
And I'm not going to BS you with our mission in life or the "passion" we have for startups. We are passionate, but it's all about the complexity and challenges of the innovation playfield. The constant disruptions, pervasive uncertainties, and uphill battles, not to forget the geopolitical and social implications, always lurking behind the scenes. Fifteen years later, being a recognized player at our modest scale (but not entirely negligible) is an amazing privilege.
No, the core reason is that the day we stop working with and for startups, we lose sight of the challengers. We start losing our grasp on the weak signals, how tech hype bubbles up and suddenly deflates, and where the innovation connective tissue grows. To put it simply: we become complacent.
And this is not on the table. Despite the low survival rate of startups, there are still quite often the canaries in the coal mine.
Why do I write about this?
What am I writing about this "inside baseball" issue you don't care about? Because some of you are certainly facing the same dilemmas and have come up with different ways of dealing with them. In which case I'd love to talk to you.
Even if you're not working with startups but with other types of customers as a service provider, there's always a discussion about the 20/80 of what you are doing, when, and for whom. It's never entirely obvious to fine-tune our trade and know what should be automated, semi-automated, or entirely treated on a case-by-case basis. That is, of course, if you deeply care about the impact and the value you deliver.
Which we do. Quite a lot.🤘