Starting Up in Start-ups

Posted: 2011-12-29
Category: Personal

I spent the last three months working as a hired gun for a start-up in an incubator program called ignite100, and now I am back in the south-west for the holidays and I feel like I have learned so much in such a short space of time. Ignite100 is a three month program run in Newcastle that helps teams create relationships with helpful mentors who have experience in different fields. I am sad that the program is over but I thought I'd write up my experiences.

The set-up for ignite100 was:

  • 10 teams / start-ups
  • Loads of potential mentors (3-5 a day for the first month)
  • £10k seed money per team
  • £90k potential further investment per team

So I say I was there as a hired gun, by which I mean HappyNinjas were doing some contract work and it was a sweet deal. Good pay, free housing and no worries about council tax or bills made for a welcome relief after 5 months of hostels and traveling on my Nomadic Web Development trip around the states. I wasn't really sure if this was cheating, but not having to wonder where im going to be tomorrow certainly helped me focus on getting some work done.

9 til Whaa?!

What I was surprised about was just how much we all worked. I was going in with a freelance mindset of "I will do X for £Y" but most of the other teams were all co-founders and were all just motivated to make their idea happen. The number of times I would be sat in the office at 7pm and think "Hey, I don't actually mind still being here" was unreal. As time went on it was more like 10-11pm before we were heading home. One night I was sat in the office at midnight after a 3 hour "networking session" at the local pub and a developer walked in because he "couldn't go to sleep without trying out an idea". This sort of environment was amazing as you were never alone and always had somebody to bounce ideas off, and being surrounded by smart motivated people gets you even more motivated.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Something else that struck me at first was just how much time was spent talking to mentors at a very early stage. Every single day was a roster of a few mentors that would come and talk to each team about their idea. Initially I know a few people were frustrated with this as repeating yourself over and over again is a definition of insanity, but this had two massive benefits:

  1. By repeating your pitch over and over and over to as many people as possible you get it nailed. You get feedback and can A/B test certain phrases to see which works best.
  2. Some of the mentors were people big tech guys part of companies from MixCloud to Amazon Web Services or PayPal who could give you great advice on tech and others were business types, IP lawyers, etc who can all help your ideas before you even get started writing any code. This could save a lot of time from redoing things you might not have even considered.

Everyone went through the same process of initially talking about their products too much to try to explain them, but by the end of it most teams had it boiled down to a single sentence. If you have an idea you can't refine down to a sentence then you're either A) doing something way too complicated or B) trying to be a show-off by just talking about it too much. Put too many "ands" in there and you aren't describing the core product any more.

Business First, Code Later

** Code is not the most important part of a tech startup in it's early stages.** This is a problem that a lot of developers find when they think of their "million dollar idea". It doesn't matter how many fancy doo-dads you can tack on, or how cleverly you build your massive network of servers all load-balanced and ready for your millions of users, if you can't get something together to show to investors then you've got no money and nobody cares what you're doing.

Now that was quite a realisation to make for me as I am a proponent of bootstrapping; PyroCMS is a free product that has been slowly growing and improving over time with help and is now making a tidy profit. While I think bootstrapping is perfect for PyroCMS that is not the case for start-ups with big ideas. They need big money and to make that happen before somebody else does it, meaning investment needs to happen as early as possible before you worry about writing out every single feature. Put simply: don't be a nerd, be a businessman.

Network Like a Boss

The word "networking" in Newcastle seems to be my kind of networking: "drinking". Every other night there was a tech event, a trip to the pub, a PHPNE or Ruby NE meetup, a CodeWorks party, a dinner party or something else. I met a lot of interesting people at parties like the CodeWorks Christmas party (hmmm free warmed cider) or the ShareMyPlaylist Party (hmmm free cocktails) and while I wish I had business cards for some of the people I met, most of them had their own at least so now I have a nice big stack of cards to go through.

Next?

Unfortunately the team I was on ran into trouble when the founder was taken ill, meaning he was the only team not able to pitch at the end. This was a real shame, but I am sure he will storm on without me once he is feeling better and I'm sure the company will go far. In the mean-time I am having a relax at home, crashing at Jamie Rumbelow's place while he's off in Cyprus and getting PyroCMS 2.0 ready to launch while setting up a start-up of my own.

I have a week to get as much of that done as possible. In January I'm off to the Canadian Rockies for a while and then off to stay with Lee Tengum to work on PancakeApp some more until I come back to blightey for CICONF 2012 in London mid February.

Throughout all of this and when I return I'll be back up to Newcastle to continue doing work for another ignite100 team called Blooie which I can't tell you a whole lot about until their patent comes through, but it is going to be very VERY interesting. I'm looking forward to 2012, just the first two months are already going to be epic.

Found a video

I forgot all about this video, it's worth a watch if you want to see what was going on in that office. I miss it already!

Comments

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Matt Jukes

2011-12-29

Sounds like a great experience mate and I'm thinking the NE might be your spiritual home given their definition of 'networking' (not dis-similar to Brizzle!)

Have fun in the Rockies and I look forward to hearing more about your start-up adventures in 2012!

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Oli

2011-12-30

Going through an accelerator program was the best professional experience of my life. Nothing gave me more faith in development.

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Nicolas Bui

2012-01-02

Very interesting :) I've lived this kind of adventures 8 years ago, it was so great. In two month, we've built an entire portal.

But I can't imagine myself redoing that again today with a wife and two great kids. Well, I could probably 2 or 3 a week but not more.

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