Archives for the month of: December, 2016

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Just like one of the favourite startup queries by non-technical founders is “how to find a CTO” (see my blog post here), another one is the recurring question whether founders should “learn how to code”. If you are a non-technical founder, wondering if it’s time to start programming yourself, please read on.

With non-technical founders often struggling to find a technical co-founder or a budget to hire developers, or maybe being stuck in an inefficient technical development agency relationship or outsourcing agreement, I can understand where the wish to turn into a coding hero themselves comes from. Wouldn’t it be nice if any idea could be implemented immediately, if any change to the website could be rolled out instantly, and if that A/B testing campaign could start right in the middle of the meeting where it was conceived ? If you could build your own ebay and Facebook in a week, after attending a weekend workshop in “Ruby on Rails” ? Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world ?

The founders of one of the startups I am involved with came out of some workshop a while ago, announcing in the most energetic way possible, that they are going to learn how to code now, “because everyone in a tech startup should know how to code”. A few months later I put this to the test, and I distributed some instructions on how to run SQL queries to generate statistics reports to some team members, and I explained how to customise the queries depending on their needs. I have yet to see any evidence of any reports generated that way.

Just like with many other skills and professions, you have to expect years of experience before producing commercially viable results – would you trust an architect, a car mechanic or a brain surgeon with 100 hours of experience ? So what makes you think you could clone the Facebook mobile app, the Angry Birds game, or the ebay website, after attending a coding workshop, where the products you are comparing yourself with have been built by teams with combined experience of dozens or Hundreds of years and nearly unlimited funding?

When I did “Computer Science” lessons in school, we used the PASCAL programming language to build an analogue clock, where we had to “draw” the dial with numbers in a programmatical way on screen and animate the “hands” on it. Would that programme have been fit to run in the NASA Cape Canaveral space mission control centre ? Maybe not.

Let’s see what’s actually achievable.

I definitely agree that each member of a tech startup should understand certain technical buzzwords – and learn how and when not to use them.

There is nothing worse than non-technical founders blasting out technical buzzwords and pseudo-knowledge to prove their competence and startup worthiness, for example how they are “going live with their e-commerce site hosted for free on an Amazon EC2 micro instance”, or how they have to “rebuild their website with Python because it will improve their SEO”, or how they are “off to a recruitment fair to hire a full-stack developer to build their mobile app”. How often do people talk about “back-end” and what they mean is some “back office” / admin site like the WordPress admin panel.

It is super useful to understand enough of how a website and a mobile app actually work, from a high level perspective, to have more meaningful conversations with developers, designers, investors etc.
- What is web hosting,
- What is “cloud”,
- What is a database,
- How does a development life cycle look like,
- What are the typical roles in a technical development team,
- What are popular development languages,
- What platforms and languages are your competitors using.

That would already be a great starting point, before delving into the “node.js” book or joining the jQuery seminar. Or even knowing which of the endless languages or frameworks would actually be suitable for what you are trying to achieve.

After learning how to interpret and selectively ignore the buzzwords and learning what each of the other technical terms actually mean, at a high level “first paragraph on Wikipedia” kind of way, you have to set yourself a realistic target.

Fact is, founders are very busy people. How much time do you really have, between working on the marketing strategy, finding advertisers for your website, recruiting a social media intern, appointing an accountant, updating the pitch deck, and filling in that trademark application ? Maybe while still doing a full-time day job ?!?

Unless your ambition is general career change, or you already have some technical background, I don’t think taking a year out of the business (a year for a startup is more like five or ten years for a more grown up business) or even spending 4 hours time each day learning programming, will be time well spent for a busy startup founder. By the time you can contribute in a meaningful way as development resource your business will probably be dead.

What might be better use of your time is:

Learn about prototyping: Often what you need to demonstrate an idea to others does not require the pain of a full product being built, sometimes all you need is a prototype that can show a concept, and allows you to gather feedback; it will also make it easier to communicate your requirements to both non-technical and technical people. A popular one is invisionapp.com. Spend your time on building a killer prototype and use that to convince a technical co-founder to join your team ! Or to find investment to hire one !

A variation of the previous point – mobile app prototyping : Delve into ways of creating mobile app prototypes without the need for much coding, with tools like goodbarber.com/ or buildfire.com/ – these tools have limitations but will give you a real mobile app to install on your phone or tablet.

Build on existing skills: Maybe you have done Excel programming with VBA, or worked with SQL in your previous data analyst role – that might get you into an easier starting position to do “coding” in your startup, and that might have been your motivation for considering to do technical work yourself. With the time limitations and need for multi-tasking for a founder still in place – the question is how far you can get within reasonable amounts of effort. If you had some exposure to SQL, changing the date in a query every week for a management report then maybe will not get you very far, but if you did VBA for five years then it will be easier to start doing VB.NET (while not exactly being the startup language of choice) or even take up JavaScript (or one of the fancy frameworks like AngularJS, React or Node.js using JavaScript as its base).

If you just looked into some of the tools I mentioned above and this is already looking too technical for you – focus on de-mystifying the terminology first. Maybe do a taster weekend workshop – not with the expectation to become the technical co-founder and developer hero over a weekend, but to find out how far you want to go, and to enable yourself to have more competent high-level technical conversations.

CTORalph Stenzel, Dreamstake CTO, advisor and mentor for various startups.

Twitter @amazingsquirrel

foodtechLondon is considered a world leader in the launch and growth of high growth Fintech and Fashtech startups. Few people realise how successful the city is becoming in Foodtech. With a latge and vibrant foodie population situated side-by-side with a rapidly expanding tech community London is set to become the Foodtech capital of Europe.

Startup communities tend to thrive where there is a logic for them to be situated. This usually means that they have a large successful sector thtiving in close proximity to the resources required to build them into technology businesses. For example, London is strong in financial services and has therefore built a leading position in Fintech. The same applies to fashion. We tend to forget the third Ftech, Foodtech. London has all the ingredients necessary to create a thriving Foodtech eco-system.

So what makes London so special in this domain? We have a very large, prosperous population with a huge appetite for some of the most diverse cuisines in the world. This has created an amazing opportunity to offer all sorts of culinary experiences, exactly where and when people demand them. In the midst of this melting pot we have a highly developed technology startup scene and the investor community needed to fuel growth. This has lead to the emergence of a whole host of providers covering everything from insect protein through to vertical farming. We already have our own food delivery unicorns such as Just Eat and Deliveroo with hundreds of new players emerging all the time.

For investors there are a whole host of opportunites to look at, including; food ordering, restaurant management, supply chain and waste management, new food production techniques, new sources of protein, diet management and many others. Food is the world’s largest industry sector and is only set to grow. London is extremely well placed to be at the centre of the foodtech revolution.

We strongly urge founders to look at solving real problems across all points in the supply chain; from farm to fork to bin and not to limit themselves to simple delivery apps which is rapidly becoming a crowded market.

Blog by Paul Dowling — Co-Founder of Dreamstake the world’s first tech accelerator platform focusing entirely on taking startups from inception to Series A. Dreamstake identifies promising startups from universities and accelerators and provides them with access to the resources they need to achieve later stage success. This is achieved through a large programme run out of Google Campus in London and mentoring with our own network of expert investors. We are currently running a Foodtech accelerator with Just Eat. Investors please register for demo day here.

TL:DR – It’s not the next Bourne movie but refers to the error of Government support for businesses that are quite capable of supporting themselves.

bourneIn UK there seems to be a misconception that scale-ups need support. This came about because for a while we were failing to create unicorns and exits such as IPOs or major trade sales. Government sought advice from consultancies who not unsurprisingly came up with the conclusion that it was because startups needed more support to scale. However, this misses the real issue. The quantity of scale-ups relates directly to the number of quality startups coming through the system and we were simply not creating enough early stage activity.

Approximately 10 years ago the UK Government started to put major effort into the technology startup community, partly through TechCity and focusing on East London. This has been a success and the area now has a vibrant technology startup scene. Other areas of the UK have also benefited with tech clusters in university cities such as Oxford and Cambridge. However, a couple of years ago Government started to consult the eco-system players and came to the conclusion that there was a lack of support for later stage businesses. This has lead to the re-direction of resources into this sector and neglect of the real issues.

Startups develop in eco-systems which bring together resources to stimulate growth. This is largely a numbers game. The more startups that are created, the more unicorns you are likely to encounter. It is also a meritocracy. Only the best survive and this is how it should be. London has an extremely strong supporting eco-system for scaling startups with at least 100 VC funds with more than enough capital and capability to support any startups that are able to demonstrate sufficient product/market fit for scaling. We do not have a Series A crunch. We have a problem of not enough startups meeting the criteria of the VC community.

Businesses that do reach series A are normally extremely capable. They are also naturally provided with the resources to scale without the need for interference from Government or big five consultancies who have little right to be in this space at all.

There are still consideable issues at the startup phase. Great progress is being made in commercialising university IP using startup culture as the success driver. However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done in this field. The UK has traditionally been great at pure R&D but has lagged behind in getting these innovations to market and has often lost out to Silicon Valley and other eco-systems. We are now entering a phase where we can lead on frontier technologies such as AI, Machine Learning, AR/VR, Blockchain, Robotics and IOT. However, we need to do far more to address the university /startup interface and get these technologies to market.

I would argue that the current focus on scaleups is completely misguided. More resources need to be put into stimulating the commercialisation of the excellent work coming out of our universities and early stage startup eco-system. We should stop wasting money on management consultancies, accountants and other organisations that don’t play a natural part in the eco-system and we should ensure that early stage businesses are not starved of the technical and financial resources they need to thrive.

Blog by Paul Dowling — Co-Founder of Dreamstake the world’s first tech accelerator platform focusing entirely on taking startups from inception to Series A. Dreamstake identifies promising startups from universities and accelerators and provides them with access to the resources they need to achieve later stage success. This is achieved through a large programme run out of Google Campus in London and our own network of experts and investors.

 graphene copy

The last 10 years have been dominated by the lean startup. Often inexperienced and under-qualified founders have been over-funded and hyped by VCs to create startups that claim to change the world but deliver questionable value to society. This second wave of the internet democratized the startup scene and reduced the barriers to entry to enable the rise of the unicorn culture. Unfortunately, we can only deal with so many social apps, two-sided markets and sharing economy propositions and now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.

The likes of Steve Blank and Eric Reis did an amazing job of making startup building accessible to anyone with enough entrepreneurial flair and drive. Access to internet cloud-based hosting and mobile platforms reduced the cost to play and provided unprecedented access to markets. Venture capital firms saw the potential and jumped on the band-wagon. Without doubt this phase has produced awesome change and many notable successes.

The last couple of years have seen some dampening of the market, especially in Silicon Valley. Although, it looks like a full bubble has been avoided the appetite for new consumer apps is plateauing and VCs are increasingly focused on managing their existing portfolios, particularly at later stage.

This tightening of the market has coincided with a period of significant technological change. In a difficult market there is always a tendency to focus on investing in real IP which has an improved risk profile and VCs are now shifting their interest into these areas. The recent report on The State of European Tech 2016 by Atomico confirms these trends.

The third wave of the internet will harness technologies such as AI, AR/VR, Genome Sampling, Blockchain, Robotics, Autonomous Vehicles, Graphene and other deep technologies to solve some of the big challenges facing society. This will demand a different approach to supporting and building startups. The lean methodology will have to be adapted to support more complex development cycles and teams with a deeper technical focus.

Europe and particularly the UK is in a good position to exploit these changes, with several world class universities and a strong reputation for advanced R&D. The UK Government seems committed to supporting this with increased funding and there is a growing trend of graduates moving directly into building startups following their university studies.

These trends will involve a huge shift in mindset both from existing founders and investors. It is going to become increasingly difficult to take scrappy lean startups to market with a simple combination of capital and hype. Founders will need to manage teams with real technical depth over longer timeframes and this will have implications on the way investment is secured and channeled. Investors will need to get better at spotting teams earlier in the cycle and providing commercial guidance. Partnering will come back to the fore as many of these technologies require a complex web of participants to get to market. Think autonomous vehicles or virtual reality which will often require combining hardware, software and content to deliver the whole experience.

We can be immensely positive about the technological changes we are about to experience. They will bring a healthier and better educated society, wth ever reducing poverty across the globe. However, there will be increased polarisation in western societies between those that can understand and exploit these deeper technologies and those left behind. The startup community needs to be aware of this and show some leadership in spreading the benefits more widely.

Blog by Paul Dowling — Co-Founder of Dreamstake the world’s first tech accelerator platform matching over 16,000 founders with the most appropriate investors using a unique startup rating system. This allows entrepreneurs and investors to monitor startup progress and inject capital and support when most needed. Startup founders create profiles on the platform and get curated introductions to investors. We are constantly looking for great early stage tech startups. Investors please contact [email protected]