Europe’s Startup Groupies

If you are starting a “startup” you have seen many startup groupies.

You know the type: you see them all the time at events, meet ups and drink ups, hanging around all the time. They are not part of a startup, they are not investors and they haven’t started a company before, but they are always there. I call them Startup Groupies.

Most startup groupies are harmless. They like hanging around with innovative, active and sometimes down right crazy people who work at startups. They don’t have the money to invest in startups or if they do have some money to invest, they lack the balls required. The same lack of balls (or abundant sensibilities) also stops them from jumping from their ‘consultancy’ roles at large companies to start or join a startup. So they just come for a drink, hangout with cool people and dream about the day they are going to turn their amazing idea into a killer company. Nothing wrong with that.

There is a secondary type of startup groupie that is harmful however. They waste your time, your most precious asset.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about consultants trying to sell you their service: lawyers, accountants, office space brokers, SEO experts or social marketing ‘gurus’. Those guys will also often waste your time, but there is always exceptions. Just like cold-callers who mostly waste your time but sometimes albeit very rarely, have something you actually want to buy. And let’s not forget, they usually have started their own one-man-band businesses so they are mostly on your side.

Here I’m talking about the ‘community’ guys, ‘ecosystem’ builders, ‘initiative’ people. You can find them mostly in Europe sucking government and European grants to push self-defined vague metrics and make a living out of that. Not only these guys waste your time, they also hurt the economy in a greater way.

Let’s try and see how they operate:

How be a startup groupie?

First define a bullshit word: “digital skill” is a good one. “social economy” is another candidate. “social enterprise” perhaps? Just make sure it doesn’t mean anything and is vague enough.

Now start an outfit with a big name: “Startup Europe” sounds good. How about “National Association of British Entrepreneurs”?

Remember: You have to call yourself an entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t built a company in your life, you can always make up those stories later.

Now, armed with your bullshit word and big-sounding outfit, go around looking for likeminded people. (Pro tip: You will have a much better chance in the PR industry).
Your likeminded people probably already have their own bullshit word and big-sounding outfit made up. That’s actually better since it helps you congratulate each other publicly, become part of a larger “initiative” or “group” and sound even bigger than you actually are.

The next step is grant hunting. There are plenty of those around: the UK government has some, so does the European Union and most of the European governments. Set a goal for your bullshit word and go for it. Say it in your mission statement: “Startup Europe’s mission is to progress digital skills within social enterprise”. Who can measure progress of that?

Keep at it. Tweet pictures of yourself at the doorsteps of Number 10 or shaking hands with HRH Duke of Never-Done-A-Day-Of-Work-In-His-Life or some other VIP. Make sure your LinkedIn profile mentions Davos, Office of Prime Minister, European Parliament and other important sounding places. Again, it doesn’t matter if that’s true or not, if those outfits have anything to do with starting businesses or what you’ve actually done there: Just mention their names. Again, bonus points for pictures.

Now you have a job, money and get to hangout with cool people.
Moreover, if you play this game long enough, you will be recognised by the same establishments and hopefully you will get an OBE or some other ancient badge of honour for your services to progress of modern technology.


Sad as it is, I have seen many of these people and their outfits. The truth is the real progress is not made by these charlatans.

I personally have little issue with people making up bullshit words or organisations and getting OBEs, MBEs or WTFs for it. I am happy to have drinks with them and fake amazement at their ‘achievements’ and breadth of their networks. Let them namedrop until they are blue in the face.

But they usually do more than that. They might waste your time, but have control over that. What you don’t have control over is the fact that they take up and waste resources that are allocated to help small businesses at a large scale. They usually become the gatekeepers to who gets those resources and they are not qualified by any standard to be in that position. They are trusted by establishment policy makers because of their association with you, the real entrepreneur, and that is what I have an issue with.

So the next time you see a startup groupie, you know why they are wasting their time with you, the unwashed, overworked, crazy startup person instead of drinking Campari with the Prime Minister at Davos!



Focus

Don’t read the TechCrunch.
Don’t obsess with the latest story on the HackerNews.
Don’t worry about growth hacking.
Don’t waste your time ‘measuring the opportunity size’ for your next VC meeting.
Don’t obsess with the competition.

Just build a fucking awesome product.

Build something for yourself. That is the only way you can tell if you have done the right thing. Listen to your customers and be your own customer. Obsess with product. Make it perfect. Don’t compromise on quality. You know if you have when you are using it every day.

VCs want you to tell them about the customer acquisition routes, market size, pricing strategy, distribution channels, competitive landscape, funding roadmap, growth strategy and a lot more.

They ask detailed questions that no one knows the answer to that early in the business. They never ask you, how you’re going to make your product perfect? No one knows the answer to that either. But they just don’t ask that.

The problem is, when a company like WhatsApp is acquired for $19B the first things VCs do is to check their email boxes to see if they said no to WhatsApp before. What they don’t do is to ask is how did WhatsApp grow to be so big to be so valuable to someone like Facebook? And if they do ask or answer that question, it’s all retrospective analysis. Hindsight.

The reality is that no one knows why Candy Crush is so popular? No one knows how Angry Birds got to be so big?
No one knows this including the companies behind them. If they did, they would have reproduced the success. Where is OMGPop? Do you know any other games from King, the makers of Candy Crush? Have you seen anything else making money for Rovio apart from Angry Birds merchandise?

But all you hear is “How are you going to be the next King, Rovio, Facebook or WhatsApp?” when neither side of the conversation knows how they got to be what they are. Your ansswer might as well be “I’m going to use black magic. I know an old witch”.

You can waste your limited resources in trying to answer those questions. The reality is that you might have to do that. If you don’ have money to carry on and need an investment, then you will have to try and answer questions like that. Leave the old witch out of it and try your best, but remember: don’t confuse the answers to those questions with anything real. Don’t believe for a second they mean anything when you don’t have a great product. Don’t lose your focus on your product.

The only thing that matters, the only thing that is guaranteed to help with making a business is a laser-sharp focus on product. You might not build a WhatsApp by only focusing on product, but no one knows any other way.

Focus.