The 2nd in this 3-part blog series continues my conversations with some of my favourite entrepreneurs and business experts.
I asked them 5 questions. Part 1, focusing on the 1st question, was all about where they find their inspiration.
Here, we’ll zoom in on the 2nd question: how they came up with the ideas that transformed into their latest business ventures.
Here we go…
Q2: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
‘Will somebody please help me?!’
For David Mellor, author of the highly readable ‘Crew to Captain’ series and experienced business leader and mentor, the idea and motivation for launching his business consultancy, Mellor Mentoring, came from not being able to find anyone to help him when he wanted to set up his own business. Surprised and frustrated, he set about plugging that gap so that others wouldn’t experience the same obstacles.
David’s friendly and reassuring manner, which many of those in my network value and find so supportive and constructive, belies a steely, vastly experienced and astute mind that is superb at zeroing on things that often get overlooked or under-estimated. And he’s particularly adept at predicting how each of us will react to certain circumstances or rise to particular challenges…definitely a benefit when we’ve got no idea about that ourselves!
But even David confesses to having felt a sense of helplessness and irritation at not always knowing the answers or being able to help himself in the early stages of setting up his own business and then scaling it. Fortunately for us, David’s frustrations led to what he does today, and that’s a great benefit to those of us in his network.
‘Test your idea on at least 10 people for whom it’s relevant. Then pursue, adapt or abandon it, depending on the outcome…’
David Mellor, Founder, Mellor Mentoring
Realising there has to be a better way
Shaun told me the idea for his brand new rapid innovation business, Prototipe, came from ‘part gut and part observation of what was going on around me, while I was working for agencies.
‘Having worked for large design agencies for a number of years, I felt there had to be a better way of getting stuff done, without having to wade through acres of process, people and all the related fees that came with that. Fundamentally seeing and experiencing client dissatisfaction – not with the product outcome but with the laborious process that led to it, when all clients wanted was to get the answer quickly, convinced me that there was an opportunity to fast track the process and use a more agile model.’
Sian’s PA&Go sprung from her experience of working with an entrepreneur on setting up his business.
‘I’ve done this many times in the last 13 years,’ she told me. ‘I noticed how the lifespan of this type of role within an organisation is really during the set-up stages, all the way up to when there is a team of around 30 employees. Once up and running, I found that the ‘all-singing-all-dancing’ operations person was no longer needed.
‘The surge in coworking spaces indicated that there are a wealth of entrepreneurs and early stage startups who need exactly what I do, but more in bite-sized chunks, rather than on a full-time salary basis.
‘So PA&Go was born: a team who can get startups up and running and keep them going, on a flexible and affordable basis, until they’re big enough to stand on their own feet and efficiently manage their needs internally.’
A change of circumstances
Chris found that his sudden change in job situation concentrated his mind on just what he could do with his multitude of skills – and how that might sensibly translate into something revenue-generating.
‘When I finally left full-time acting, I took on agency work. And then I lost my agency job in a redundancy round, so I knew I needed to move fast,’ he told me candidly. ‘My core business is an extension of what I was already doing, just better. With a skills-base as broad as mine, refining what I do down to one clear business proposition was tough. But I’m getting there.’
Losing a job was a trigger for Leah as well. In fact, she experienced it several times. Her original career choices took her into entertainment and producing, and while particularly memorable for her (and me!) is her first ever job: Mr Blobby on Blackpool Pier, it was while working as a comedy and theatre producer for a fringe festival in Edinburgh that she was first cast adrift in a redundancy round and forced to examine what she could do next.
Determined to make the most of it, Leah went back to working in the bar where she’d worked as a student and she took a management training course. From there, she found herself in the marketing and magazine world and ended up as editor in charge of a popular Scottish homes and interiors magazine, a role she really enjoyed.
And then the 2008 recession hit and redundancy came around again.
But by then, Leah had spotted a gap in the market and the idea for Appointedd was born.
‘As my team were getting cut and my hours were getting longer, I got used to doing everything online. The only thing that I didn’t do online was booking hairdresser appointments,’ she shared. Not being able to do this became a surprisingly major pain for Leah. ‘I’d literally drive to work every morning and think: ‘Right I need to book a salon appointment’, and then I’d drive home every night going ‘oh no. I didn’t book that! By that time, it was always 8pm or midnight and it always struck me that as a society that did everything else online, it was frustrating that we couldn’t interact with small businesses in that way.’
Leah lost no time in developing a prototype. She’d called the gap right. Demand was strong.
‘Start before you’re ready. You and your business will grow together.’
Hannah Martin, Founder, The Talented Ladies Club
Hannah became a mum, and that was the slower-burning trigger for her. ‘When I had my first child, I returned to work full-time (I had no choice as a single mum!) and missed so many of his important milestones, like his first steps and first day at school.
‘When I had my second child, I vowed I’d do things differently and I chose to freelance from home. It was a massive learning curve for me, trying to find clients who didn’t expect me to be in an office ‘just because’ …’
Motherhood typically creates a whole new community that we probably won’t have encountered before. Its potential to create terrific new opportunities has until recently, been overlooked and underestimated. Hannah spotted this. ‘I met lots of local mums in similar positions, women who had enjoyed amazing careers but who struggled to find a way to continue it AND be the mum they wanted to be,’ she reflects thoughtfully. ‘I wanted to find a way to help us all.
‘I knew I wanted to create some kind of online support for working mums, but didn’t know in the beginning quite what to do. The idea for the Talented Ladies Club, as it is now, emerged over time.’
And Hannah’s a textbook example of how to create something robust and enduring. She created a large and highly engaged community around her free ‘how to’ blogs. She shared beautifully illustrated and carefully curated member stories and learnings, tips and expert advice, long before she started to sell anything to this audience. By the time that she did, that audience trusted her, knew that her intentions were authentic and the information being shared was reliable. More than that, she’d created something that was really valued by her audience, enough to make them want to stay on the journey with her as she turned that relationship into a business.
Great teachers, mentors and influencers
For Laura, the trigger for creating Empowering Futures came from comments by others about her popularity and amazing network of contacts – something that given her very modest personality, she’d struggled to really believe or appreciate at the time. In fact, it really puzzled her. Even when one of Canada’s most popular musical artists at the time, Michael Buble, started inviting her to his parties, she took it all in her stride and assumed he was just being a good neighbour.
Until she thought about her position a bit more objectively and she realised they were right: she had been working in academia, as well as in business and she knew and comfortably conversed on a regular basis with ambassadors, politicians and influential business leaders across a number of continents in addition to her students and her own academic peer group. She’d become fearless about finding solutions, making things happen and connecting others, with no expectation of personal gain herself. In doing so, she’d created a highly supportive and attentive network.
‘Do your research and keep your eyes wide open… But sometimes, you have to follow your instinct, based on what you already know and have learned.’
Laura Vanessa Munoz, Founder, Empowering Futures
Laura told me that one of the real ‘eureka’ moments for her was the chance she had to work closely with a Canadian entrepreneur, who’d not just inspired her, but had given her real responsibilities and career progression from the start. From that moment, and because she’d had such a terrific role model who had really empowered her, Laura had learned to grow, to manage teams and to develop new skills – really great networking and problem-solving skills amongst them.
Empowering Futures was born from those moments of realisation and her determination to build a social enterprise out of a programme that would support students and entrepreneurs to unlock their real potential. Laura wanted not just to build networks bringing together these two communities, but to facilitate their structured collaboration on meaningful projects that would uniquely bring real value to them both. She set out to provide bright university students with the sort of work and life experience and opportunity that she herself had experienced, while facilitating highly cost-effective access, for the small business community, to a valuable resource that is capable of helping with real business projects.
‘This is neat, where else could it work?’
What to have for supper sparked the idea for Paul’s latest educational tool. ‘I was playing with my iPhone at school one break time,’ he confesses. ‘I was texting [my wife] about what she’d like for supper, and I realised that the technology for text to voice and voice to text that I was using might be harnessed for educational purposes.’
‘Something’s missing, I know how to provide it’
Tom came up with the idea for KOMPAS when he and his co-founder, Olivia, moved to Munich.
‘After settling into the city, we had no idea what to do and quickly realised there was no user-friendly resource to help us find out. Instead of remaining ‘lost in the city’, we decided to build up our knowledge of it and then start sharing what we found.
‘We built a blog audience of over 20,000 in the following 6 months, but for us, it was more than being just a blog. So we brought in Doug and Kurt and developed a mobile application that uses machine learning to create truly personalised recommendations based on what we’d discovered, what other people contributed and people’s preferences. If you want to know where serves the best coffee, what’s on, how to get about, secret spots known only to locals, or even where you’d like to go next in a city of your choosing, then that’s what we’re serving up.’
All you need to know when you travel – and even if you’re local – ready when you are, in your pocket. Tom describes it as ‘a pocket guide to the world’s urban jungles’, because it has rapidly expanded to cities across the globe, building on local intelligence and user contributions.
They’re now a team of 11 based in London and raising their next round of funding. It’s been hugely exciting to watch all the hard work pay off and their success unfold.
‘Don’t hide away building something that you think is great and without telling people about what you’re doing. You’ll never know if it’s something they really want.’
Tom Charman, Founder, KOMPAS
In Part 3 of this blog series, we’ll be looking at how you decide whether an idea is going to make a good business. I also asked my contributors what are the biggest killers of great business ideas and how, in their experience, we can avoid making the mistakes that lead to them. You can find Part 3 here.