the rise of the wantrepreneur

Most of you won’t know this, but I have a visceral hatred of joining in.  I’m not sure what it stems from psychologically, but it’s a feeling shared by my sisters.   Maybe because there are four of us siblings and my mum’s one of eight, so between our extended family, friends etc., we’ve got a capacity rent-a-crowd going on without any effort at all.  No joining required.

It’s not that I can’t be sociable.  It’s just that I hate forced fun.  Or the sort of verging-on-hysterical collective enthusiasm that seems to spawn from spending the weekend with a bunch of strangers on any sort of “teamwork” exercise.

All told, it’s a miracle I made it to Launch48.  I suspect that The Mack may have slipped something into a glass of milk to get me there, B.A. Baracus style.  I pity this fool…

But make it I did (I may have turned up a little late… Ha! Take that, organisers, you’re not the boss of me…).  I spent a total of 28 hours over a weekend in the company of strangers, in a room with no windows.  And I paid for the privilege.

Launch48: the concept 

Here’s their schtick:  willing punters pitch ideas for tech/online businesses on the Friday night; you pick a team to join and spend all day Saturday and Sunday developing your idea, building your prototype and launching it to critical acclaim.

It’s run by a team of facilitators and mentors with different business backgrounds and skill sets to give you guidance (for which read idea-shredding) over the course of the weekend.  It’s part of Oxygen Accelerator, a scheme that takes nascent start-ups and provides a framework and seed funding to grow their business to the next level.  The idea being that Launch48 funnels great talent or great ideas into a ready-made incubator system.

There’s no specific methodology taught here – it’s not like Lean Startup Machine which is all about the process – it’s more about learning as you go and relying on the skills of your team members and input from the mentors.

the rise of the wantrepreneur 

The thing that struck me the most over the weekend was that it confirmed this growing feeling I’ve had since deciding to go into business for myself.  That entrepreneurialism is now a mainstream aspiration.  And every man, woman and dog is trying their hand at it.  There’s even a term for them (me): wantrepreneur.  Catchy.

And the fact is, the barriers to becoming an entrepreneur (particularly an online entrepreneur) have never been lower.  I’ve added links at the end of this post to various projects that were launched over the Launch48 weekend. This shows what can be created in a really short period of time, with limited resource and pretty much zero capital.  Pretty impressive.

Now some of you will be reading this thinking – great, the internet has democratised what was once the preserve of the rich, or the well-connected, or the MBA graduate.  And I agree that there is something cool in entrepreneurship being more accessible.

But I can’t help but feel that maybe Elvis has left the building.  Or is at least on his way to the loo….

My concerns are threefold:

  • It’s too easy to ignore the doubts:  because it’s so relatively simple and cheap to translate an idea into an online presence, people forget that just because you can create an app for something or create an online service or product, it doesn’t mean that you have a business.

My Launch48 team was as guilty of this as anyone.  We created a web-based app to help people be more organised.  We identified a niche market for that product and it had some useful functionality.  But when we looked closer, the problem that our product was designed to solve really wasn’t that big a problem for our target market.  And for our affiliate revenue model to work, we needed a lot of customers to use our product. Bottom line: if customers don’t really care about the problem you’re trying to solve, then that’s a hobby project, not a business.  I’m out.

  • It’s a crowded marketplace: nowadays, you do any kind of competitor analysis on your idea and chances are Google is going to spit out a gazillion hits of people all doing something similar in your target space.  Some of the mentors I spoke to about this said they weren’t worried.  That the best ideas, if well-executed, will always rise to the top.

I’m not so sure.  I don’t think it’s enough to do something well.  I think that from the customer perspective, all that competitor noise in the market is a huge distraction.  It diverts attention away from your idea.  It turns customers off.  Unless you’ve got a truly unique angle or you’re in another league to your competition, to them you’re just another [insert your product or service here].

  • It seduces you into thinking building a business is easy:  I worked for a company that grew to four times its size over the four years I was there.  I’ve seen first-hand just how difficult it is to build a sustainable, dynamic business from scratch.  Getting your idea to some tangible form is barely step one.  Turning that into a real business is the rest of the story.  I like that there are programmes like Oxygen Accelerator that try to help fledgling startups find their feet, because it’s pretty brutal out there if you’re trying to do this alone.

I like to think that I’ve picked up a bit of experience over the past 10 years.  And I still don’t feel equipped to run a real business.  I know that it will be a continuous learning curve and I’m fully prepared to fall flat on my face.  I’m all in favour of enthusiasm and having a go.  But I think there’s wisdom in knowing when to get help from more experienced people and learning to identify when it’s time to pull the plug, rather than pivot.

wanna join in?

If you’re thinking of attending a Launch48, Lean Startup Machine, Startup Weekend or any of the other workshops that are springing up all over town, here’s my guide to help you decide if it’s for you:

It’s for you:

– if you just want to see what this start-up lark’s all about;

– if you want to meet enthusiastic fellow wantrepreneurs and share ideas in an open, encouraging and facilitated environment;

– if you’ve got a burning idea and want to test it without spending much money and by using resources (designers, developers, mentors) that you might not otherwise have access to.  One of the Launch48 teams had a fairly well-developed idea and they used the weekend primarily to get developers to help them with A/B testing of various websites.

– if you’re not quite ready to work on your own idea, but want to try out some of the methods for validating business ideas – essentially a trial run before you go and do it for yourself.  You’ll pick up tips (using launchrock for a free landing page instead of paying for unbounce; using Amazon Web Services for pretty much everything your baby web app might need) that’ll save you time and money.

– if you want to talk to people who are already living the tech start-up dream.  The mentors are encouraging but realistic.  They’re not there to humour you, they’re there to challenge your hypotheses, test your assumptions and make you think like an entrepreneur.  They don’t hold back and they don’t sugar coat their feedback.  But they do know their onions and they’re more than happy to share their knowledge and experience.

– if you want to get discounts on useful products and services.  All of the weekend bootcamps provide participants with a great range of discounts, worth £thousands, on useful services – google adwords, free hosting, design services etc.

What it’s not:

– it’s not the place to come if you’re determined to work only on your idea.  We lost around 1/3 of participants after the Friday night.  They came, they pitched, their ideas weren’t chosen and they didn’t bother coming back.  If that were me, I  would be taking that feedback seriously.  If you can’t sell it to a bunch of eager wantrepreneurs, you might want to take another look at your idea, buddy…

– it’s not the place to find developers (although apparently Launch48 in Croatia is that place).  Developers were outnumbered by business peeps by about 8 to 1.  We didn’t have a developer in our team, so don’t come to one of these events expecting it to be a hackathon.  It’s not.

– it’s not the place to come to learn all the steps in creating and launching a tech start-up.  There are no teaching sessions – you get on with it as best you know how.  If skills are what you need, Launch48 has just set up some one day practical workshops for specific skills (e.g. customer discovery; methods for validating ideas etc.) or look at General Assembly‘s programme of workshops and webinars.

– if you already have great business experience, then it’s not the environment to pick up any radical new business skills.  The same principles as apply to any business apply to tech startups.  I think that the participants who got the most out of the weekend were those who had great ideas but perhaps lacked some of the business-planning and execution experience that the mentors could provide.

If anyone has any questions on Launch48 or Lean Startup Machine, then please post in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank the Launch48 organisers for putting up with my world-weary cynicism, general bolshiness and unsolicited “feedback”.

A few of the Launch48 London Teams:

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