The Guardian's small business network published a piece by me earlier this week: yay! Since we've just moved our blog off Blogger.com and on to here – thanks Dean – this is me testing out our new functionality and posting the pre-subbed version of the article, which is shorter (unusually) and has more juicy detail about the eco-entrepreneur who got ripped off by the mayor of London's friend but lived to tell the tale...
opposite me on the tube contained the word “entrepreneur” in large eye-catching
letters and was accompanied by a picture of a mainly naked guy carrying a
surfboard. It was an ad for a university course and I was on my way to the first
day of a business incubator programme for my startup. Damn, I thought. I’ve
forgotten my surfboard.
cofounder, Dean Jenkins, and I applied to one incubator with our business, 24hourlondon, to
which we were accepted, and one accelerator, which said: make some changes and
come back to us in a couple of months. Since the accelerator offers a
five-figure sum for equity this was a goodish outcome. The incubator will give
us a chance to refine our business plan, recruit some more people – volunteers at
this stage: we’re looking for tech and marketing co-founders – and show that
we’ve got what it takes to scale. Perhaps the accelerator will then provide the
tools to do so.
As a woman
in her mid-forties who has spent the last 20 years at national broadsheet
newspapers, I’m not typical of the incubator’s cohort: the rest are male and mostly
in their 20s or early 30s, though the accelerator’s interviewees were more
varied. Theoretically 24hourlondon’s track record – Dean has taken a medtech
company to exit among many other things – should confer an advantage, but who
knows whether we have the alchemy it takes? For instance, I recently heard an
after-dinner speech in which a venture capitalist (VC) told a room that was about
50/50 male and female founders that 95% of the VC money in London goes to men, advising
the women in the room to get themselves a male cofounder. The irony of telling
female founders to find some male window-dressing seemed to elude him.
Is that 95%
stat is correct? It has the baleful feel of truthiness. But technology startups
are surely capitalism’s modern wild west – and where something is
little-understood there is always room for charlatans and bullshit. For example,
I was recently taken to a conference in central London that was advertised as
being for budding entrepreneurs. In fact it consisted of a young man on a stage
telling a room full of several hundred whooping people that it was OK to be
themselves, that his father didn’t love him and that he could relieve them of
more money to take part in his “academy”. It seems to me that there is a sellers’
market for entrepreneurship packaged as a panacea for unhappiness. Work for
yourself, the theory goes. Don’t let those other buggers grind you down.
This is wishful
thinking: building a business involves building relationships with your
cofounders, with your customers and with other businesses. But as with all
clichés, those about entrepreneurship also contain a grain of truth.
Charismatic founder? Well, you need to be able to attract other people to work
with you. But I suspect that the charisma of a good idea works wonders.
of us who know that we don’t know everything, the relatively recent growth of the
accelerator and incubator ecosystem is a godsend. In fact, it was its existence
that partly made me think we should give the business another go (the beginning
of the 24-hour tube was another). We originally built 24hourlondon in 2010,
tried to market it for two years but kept finding ourselves talking to people
who didn’t own smartphones and couldn’t see the value of an app to their own
businesses. We were just too early, I think. Five years on, the market is more
mature and most tech problems now have accessible tech solutions, which include
accelerators and incubators: I see our business model as being like a jigsaw
puzzle for which we do not have all the pieces and a good accelerator is where
I’m most likely to find the missing ones.
tech startups exist in a “space” where the word “awesome” is never more than a
value-judgment away. But I am coming to see this more as a generational trope
and a way of demonstrating supportiveness in a highly uncertain world rather than
just as a cliché. So far – in less than two weeks at the incubator and after a
two-day intensive interview at the accelerator – there have been some
brilliantly instructive stories, gossip and advice.
the young eco-entrepreneur who won a competition at City Hall and was given a
mentor by the then-mayor Boris Johnson who literally stole his idea. So far,
one might think, so predictable. The instructive bit, though, was that the
eco-entrepreneur went to a lawyer, thinking he would sue the mentor, but was
told that anyone who had to steal someone else’s idea wouldn’t have the chops
to build a business and not to waste his money. The lawyer – what a mensch – has
turned out to be right.
there was the female founder of the now-highly-successful video business whose
trouble finding a co-founder quickly to please an investor led her to a
recruitment agency and a guy who really only wanted to work nine-to-five: she
had to buy the cofounder out a year later.
luck? It would be awesome.