Oct 04

Social Media; what is it good for?

Specifically, how can we build business value using social media in all its forms.

Lots of smart folk have been discussing the business models (esp Alan Patrick, Seth Godin, Fred Wilson, and Sean Park) and the use of social media (esp danah boyd, Chris BroganTara Hunt, and our own Nigel Legg), you could even check out my GReader shared stream or Friendfeed to see who I’ve been reading in particular.

This particular post was triggered by two events here in Bristol. The first was the launch of the Brrism Social Media Cafe, the second was a local Federation of Small Business event. Both were good in that they were fundamentally starting from outside the echo-chamber.

As a lapsed academic with a research background in systems theory, business processes and change management I think I have a useful perspective to consider these new tools. I’m also not promoting my own business solution so perhaps offer a degree of ‘independence’. I’m lucky in that I have the freedom to experiment and to try and span organisational & industry boundaries to figure out how these tools can be used.

And they are just tools. This may be heretical, but despite all the Gen-Y / Digital Native stuff, I don’t think social media is re-wiring our brains. That probably last took place around 60,000 years ago and even if it is taking place now, its a process that’ll take several biological generations (rather than internet generations which can take place over a weekend).

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1973, Ref. Wikipedia

Yes, the technology is remarkable, even amazing and close enough to Arthur C Clarke’s description of ‘magic’ as to be the best description in most circumstances. Even the humble SMS, when you actually try to break it down to fundmental processes, software and hardware, is magic.

So what can we do with this ‘magic’?

There was definitely more understanding of the community building potential for social media tools at the Brrism event (even the ‘money’ group spent most time talking about community & method rather than purpose) while the FSB folks were still making the leap from social media as a ‘free’ version of traditional marketing. However, all the talk about community, social, conversation, and similar terms took me back to a Young IoD event I went to a couple of years ago.

The speaker was Nick Drake-Knight and he has a very clear sales process. Nick advocated RapportUnderstandDemonstrateRecommend – Close. I think this provides an excellent strategy for social media usage in business, actually its a great strategy for being social in business. Over the next few days post my thoughts on how to do this and relating to real experiences that I’ve had.

Jul 01

Free Bristol

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

Andrew McConnochie, 30 March 2008

To a packed (and hot) Rosalind Franklin room in At-Bristol, Chris Anderson (Editor of Wire, Author of Long Tail & now Free) gave a really good overview of the premise of the “Free” economy, Fremium, marginal costs and the impact of Moore’s Law on abundance & scarcity.  That was for around 25mins, he then did a Q&A session for 30 min before retiring to sign copies of his (not free) book.

I was lucky enough to ask a question which went loosely around, in this new economy of free, what is the value of geography (Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Bristol)? Chris answered partly by describing two companies he’s just launched. For one the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) came from MIT, for the other the CTO was online and after 6 months Chris discovered that he was a High School drop out with a self-taught knowledge of Arduino in Tijuana. Chris also talked a bit about choosing to live in a place and then finding the best talent for solving a problem, which probably isn’t in your company, City or probably even country.

On stage and in the couple minutes he spent outlining his answer, this made a degree of sense but something wasn’t quite right, and it was only on the walk home that I worked through some thoughts; hence this post (it goes on a bit, sorry).

Whilst the human brain is an undoubted marvel of flexibility and adaptability, in evolutionary terms its design is around 5,800 years old. The last major version change was about 1.5 million years ago when it tripled in size, and the last genetic upgrades were around 37,000 years ago and 5,800 years ago. However, given that the internet isn’t 50 years old yet (and probably under 30), it’s a wonder that our heads don’t just explode trying to cope.

As an aside, I’ve worked for the last few years with a company in Toronto and for a while helping them build a partnership with an organisation in Vancouver; headshifting across 8 time zones is disproportionately harder than just working a 20-hour day. Even funnier is what happens when you try to physically do what the internet allows virtually and travel around the world in 23 hours, as Jeremy Clarkson found out (with a slight cheat on the international dateline – YouTube from 8:05 onwards in particular).

The point is that we’ve evolved to be local, social creatures (see the Dunbar number) and it’s only by a design fluke that we can even begin to cope with the internet. Which brings me back to geography by way of Seth Godin, we like to be in a tribe of similar people. Of course tribes can be online but fundamentally we like to meet people in real life. Its no coincidence that most digital start-ups are around the Silicon Valley area; that’s where all the other digital start-ups are. If you want to be in movies you go to Hollywood; if you want to be in finance you go to London, etc. Of course there are thriving start-up, film and finance industries outside those locations <plug>not least Bristol which has been recognised as one of the most innovative cities globally by McKinsey & the World Economic Forum, over a quarter of the global wildlife film making originate out of Bristol and the finance sector is the largest in the UK outside London</plug>.

And perhaps that’s the value of local. You can build trusted relationships with all the key partners to build a successful business and still compete globally on the ideas & products that are generated.

In my new part-time role as Manager of Science City Bristol, I was talking this morning with Martin Coulthard about the developments of the Bristol Enterprise Network over the next few months. He was making the valid point that Science City Bristol doesn’t have a ‘neat’ strapline or twitter pitch. But I’m not sure it needs one. To get back to Chris again, in the world of free and virtually frictionless transactions, we need to find the added value of being in the Bristol / Bath city region and being into science. That might be (probably is) different for each of the many tribes in and around the area.

For a bit of fun I tried “what is a science city” as a search term; WolframAlpha was completely stumped, Google found most of the UK Science Cities but didn’t really provide an answer, and Bing didn’t really do much better. I can’t promise to develop a complete answer myself, but I do think there is some great added value to be delivered.

Thanks to Andrew Kelly for running this as part of the ongoing Festival of Ideas.

[Clarification: I booked and paid for this Festival of Ideas’s talk as Managing Partner of jbsh LLP, before discussions about being the Manager of Science City Bristol; I just happened to ask a question about geography in the new economy. These are my thoughts on Chris’ response.]

May 06

Should I pay or should I go?

Single by The Clash from the album Combat Rock

Single by The Clash from the album Combat Rock

I had a really good discussion with Jack & Nigel in the Watershed a couple nights back. Jack’s launching a new venture and wanted some advice. Nigel and I pitched in our thoughts, as did Micheal when he turned up a bit later.

Jack’s key question was around the business model. How much of his know-how did he give away on the website and how what did he charge for?

Essentially, Jack is building a personal brand as so many of us are.

In many ways Jack and I (and most consultancy businesses) are in similar positions, we’re trading on our expertise and ability to do stuff that’s really important to a business at specific moments in time. We also really enjoy what we do, which makes it easy to have a discussion with someone about how they could develop new ideas for their product / service, or how they could structure their business for growth, or find funding.

The challenge is when to do this over a pint in the Watershed (other pubs & coffee shops are available but good food, beer and free wifi is a tough act to beat) and when to sit down in a closed room and start billing. For me, the test is if we’re discussing specific costed solutions for your business, or if we’re having an advisory chat about business models, sources of funding, networks of finance, etc.

Jack also had a question over scalability, this was a question for Chris Garrett at OpenCoffee Demo where he presented a thriving agency with lots of work and skills, but no core IP. That’s changing for good reason, and they’re developing a system for location based alerts and friend finding but with an interesting difference (more when it’s launched). For the rest of us, once you’re billing 24/7 at the maximum rate the market will stand, you’re maxed out. The solution usually is to hire more mini-me‘s.

But people are paying for your insight, not the intern’s.

So what can you do?

  • Keep building your tribes, they are your evangelist marketeers, global ideas pool, potential clients, and probably friends
  • Keep building your know-how, your secret sauce (this is what people are paying for); read widely, participate in conversations, innovate up the food chain
  • Look out for scalability: collect your stories / experiences /ideas, if you’re a coder write some code that you regularly re-use and license it as a development tool, if you’re a designer/creative put some designs on T-shirts / mugs / etc (traditionally it’s called merchandising, bands have done this for ages),
  • Rinse & repeat

Don’t get stuck in a rut of securing clients, delivering, billing, securing clients, delivering, billing without any scalability or building any know-how; someone will come along that is faster / smarter / cheaper / cooler than you and you need a defensible position.

How are you building know-how and scalability?

Apr 23

Show me the Money – BSSP

Mariano Kamp, July 2008

Mariano Kamp, July 2008

In my earlier post, I revealed some analysis that I’d asked Nigel to undertake and my interpretation of that analysis. Here I offer some thoughts on what actions businesses might take away from this.

The first thing to note is that unless you’re a Bank or car company, Government support for you probably won’t change that dramatically.

For the genuine start up, life is still going to be pretty tough until you can show some revenue. The good news is that there is lots you can do yourself that doesn’t involve lots of cost. Start blogging about your service/industry, join the Twitter conversation, keep an eye on the enterprise networks around you, get out there and meet people. The tools to support good old fashioned networking and business development have never been better or cheaper (and you can’t get cheaper than free).

If there isn’t a suitable enterprise network around you, start one. BEN is a great network around Bristol but tends towards established companies, so I set up an OpenCoffee Club, OpenCoffee is a ready made template that’s free and globally recognised. So long as you’re building an entrepreneur support & growth network and not just pimping your product/service you’ll find folks are generally happy to support you.

For the company that has some revenue, or the promise of imminent revenue there are a couple of interesting options.

The first is the range of grants available for R&D from SWRDA (South West Regional Development Agency). These are to part-fund small and close to market R&D (typically £5k to £50k) with a specific focus on small companies. You identify a project value and SWRDA provides a portion of that, usually between 40% and 60%.

  1. Proof of Market Projects test the commercial potential of an innovative idea for a new technology, lasting no more than 9 months. The output should be a thorough and professional analysis of the scale of the market opportunity. Grants of £5,000 – £20,000 are available to small and medium sized businesses.
  2. Micro Projects are small scale development projects lasting no longer than 12 months. The output should be a simple prototype of a novel or innovative product or process. Aid of £5,000 – £20,000 for all micro businesses covering 45% of eligible costs is available.
  3. Research Projects involve planned research or critical investigation into the feasibility of new products or processes, lasting between 6 and 18 months. The result of the project could be new scientific or technical knowledge that may be commercially exploited. Grants of £20,000 – £100,000 for micro and small businesses covering 60% of eligible costs are available.

There are also Development grants and two Exceptional grant levels >£100k. The development grants are only 35% and the exceptional grants aren’t really aimed at the small business or start-up entrepreneur.

Next up are more general business expansion funding. A couple of days ago SWRDA announced their South West Loans Fund. This is £10m of funding for small businesses that have been refused credit elsewhere. A good slug of that cash comes from Europe (£6.25m) so the focus is on the more deprived parts of the South West (Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly get £5m), but businesses from across the South West are eligible.

All grant applications have to address two very different needs. Yours and the funders. Having written plenty of successful business grants for funding, research or collaboration myself, knowing how to frame your business innovation so that it appeals to public sector funding is more art than science.

Although most of the cash is coming from SWRDA, BSSP means you access it through Business Link who will provide you with Information, Diagnose your needs, and Broker connections to the right bits of SWRDA’s Innovation team.

As I’ve said elsewhere, there is evidence that banks are beginning to open up to good companies under the Enterprise Finance Guarantee. For business growth finance this is probably your best bet, and you’ll have to have tried (and failed) here before you approach SWRDA for a South West Loans Fund application.

Then there are the equity funding options from SWAIN, Catalyst Venture Partners, Eden Ventures, and those are just the main ones in the South West. There are other independent Angel investors and networks in London that are investing.

So as ever, there are quite a few options. I’ve only cover some here, those I feel are most relevant to the small business or start up entrepreneur. The full list of support products is available in a pdf from SWRDA.

Apr 07

5 Critical lists for Business Development

Uploaded on June 26, 2008 by Caros Lines

Uploaded on June 26, 2008 by Caro's Lines

Everyone likes a list, Darren Rowse says so! 🙂

So here’s my personal list of lists that I use when starting a business or helping others to start their business.

  1. 10 steps to writing a business plan, every business needs one, every investor has their own preferred style. These notes from Business Link are a solid reminder of the basics when bouncing between the business plan, investor plan, funding proposals, summaries, etc.
  2. 9 team roles. There are more ways of looking at a team than I care to try and remember. Belbin’s 9 roles work pretty well for me (even if there’s only 2 people in the team). They’re pretty focused on the effectiveness of the team, rather than the social ability to get on with each other.
  3. Many lists of population, economics, etc. Any business plan needs decent market research, the National Statistics Office is a fantastic resource for free, validated, high-quality data.
  4. 15 sources of Government help. Ok, officially there’s 30, the list says 29 and they’re not all relevant to entrepreneurs. However, there are 15 that are pretty handy for a start-up or business looking for support in their early years.
  5. 10 webapps that help you pull it all together. The link is to a Web Daily Worker list, my personal list would be:

Bonus:

  1. my list of interesting articles from around the web (via shared items from my GReader)

And the photo? Well I was going to write a post listing the people I look up to (another Plinky prompt) but that was proving too hard!