Archive | April, 2011

MBA Business Plan Theatre

26 Apr

A business plan from some LBS students

Today I submitted my team’s Entrepreneurship Project (EP), which counts as one elective towards our MBA. The EP is basically a term-long project where you develop a business plan – it doesn’t have to be a startup, but inevitably that’s what most of them are. I came in to the course really looking forward to doing the EP, as I knew I wanted to base it on my start-up so I could test the idea with four clever classmates.

I’ve been very fortunate to recruit a great team – Khalida, Alex, Amita and Jonathan – that really believe in my startup. I’m very grateful to them for the hard work that they’ve put in to developing what is, essentially, “my baby”. In effect, I’ve received the equivalent of quite a few thousand pounds worth of free consultancy and research!

We also had to do a presentation of our business to a panel consisting of local entrepreneurs and business angels. Whilst our presentation was a bit… light, it did pique the interest of one of the judges, who is now helping me as an advisor (and maybe as an investor in the future), which is a great result.

Although the EP has been a useful experience for me, it’s probably fair to question the value of “MBA business plans”. Silicon Valley legend, Steve Blank*, is not a fan of business plan competitions, which are fairly analogous to the EP. I can see his point – with many startups, you’d be better off just developing your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as soon as possible, and getting your product in to peoples’ hands to test your ideas.

For the vast majority of people on our course, the EP is just an academic exercise. The real point of the EP, from an academic point of view, is just to apply some of the things you have learnt over the previous two terms. For that reason we are pretty much obliged to shoehorn in references to various frameworks such as Porter’s Five Forces at every opportunity.

I think most of the students are in agreement that if we were to pass our EPs on to real investors for investment, the first thing we would do is strip them of most of the “MBA talk”. It would certainly shorten them substantially!

I think the real reason business plan competitions are so popular is that it’s something tangible that a group of students can do together in a relatively short period of time. For many ideas, it’s simply not feasible to build something beyond the reasoning behind the idea, as is mentioned in this blog post about someone who has started a couple of biotech companies after business plan competition.

So what am I doing now the EP is over? Well, I’m stripping out all the MBA talk from my EP as I am in the semi-final of my school’s business plan competition! Huzzah!

*the same Steve Blank we had hoped to meet in Silicon Valley but did not. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in person.

MEST day 4 – Just do it!

19 Apr

The first result in a Google Image search for "Just Do It". Image by Sharad Haskar. Click for more info.

Day 4, Friday 8th April – last half day.

During the last half day the EITs presented the progress they’d made over the week and how they would be progressing with their business ideas. My overall advice for my team was JDI: Just Do It. They need to build their prototype ASAP and get it out there in the wild for people to test and give feedback. All the teams had made considerable progress during the week and had lots of ideas for how to improve their businesses.

I also suggested that we do a bit of 360 feedback on the MBA Consultants so we could see how we’d performed from their point of view. We made sure we explicitly asked for a good point and something that we could improve on. The EITs were all so nice, I could see them not wanting to criticise anyone.

The feedback was written on one bit of paper and to be seen only by each MBA, but I don’t mind sharing some of my feedback here:

Positive: “Enjoyed your [startup metrics for pirates] funnel lecture, gave me a different perspective into how Internet consumers behave

Area for improvement: “More straight to the point

Just before my MEST time was over, I popped over the famed MEST bridge to their other building where the previous years’ companies are incubated. I am really glad I did this. It was great to see where these companies had got to in a year as I could see the sort of progress my team could make once they get in there. The companies there were fantastic – none of them would have been out-of-place at a startup incubator in Silicon Valley (where I’m headed as I speak, typing this post at 36,000ft). In fact, one of the companies, Nandimobile, I already knew a bit about as it had gone to the Launch conference run by Jason Calacanis and won the best business award, beating all the Silicon Valley competition. Amazing! Go Ghana!

Overall, I have to say that this trip to Ghana has been an amazing experience. It was my first visit to Africa and quite an eye-opener. I didn’t sign-up to MEST because I’m particularly in to “social entrepreneurship” – I just like start-ups and seeing and talking about cool ideas and I was not disappointed. I am so glad I signed up for this at the start of the year.

At this point I’d just like to say a personal thank you to a couple of folk: Jorn Lyseggen for starting the Meltwater foundation that makes MEST possible, and Peter van Dijk for organising our visit and being a great host at MEST. Also a big thank you to Robert and Badu for being such a great team. They are a pleasure to work with!

It doesn’t end there for me though – I will still be working with my team as we prepare them for their pitch to Jorn to get in to the incubator.

P.S. If you’ve managed to read though all these posts then well done to you! I wrote all 5 of my MEST posts in one day. Probably the most writing I’ve ever done in one day (yes, that includes when I was writing my PhD thesis!), four of them at 36,000ft on my flight to San Francisco (jet-setting baby!)  so I hope that shows you how much this programme meant to me. If you found the posts interesting, please do take a second to leave a comment or rate the posts. It’s what we bloggers live for! I’m also happy to answer any questions about MEST if you’re reading this and thinking about applying.

MEST Day 3 – MBA carousel

19 Apr

I've always seen myself as a bit like Zebedee

Day 3, Thursday 7th April – MBA carousel

The day started out with presentations by all of the teams to all of the EITs and MBAs. This would be the first time we got to see the other teams’ projects in detail.

After the presentations we did 30min consulting sessions with each of the teams so we could give feedback to the teams and make suggestions as to how they could improve their ideas. We were advised not to hold back with the feedback – there was no point in going easy on them otherwise they would just get a shock when they have to present to Jorn in a couple of months to try and get in to the incubator.

These sessions were great fun. In fact I would say it was a privilege that we got this opportunity. It was a bit like reading a few posts on Techcrunch then being able to grill the founders. I think I managed to give good feedback and decent suggestions to all the teams. I maybe gave most value to the team that was working on a healthcare related product as it is closest to my own product background. There were some flaws in some of the plans that needed deeper thought, but overall all of the businesses seem quite viable to me. Maybe some of them don’t feel quite so enthusiastic after we’ve dissected their ideas but I really do think that each of these ideas, if executed well, could be quite successful.

That evening we went out with the teaching fellows from MEST. We went to the ex-pat/obroni bars. First we went for Thai food, which was not too bad. Then an Irish pub (there’s always one!) called Ryans where the Star was nice and cold and there was also some free Clubs being given away in a promotion. It was some kind of Accra ex-pat society evening so the place was quite busy. I even got the chance to practice my Norwegian, which was fun. Then we went on to somewhere called the Container. Maybe it’s called that because it looks like it’s housed in a shipping container. Anyway, the beer was something like GH₵2, so no complaints from me. After there we went on to a place called Duplex. Then we somehow got home. Probably in a taxi. Not sure. All I can remember is the slight despair that there was not much chance of me running in to a kebab van offering chips and cheese.

MEST Day 2 – Workshops

19 Apr

Why are pirates always so grumpy?

Day 2, Wednesday 6th April – Workshops

The MBAs were to give workshops to the EITs about several business areas: Tayo and I would cover budgeting and sales forecasting; Mike and Jaro covered business plans; and Louis was taking on implementation strategy on his own.

I was slightly apprehensive about the workshops. Despite having completed a PhD, I never got the opportunity to do any teaching (I emptied bins instead, but that’s a different story…), whereas Tayo has been a university lecturer in the states. Nevertheless I obsessively read startup and VC blogs so I figured I could take something useful from there. Maybe I should be concerned that I based my workshop on a few blogs rather than the very expensive learnings of my MBA!

I took my main inspiration from a couple of my favourite presentations: Dave McClure’s “Startup Metrics for Pirates” and Andrew Chen’s “How to Start a Profitable Freemium Startup”. Fortunately the EITs hadn’t seen these before, so my first suggestion was to look up McClure and read everything he’s ever written (whilst warning them that he uses “colourful” language and his slides look like they’re made by an eight year-old!).

I actually started out by saying that I think that revenue forecasting for start-ups that don’t yet exist is mostly a folly*. Top VCs will want to know that you are aiming at a big market, and that you have a product that people want so that you can take a significant chunk of that market. The actual forecast you come up with isn’t that interesting, because you have to make so many assumptions that the margin of error is massive. Nevertheless, showing that you’ve thought of each of the variables that contribute to the forecast shows that you’re thinking about the important factors that determine whether or not you’ll get any revenue at all.

So then we discussed each of these factors using McClure’s AARRR (like a pirate, geddit?) framework**, which stands for Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referrals and Revenue. We took each factor in turn and discussed all the potential ways we could maximise our percentages at each stage. Tayo and I had quite a neat tag-team effort going on, with him talking about how to build a strong brand and use marketing to generate revenue rather than sales. He even treated them to a branding framework he had developed during his PhD.

Finally, I would take them through Andrew Chen’s freemium spreadsheet and show them how the things we had just discussed during the AARRR session were applied to each of the stages on the sales funnel in Chen’s model.

The EITs said they got a lot from our session – all of the sessions in fact. Even though I was paired up with a university lecturer who has a PhD in what he was teaching I think I did ok. Tayo’s a good lecturer – maybe he could have a word with a couple of the lecturers at Saïd***…

That evening everyone from MEST went out in Accra for some dinner, where we ate fine Ghanaian cuisine, and we redeemed our bonus beers for getting pics of the lighthouse (all the teams managed to get a pic!). There was some entertainment mostly in the form of singing both English and Ghanaian songs. There was also a humorous… ummm, spectacle… which I can only describe as “the duck”.****

*Note I haven’t been a VC, or raised money for a startup, so you can take my opinion with a pinch of salt!

**Obligatory pirate joke – Q: Why are pirates always so grumpy? A: Because they AARRR!!

***If by any chance you’re a Saïd lecturer and you’re reading this then of course I don’t mean you!

****Can’t tell you what this is. What goes in Accra, stays in Accra. Well, at least until I put the video on YouTube! 😉

MEST Day 1 – Exploring Accra

18 Apr

Colourful fishing boats

I actually flew out to Ghana a few days early so that I could try and explore Ghana beyond Accra for a few days. If you’re at all interested in reading about that, it’s here on my other blog.*

Day 1, Tuesday 5th April– Meet the EITs and explore Accra

After a round of introductions between the MBA consultants and the EITs (entrepreneurs-in-training), Peter, the class’s senior faculty, set us a challenge. This would be my chance to get to know Robert and Badu, with whom I had already had many chats over Skype. Armed with a small number of Cedis (GH₵) we were to use whatever means of transportation we could afford to travel around the city and get three photos taken of each MBA with his team at an Accra landmark (and get lunch at the same time). A special bonus beer was on offer for any teams that managed to get a photo of the Jamestown lighthouse, as Peter had previously tried to get a snap there but had been unsuccessful (no photos allowed!). A second mission was for each MBA consultant to buy a “trophy” for his team which would represent a learning for them.

So of course we went out, flagged down a cab and headed straight to the Jamestown lighthouse. Once there we were instantly approached by a guy that wanted to give us a “tour” of the lighthouse. Unfortunately being an “obroni” (Caucasian) made you quite the target for the local entrepreneurs (the ones that didn’t quite make the MEST grade) as I’d discovered in Elmina. We went past the lighthouse and headed down to the fisherman’s village. We were approached by a number of people wanting to “help” us, including one guy that was quite insistent that he give us a tour. Robert got rid of him, but we still gave him GH₵1 as we left anyway (for not abducting us and turning us in to fishfood?§)

Robert explained that because it was a Tuesday the fishing village was quiet as it is the day of rest for fishermen (God created the sea on Tuesday?). Although it was quiet, it was not really the sort of place I would have felt comfortable going on my own. However, with team at my side I really wasn’t that bothered. It felt so much better exploring Ghana with Ghanaians. Down there on the (rather dirty) beach I got some photos of the fishing boats (so much colour) and a kid with a bowl on his head at a jaunty angle.

Jaunty

We went back up towards the lighthouse and took the opportunity to snap a few pics. Result! Then we decided to walk towards a mausoleum, taking some pics at the Jamestown Fort Prison along the way. With hindsight that might have been a mistake – it was absolutely sweltering and I was boiling and worried about getting sunburn and/or sunstroke. It got to the point where I was sidling along the side of buildings to try and take advantage of the shadows. Still we made it there, with some singing entertainment from a bus full of school kids along the way.

Jamestown Lighthouse

Open for business?

At the  Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum we headed straight for the air-conditioned museum. Oh yeah! I needed that. We got a few pics around the park and monument then we went on our way. On the way our of the park, I found my trophy for the team**. I was only allowed to spend GH₵5 on it, so I was very happy to haggle the street-seller down from GH₵8 to GH₵5 straight away. Now I had my opportunity to experience tro-tros – private minivans that cram as many people in them as possible then run on set routes. It has to be experienced! Having lunch in town we discovered that the ladies appreciated our trophy. Can’t say I blame them – they clearly know quality when they see it.

Another taxi trip saw us at Independence Square where we got a photo of the Freedom Arch. Mission achieved!

We headed back to MEST, where we had dinner and gave the group a debrief and explained what our trophies were meant to represent to our teams. The day had certainly been good for getting to know Robert and Badu – they were great guides – and we had a pretty good time talking about their business over lunch, where we threw about a few new ideas that could be explored with their core idea. A great first day!

*what’s nerdier than having a blog? Having two blogs of course! I have about four so go figure…

**can’t tell you what it means – that’s between me and the team (and everyone else at MEST).

§I jest.

Twitter and Tufano

17 Apr

I’m sitting in San Francisco airport awaiting my flight back to London so I’ve just got time to crank one last Silicon Valley trek blog post out.

Friday morning we visited Kiva. I had heard of them as we have a couple of classmates that have worked with them, but I didn’t really know what they had done there. I knew it had something to do with microloans, but not much more than that.

It turned out to be a really interesting meeting. It was a refreshingly honest meeting (no “PR friendly” soundbites etc.) discussing exactly how Kiva works and where it is going. The Kiva fellowship sounds really interesting, and after my brief stint in Ghana it sounds like that sort of thing I would quite like to do for a few months. However, the fellowship is unpaid and as I said to the guy presenting, my crippling MBA loan repayments make paying for myself to go to a far-flung country quite impossible. Besides, I have a start-up that needs to takeover the world!

I was going to have lunch with the legendary Jerry Sanders, who is currently working on a futuristic transport startup, but I realised it clashed with my last meeting so had to pull out. Shame!

Last visit of the trek was to Twitter, still based (thanks to some tax agreement with the city government) in downtown San Francisco. Twitter had been the subject of an interesting Fortune article the day before our visit, which highlighted some of the companies current issues. Needless to say, none of that was discussed in our meeting, but hey it was fun to visit Twitter HQ and tweet from there (I am that sad).

In the evening we met with incoming Said Business School Dean, Peter Tufano and had an open Q&A session about the future of the Business School. I think he’s going to be good for the school.

Friday night entertainment included Duran Duran, and last night’s entertainment included Trentemoller, but I’m all blogged out so excuse me if I don’t go in to detail.

Seeing as this is my last Silicon Valley trek post a few notes of thanks: firstly to Xavier for being “trek leader” and using his extensive network to set up loads of cool meetings. Next to Nick – without whose logistical skills the trip would have descended in to chaos (herding cats doesn’t come close!). Also Joe for also leveraging his extensive network to sort out some awesome meetings and sending us in the direction of some great SF music nights. Our drivers too – without whom we would have never got anywhere. Lastly all my classmates, for making this such an awesome week in Silicon Valley!

Beers and Berkley

17 Apr

Thursday morning started off with a visit to media monitoring company Meltwater. This was a particulalrly interesting meeting for me as I’ve been working with the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology and was in Ghana last week. This was actually one of the best meetings of the week. Fellow MEST MBA consultant, Louis, gave a good presentation about Meltwater and set us the challenge of suggesting some business areas Meltwater could move in to. Then a Meltwater sales director gave us an hour of B2B sales training, which was really good actually as, strangely, sales training doesn’t appear on any MBA curriculum for some reason. We then did some role-playing in pairs pretending we were selling Meltwater services to each other. At the end of the session I suggested about 6 companies that Meltwater could acquire. I’ll take the credit, and commission,  if they ever move in on these companies.

In the afternoon we had no company visits arranged so Xavier took the trek organisers, including myself, for a tour of the Anchor Steam brewery. At the end of the tour we tried six Anchor Steam beers. Each one was only about 1/3 of a pint, but by the end I felt like I’d drunk 6 full pints. 🙂

Looking at the trek matrix I just realised I was meant to be at the Salesforce meeting later in the afternoon, but I didn’t go. Oops! My bad!

In the evening we travelled over to Berkley for a mixer with the Haas Business School MBA students. I really liked the Berkley campus. Whereas the Stanford campus is all perfectly manicured, like a model village, the Berkley campus feels a lot more “real”. It still has beautiful buildings, but it has a lot more character than Stanford. The mixer with the Haas students was great. They were really out-going and paid for all the drinks and food! Apparently the school puts $400 per student in to a student association budget to spend on social events. Take – note SBS!