Future-Proof Your Digital Startup: Plan, Talk and Get Creative
Twenty per cent of startups will fail in their first 12 months, and just half can sustain themselves for three years, according to government figures. And digital startups are no exception.
It’s a stark fact, especially when you consider that every startup begins with a feeling of possibility, with a founder willing it to succeed.
So what’s the difference between a startup that falls at the first hurdle and another that lasts the distance? Is it hard work and determination, access to funding or just pure luck? How can you future-proof your digital startup?
Look for the inevitabilities
Andy Hobsbawm says predicting and planning for the inevitable is crucial before you even think of your startup idea. Founder and CMO of EVRYTHNG, the ‘internet of things’ connecting everyday products to the web, Andy is an award-winning digital expert. His CV is more than impressive, after creating one of the world’s first commercial Web-zines, he co-founded Online Magic the first international online digital agency. He then went on to co-found Do The Green Thing, to inspire people to live a greener life.
“Think about what’s going on in the world – what’s going to happen and how you can be part of it,” he says. That’s what he did before he set up Online Magic nearly 20 years ago – when the internet was something futuristic and used by just a handful of people. “I looked at the inevitabilities,” he explains. “It was inevitable that everything was going to be changed by the web. So I thought about what kind of business would be useful in this future and what role I could play in it.”
Another of Andy’s ventures, Do The Green Thing, was also in response to what he saw unfolding around him. “It seemed then that everything would change because we had to move to a low-carbon world. I still think it has to or the consequences will be horrific. I looked again at what I could do to be part of it and Do The Green Thing was the result.”
Leading futurist Tamar Kasriel takes Andy’s inevitability planning a step further. Listed by Wired Magazine as one of the most influential futurists, Tamar is the founder of Futureal, an organisation designed to help businesses plan for an uncertain future. She argues the only way to do that is to map out different scenarios and work out the best ways to overcome them.
“If anyone says they can accurately predict the future, they’re making it up!” says Tamar. “If you plan for different scenarios then you are better prepared for however the future turns out. Scenario planning can be like a kind of rehearsal for different futures, which makes a person and a business more agile.”
Scenario planning is certainly not simply writing up a business plan and hoping you achieve your goals, she says. “Most business plans are about persuasion, trying to tell the fabulous future story of your business, where the only way is up. The kind of uncertainty which scenario planning admits to and deals with belongs in a different place.”
Whether you’re a startup or a large multi-national Tamar always recommends starting by looking at what is probable versus what is possible, and never ignoring what could happen. And she believes that although many businesses face similar uncertainties, because scenario planning is subjective and personal, every organisation will focus on different things for their scenarios and end up with a completely different plan of action.
Creative over reactive
Both Andy and Tamar agree that planning for different eventualities will help you act more quickly when a problem does occur. Not being prepared can mean you’re constantly reacting to issues, instead of having the time to think of creative solutions.
“Face reality as soon as you can or you’ll have to deal with it as an emergency,” says Andy. And if something does go wrong? “It’s much easier not to act. But it’s better to act and make a mistake than pretend everything’s fine. And in my mind, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not making enough decisions,” he adds.
Tamar suggests ongoing planning to help you react when things do go wrong, and that startup owners should be looking five and 10 years ahead from the very beginning of any venture.
“They should be thinking about the future when they start the business, and try as far as possible to think broadly about what drives the shape and success of the business. Then shape the future vision and strategy into something more worthwhile and useful as the business progresses and they have a better sense of its potential and the important drivers in the external environment.”
“If it’s a consumer-facing product or service, really make sure you have understood the target consumer and the benefit to them,” advises Tamar.
It’s all too easy to run away with an idea without realising there is no real market for it.
It’s not just your potential customers you should be reaching out to. There are lots of other people out there who can help you succeed, if only you ask. “Ask for help,” suggests Andy. “Asking for it is not an admission of failure. There’s a lot of goodwill out there and with so many things already stacked against you, you really need to make it as easy as you can.”
We’re back to the recurrent theme of Andy and Tamar’s advice: don’t just ignore problems. Look for them before they happen, face up to them and in this instance talk to the people that can help. Renegotiate contracts if they’re not working. Speak to suppliers if they’re not delivering what you need. Work out what could make it better and do something about it.
“There’s usually a lot of help around if you ask for it,” adds Andy.
Future-proofing in action
Michael Foote, co-founder of www.careercamel.com, has made future-proofing his business a priority.
Careercamel.com is dedicated to improving job chances of students. Anticipating his users’ future demands, his website was designed and built with features that won’t be used immediately, but are in place for when they’re needed. “It’s a lot easier, and cheaper, to incorporate additional functionality at the start of a project than it is to add features further down the line,” says Michael.
A feature Michael’s hoping to use soon is video CVs. He and his partner had heard about their increased popularity and by choosing to offer them from the start rather than try to shoehorn video CVs into an existing site, they saved a significant amount of money on the build cost. They also have the added benefit of knowing the technology is there when video applications increase in popularity.
“The other benefit gained from planning like this is that we had all the time we needed to design our video application system in a way that we want,” adds Michael.
Another word of advice from Michael:
“I personally feel that the best way to future-proof a digital startup is to have a developer on the team. Digital start-ups need to constantly adjust and fine-tune their service and by having access to this without an on-going price attached seems to me to be the best way to be ready for whatever changes are necessary in the future.”
1. Explore what’s inevitable, what’s probable and what’s possible
2. Plan ahead, and get creative when you’re thinking of solutions
3. Don’t ignore problems – even if they’re ones you haven’t anticipated
4. Talk to people who could help, whether it’s for advice or to make things run more smoothly
5. Prioritise your resources
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