Start-up thinking

Reflecting on Google Launchpad's 5-day Start programme in Kiev

An article by Alex Barker 06-02-2018


My latest Google Launchpad adventure took me to Kiev, where I joined the company of esteemed fellow Mentors on the 5-day Start programme. By all accounts, the previous year’s programme was a real success, so the Google team in Kiev were busy putting on a repeat event to help another round of local start-ups realise their entrepreneurial dreams.

Ukrainian developers, not unlike their Polish and Baltic neighbours, are increasingly respected for their admirable work ethic, problem-solving and technical skill set, underpinned by a history of industrious engineering achievement. I did, however, get a sense that it’s Eastern Block legacy has done little to encourage more free-thinking entrepreneurial ideas to flourish. But that tide is now starting to turn. Rather than continue to provide the resources to realise other people’s ideas, there’s a sense of excited optimism amongst the new wave of start-up talent emerging.

Furthermore, based on my time mentoring the characters I was paired with, far larger, more established businesses could learn a thing or two (or five) from these nascent yet focused, open-minded and talented teams. And the growth accelerator process they were glad to be a part of:

Start with a problem, not a solution

Amidst the eagerness to realise their ideas, an immediate focus on working-up a solution was present early on. A prerequisite of getting onto the Launchpad programme is that start-ups must be prepared to validate (or invalidate) their ideas through objective customer data. Pre-empting this, most companies come prepared to justify their proposition, but often using, by varying degrees, quite biased data. After some cursory digging, any pre-existing research was founded on more leading questions that I was comfortable with!

My engagements, therefore, started with getting the team to really explore the problem space. Challenging them to consider whether their idea proved that they were genuinely solving a known problem, one that clearly exists as much through observation than through a targeted / volunteered response. This helped them to take a valuable step back.

These were the classic signs of ‘Founderitis’ - where the core team can convince themselves, from the outset, that their idea cannot fail, regardless of external factors. Quite commonly, this can live on and grow within a company, often causing more substantial issues later down the line (i.e. if venture capital runs out and a set of assumptions have not been tested thoroughly, the longevity of success can be threatened).

Work as a team (genuinely)

When making further comparison with larger organisations, inter-departmental silos and a lack of genuine, active collaboration is almost guaranteed, to varying degrees. So to avoid inconsistent and inefficient delivery of a less-than-optimal customer experience, a truly multi-disciplinary, agile and autonomous design team, who support and challenge one another, will get to the right way of working far faster.

With our start-ups, they could quickly rationalise each others input, not only benefiting from good chemistry through personal bonds, but seeing a problem through varied, complimentary lenses: a marketing brain sees things a developer’s doesn’t and visa versa. They often challenged constructively, quickly reaching consensus and allocating tasks that fell to each of their strengths. As a result, there was a far more palpable sense of progress and enthusiasm at making headway, rather than becoming resigned to any political stalemate that frequently stymies effective co-design.

Get data, fast!

Given the Launchpad format (a five day hyper-accelerator programme) any actual validation or evidence-gathering really does have to happen rapidly! This hones agile skills fast, and is a useful lesson in simple, action-based user-centred design. Research must be (can only be) pretty guerrilla in style: getting out into the local area with simple, mobile tech, to validate assumptions via people in cafes, on the street, waiting in queues. Or short, well-written surveys aimed at an easily accessible database of remote participants.

And with reference to point no.2, the team can quickly engage a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to collect as many repossess as possible: my second group, having already been out researching that morning, managed to amass an impressive 44 depth responses by the end of the day, from both remote and face-to-face engagements - surely a Launchpad record? Well, I claimed it, on their behalf, during the debrief anyway! Furthermore, their dev stayed back at base to make tweaks to their pronto site, based on the feedback they were getting back in real-time - truly lean, iterative design.

Listen enough to learn

Getting out and getting data is great, but another valuable learning here (one that often gets overlooked) is the value of conductive formative, primary  research, even if rapidly. All too often organisations think that a study of analytics and a target survey qualifies as ‘doing the discovery’ - but this evaluative approach can often lead to a more biased view, and doesn’t reveal the true nature of problem or need.

Observing and conversing with someone in their normal surroundings can portray a greater sense of realism than a set of volunteered answers, to a set of variably-loaded questions. A person’s presenting case, having been primed, or taken out of situational context can not always reflect the actual ‘why’, but more the ‘what’ that the designer can often be eagerly searching for.

In other words, contextual enquiry (or true ethnography, if you’ve a little more time on your hands) can be very powerful if conducted well. And that’s all about properly listening to people explain what the real story is.

Celebrate progress, not just the end goal

5 days isn’t long, in any project. So rather than wait until an often distant, rather abstract point in time to consider the whole job ‘done’, it’s great to acknowledge the baby steps: those small iterative wins that pushed the project along and build momentum. To this end, we mentors encourage the start-ups to keep things tactical, to do things that get results fast, even if some fail, but that can learned and moved-on from…

We hammer home the importance of always attaching some form of measurement criteria to each sprint, or feature. Making these ‘little victories’ seem more significant to the overall journey of the their ultimate ambition. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but every one of those impressive doric columns was an achievement in themselves! Laboured metaphor over, each start-up felt a genuine sense of achievement by the end of the week, hopefully carrying that sense of success with them for a long time to come!

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