The (usually) forgotten advice in startup advice

I’ve read two seemingly diametrically opposed startup retrospectives this week. Really, same goes for every week.

The first was a post-mortem of a startup failure that tried making customized and crowd-sourced designer jeans.


The second was a lesson on getting turned down by VCs from Justin Kan, founder of Twitch, which lets people watch others playing video games.


In the first instance, the moral of the story as told by the founder is to do your homework, i.e. market research and validation before starting the business full-on and wasting six years of your life.

In the second instance, Twitch, the moral of the story is to not listen to anyone who thinks your idea is crazy and persevere through it. Show the world!

Here’s what these two blog posts (and similar) usually forget to mention…

Both of those bits of advice are wrong and correct. Sometimes you can’t validate an idea ahead of time. Other times you can validate market potential, but the data may tell you to quit, when actually it could very well succeed. Or it could be the opposite, the market says yes this is a winner, and it turns out not to be. 

So what the hell is one to do then?!

Really, there’s only one thing you can do - if your idea is uncertain and you decide to follow through with it, then become comfortable with that uncertainty. If you don’t have that risk appetite, then head the other direction and look for an idea with more certainty in the market (which will have different barriers of course).   

Not every good idea is worth advancing, and not every crazy idea should be dropped. The forgotten piece of advice is that you need to ask yourself how much risk you’re willing to take on board. And that’s unique to everyone. 

Even for the seasoned and experienced, that can be a difficult question to honestly answer. So, look for parallels in your life where you were possibly biting off more than you could chew, its outcome, and how you felt about it. Validating your appetite for risk is probably the most important element to starting something. There’s risk in any business venture.


Meg Hillier, my local MP, actually did something about my UK Visa


Running a startup is difficult enough. Being a foreigner doing a startup is about 100x as difficult. The last thing you want to be worrying about is your Visa and not having a passport to do business.

I’ve lived in the UK for nearly four years now on a Tier 1 Visa. I moved here from San Francisco to join Mendeley as Head of R&D [note: left to found PeerJ before Elsevier moved in to buy them :)].  

Last August I needed to send my Visa in for a two year extension. It has now been five months, and I still have not received my passport and new Visa. This is not an uncommon thing these days (read any Visa forum) for the UK Border Agency, the agency in charge of immigration decisions.

Obviously being without your passport is rather hampering as a co-founder of an Open Access tech/publishing startup with locations in both London and San Francisco. It’s outrageous actually, and the UKBA knows exactly what my business is. 

I know for certain that I am not the only entrepreneur going through this. A shame, as startup companies are the ones bringing new investment to the UK economy and creating new jobs. And with the RCUK pushing for Open Access, you’d think there would be added incentive in this case. David Cameron is full of a lot of hot air, professing to be on the side of foreign entrepreneurs. From where I sit, we’ve received no help.

Finally, this week I decided to do something besides futile attempts at contacting the UKBA for information on the delay. I wrote to my local MP, labour party member Meg Hillier. And behold, a written reply within two days of my emailing.

“… I have immediately written to the Home Office’s UK Border Agency (UKBA) on your behalf and have asked for a cause for the delay as well as an assurance that a decision will be made on your case as soon as possible. I regret that the UKBA is a very far from satisfactory organisation and that the service it provides to my constituents is deteriorating at present. …”

- Meg Hillier MP - 17 January 2013, private correspondance (see image in this post)

Thank you Ms. Hillier.


Startup pitch contests. Worst idea, perhaps ever.

Unless you are trying to find out who the best actor might be that is. It’s like saying, “they just won the ‘Presidential debate,’ therefore they must be an awesome President.”

There is absolutely no correlation between the ability to deliver a pitch and the ability to successfully run a business.  

What has spurred this bit of a rant is a blog post I woke up to this morning about the Founder’s Institute training their “student entrepreneur’s” on the fine art of pitching. Basically every incubator does this, so FI isn’t alone. And they do it for a reason, because this is what investors expect when you sit down with them, a well-polished pitch. And to be fair, investors usually don’t throw down money just because of a pitch, there is a lot more due diligence, usually.

I think that last point though, further due diligence, further backs up my claim that startup pitch contests do not actually determine the best business opportunity. They determine the best pitch, and that is all. In fact, winning a pitch contest might actually be harmful to your company, because it can bring a false sense of success; that you’ve achieved 'product-to-market fit.’ It will certainly raise the level of your profile for a short-while, but I don’t believe there are any self-fulfilling prophecies when it comes to becoming a successful business.