The UK has always been full of people with bright ideas, but in many cases we’ve been let down by an inability to commercialise them. While it is wonderful to be known as a nation of inventors, it would be even better for the economy to translate this potential into strong companies, exporting around the world and employing skilled staff at home.
Turning this innovation into viable businesses requires focus, bringing together universities, companies and engineers to work together around certain areas and specialisms. Cambridge is the perfect example of a series of clusters (embedded, biotech, computer games, natural language processing), where participants feed off each other to move a particular industry forward. It is essentially an unofficial version of Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, which have played a large part in driving German innovation.
The good news is that the UK government has seen the potential of clusters and, thanks to a report from Hermann Hauser, set up the Catapult programme. This has established seven centres across the UK focused on high value manufacturing, cell therapies, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications, the connected digital economy, future cities and transport systems. The Satellite Applications Catapult has just been launched at Harwell, outside Oxford, on the same campus as a new technical centre for the European Space Agency. All seven centres will be operational in 2013, as part of the £440m the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is investing in innovation this year.
This is great news, as is a recognition of the growth of unofficial clusters (such as security in Worcestershire) and support for them. But there are two areas that need to be addressed if clusters are to achieve their potential. Firstly, as a report from the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation pointed out in January, the programme must be scaled up. Seven centres is a start point, but more are needed and those that exist require greater resources if they are to match other countries. Simply relying on British ingenuity to sidestep budgetary concerns is not going to work.
Secondly, Catapults have never been designed to launch commercial products – they are simply a stepping stone on the journey, providing the early stage support and specialist facilities to get an idea moving. My fear is that this innovation won’t necessarily produce another generation of ARMs or CSRs, but fledgling companies that are snapped up by international players. A huge number of small and midsize businesses find themselves unable to make the leap to the big league and opt for acquisition rather than pushing on to the next level. There needs to be a focus on why these UK innovators aren’t achieving their potential independently and help provided to ensure they make the jump to stable, quoted companies. That’s going to take greater investment and access to a wider pool of skills (such as marketing, sales and business development) to accelerate growth. We need a Rocket programme alongside our Catapults if UK ideas are going to achieve their full potential.
The PC market has obviously been having a tough time of it recently, with sales plummeting 14 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, according to analysts IDC. The combination of the rise of tablets and smartphones, the global recession and the resurgence of Mac sales at the top end have all put a dent in sales figures. And this has obviously hurt the divisions of Microsoft that make most of their money from PCs, particularly the Windows operating system.
At the same time Microsoft has realised that it needed to up its game in the faster growing smartphone and tablet market to compete with the likes of Apple and Android. But then someone somewhere decided that solving these problems required a single solution. The result? Windows 8, a new universal operating system that would work across PCs, tablets and smartphones, giving the same look and feel whatever device was being used.
Unsurprisingly for something that tries to appeal to everyone, Windows 8 is dreadful. Its completely new, tile based interface may work well on tablets and smartphones – though given Microsoft has sold less than a million of its Surface tablets (compared to 19.5 million iPads) it is difficult to make valid comparisons. But it has flummoxed traditional PC users who have to learn a completely new interface that seems very much focused on consumer needs, with fast links to music and videos, rather than business requirements. No wonder that companies are putting off PC purchases in the current climate – why splash out on something that will require a lot of training when Windows 7 works perfectly well.
The talk is now of a redesign for Windows 8, but my concern is how it has got to this stage. Microsoft has never really had a company-wide culture of innovation – from the original Windows it has tended to improve upon what is out there and deliver it well. Yes, it has areas of innovative research (the Cambridge office responsible for the Kinect for example), but (business) people buy Microsoft because it is the safe option.
Instead of following that path this time, it has thrown out everything that has come before and decided to re-invent the user interface. Not just on one device, but across three – PCs, tablets and smartphones. Neither Apple nor Android have attempted that, because there are significant differences between small screen size mobile devices and PCs/laptops. Given that lots of people (including myself) still moan about the changes made in the last version of Microsoft Office, this has resulted in perplexed users and falling sales.
Microsoft can still fix Windows 8, but what it really needs to address are the issues that led to its development direction. People (and their devices) aren’t ready for a universal operating system and the fall in PC sales mean that Microsoft isn’t in the position of power it occupied five years ago. No-one seemed to realise that, hence trying to force feed the PC market with a completely new concept that seemed doomed from the start. Everyone wants to be Apple the stylish innovator, but Microsoft needs to take step back and come to terms with its role as the boring bloke in the suit that makes things tick. After all, there’s nothing worse than Bill Gates trying to look cool…………
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.
Video games are big business. Whether you measure it on the £1 billion contribution to UK GDP of the industry, or the amount of time my children spend playing Angry Birds, the impact is enormous. In Cambridge alone companies such as Jagex and Frontier Developments employ hundreds of staff, an estimated 10% of the UK’s games developers.
But the era of the blockbuster console game is coming to an end. Despite the recent announcement of the Sony PlayStation 4, more and more games are now played casually on smartphones, tablets or simply online. As the current furore about the in-app charges
run up on iPhones and iPads demonstrates, all of these small payments add up to a big (and ongoing) windfall for developers. Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, and king of the casual game companies, is allegedly worth as much as fellow Finnish tech company Nokia.
Handheld consoles have suffered – now analysts predict it could be the turn of the big budget gaming devices such as the Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii. Ouya, a new Android-based console is now shipping at the knockdown price of $99 following an $8m Kickstarter funding round. As any gamer/parent will know, it isn’t just cost of the console, but the price of the games that adds up. And the Ouya’s games are expected to be low cost apps as seen on Android devices but beefed up to use the power of the console. Ouya’s not alone, with UK-based PlayJam launching its own portable GameStick Android device.
But there’s a big marketing challenge for these low cost consoles. Casual gamers with a tablet or smartphone need persuading that they should shell out for a separate device, as well as investing in new games, particularly as many already have a PC. Serious gamers will look at the quality of the games available compared to the blockbusters available on big brand consoles while children (a key market for games) want to be able to play the same games as their friends. Additionally the likes of Microsoft and Sony have been working to turn their consoles into home entertainment hubs, acting as the bridge between the living room TV and the internet to try and cement their position in the market. Essentially it is chicken and egg – people won’t buy a console until they know there’s sufficient games available, while serious developers won’t invest until there’s a big enough target market.
I can see two ways for the likes of Ouya to get round this dilemma – and it’ll take bravery and a bit of radical thinking. Firstly, adopt the same business model as casual games themselves – give away the hardware and charge for anything beyond the basic, either as a one off or on a subscriber basis. Risky, but it gets consoles into people’s houses and if they then take 30-40% of each £1.99 spent on a game they will build a subscriber base and some revenues. The second way is to partner with companies with a big brand to bring the hardware prices down to under a tenner. Whether it is a telecoms company (Sky, BT or Virgin Media), a retailer (Amazon, Tesco) or actually an Angry Birds-badged console it would widen the audience beyond the early adopter. The worry here is that as we move to a cloud-based future traditional console makers will go down the same route and already have major brand recognition.
However the gaming wars play out, the old market of monolithic consoles is under serious pressure – now is the time for new business models and smart use of subscription and cloud-based ideas if new comers are going to emulate Rovio, rather than follow the likes of Atari into bankruptcy.
Turning your brilliant idea into a world-beating product requires a lot of things – drive, commitment, flexibility and often a large slice of luck. But one element it can’t really do without is money – whether to develop prototypes, employ staff or simply pay your own bills.
Finding funding has never been easy, but the range of potential sources does seem to be growing. As well as traditional sources such as VCs, banks, angels and friends and family, there are a range of government grants and multiple competitions that can potentially help startups take a step forward. I’m not saying this necessarily makes gaining investment easy, but it does give more options.
And another option that is expanding rapidly is crowdfunding – sharing your idea with the world and getting them to back it before you start the expensive business of actually producing anything. If you don’t attract the pre-orders then it should probably act as a wake-up call – are you producing the right product that people actually want?
There’s been a run of successful, over-subscribed launches on sites like KickStarter. The company behind the Pebble smart watch raised over $10m and will start shipping real products this month. On a smaller scale, projects like photography book I Drink Lead Paint hit its target of £10,000, unleashing the thoughts and images of Mr Flibble onto the world. And B2B versions like Funding Circle have attracted government backing, making £20m available to British businesses over the next 12-24 months.
With growth like this, it is no wonder that Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding will double in 2013, raising £1.9 billion globally this year. Not huge in the scheme of overall investment, but potentially opening up funding options to smaller scale projects in a simple way.
But, with more and more projects out there looking for crowdfunding, how do entrepreneurs get people to view what they are doing – and potentially part with their cash? Kickstarter’s own stats show that just over 40% of projects hit their funding targets, showing it isn’t as simple as launching and waiting for the money to roll in.
This is where an enormous opportunity arises for the marketing and PR industries to get involved. Crowdfunding projects need marketing in the same way as any other product, identifying target audiences and demonstrating the benefits your new wonder widget brings to them. And then you’ve got to reach them, using both social and traditional media to identify the influencers that are likely to help you spread the word and convincing them and the world at large. Obviously the downside is that projects don’t tend to have any ready cash, but for anyone brave enough to go for payment by results the business is out there. At a time when the PR industry is suffering financially, creating smart, all-in-one services that help you get crowdfunding or launch your new iPhone app are just what it needs to be developing to recapture growth and build relationships with the next generation of smart businesses.
What brings success? Is it hard graft or can you short circuit the years of work by just being a bit lucky?
That was the topic of a recent CfEL Enterprise Tuesday, where entrepreneurs Rahul Vohra and Shamus Husheer discussed what makes some businesses succeed when others fail. For the lazy amongst us, the unfortunate conclusion was that you need hard work as well as opportunity if you’re going to make it big. But you do need both – as Shamus pointed out, if hard work led to success, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire, and unfortunately they’re not.
Essentially you need to put yourself in the position to be lucky – so make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, and then grab the opportunity. For me the perfect example is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. He took an existing idea (a paper directory of students) and wrote an initially simple computer program to put it online solely for Harvard University students. As any programmer will tell you, Facebook itself isn’t the world’s most complicated piece of code, but it attracted users and the rest is history.
But look a bit deeper and there’s more hard work involved – Facemash, the first version of Facebook, was closed down by university authorities for breaching security, copyright and individual privacy and Zuckerberg was lucky not to be expelled. So he persisted, refined his idea and tried again. From Rahul and Shamus’s experience iteration is a key part of success – things aren’t necessarily going to work first time, but that doesn’t mean your idea is worthless. Other people came up with Facebook-like services but through hard work Zuckerberg’s got the users it needed to take off.
So, while it is an easy response to describe someone successful as ‘lucky’ you make your own luck in this world. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to make sure they are looking for opportunities, making intelligent guesses about what might be a success and then working hard to develop a product or service that customers actually want. Like a swan, ‘lucky’ people may look calm, but underneath the surface their legs are paddling very hard………