The Geovation Approach to Development for Startups

Paul Nebel 6 minute read

One of the unique aspects of the Geovation Accelerator Programme is that we provide an engineering team to support Programme startups. We are strictly limited in the amount of resource we can offer any individual startup (due to the small size of the team) so we have to be as intelligent as possible when it comes to allocating that resource.

The mechanism we use to allocate engineering resources is based both on our experience working with startups and on generally accepted Lean principles (of which there are too many to reference here). Before engaging in any development work with our startups we typically run a series of workshops with the intention of determining how best we can help. We refer to these workshops internally as Foundation Sessions.

In general, the decisions we make are based on the following principles:

  • Achieve clarity:

    Many of the entrepreneurs who come to us know in their heads what they are trying to do, but somewhere between their brain and their mouth the message gets… scrambled! Either that, and/or they confuse their marketing message with their operational objectives. The most basic and significant thing we can do for them is to help them make their message clear and coherent, both to themselves and to everyone else. At it’s essence, our task is to systemise the thoughts founders have and shape them into a focused and meaningful narrative.

  • Avoid Comfort driven development:

    It is often important to discover our founders’ comfort zone and them nudge them out of it. It’s all too easy to concentrate on the things you like/know/can do and ignore the rest. It’s usually the rest that’s most important so we try to encourage founders to engage with the other things, those essentials bits they aren’t naturally comfortable with.

  • Test your assumptions:

    With technical startups the methodology is to design, build and run experiments that test your assumptions. You should only actually bild something when you’ve run out of experiments you can run with what you have. When running experiments the following principal is of utmost importance.

  • If possible, avoid using technology at all:

    Despite being a technologist and Virtual CTO I spend a lot of time encouraging our startups not to use technology at all. The overriding principal for startups should be to only build that which is unique to their business, which cannot be bought from someone else. It’s amazing how much you can achieve with a wireframe mockup or a survey.

  • Prove just enough of what is unique to secure investment:

    Nearly all of our startups are looking to attract investment. Everything Geovation does should be to that end. Our aim is to help the startups attract the necessary investment so that they can develop their product with their own team. This way they won’t be dependent on us and can make their own way ahead at their own speed.

  • Only do for the startups what they cannot do for themselves:

    We are not acting as a contractor to our startups. If we were we’d be a lot more expensive! In fact, we are investors in our Programme members. We do not see it as being our job to do for startups what they are capable of doing for themselves. In the same vein, if we feel that the decisions startups are making don’t make sense then we reserve the right to stop working with them. The quid pro quo is that the startups may stop working with us at any time. In both cases we require a week’s notice to make sure that this approach doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.

  • Make it work, then make it right:

    To paraphrase a useful expression, ‘perfect is the enemy of starting up’. The more time/resource/money you spend building your startup technology the less likely it is that you will start up at all. It is highly likely that whatever we build will be thrown away and started all over again when a startup hires their own team so we purposely build our experiments to be thrown away. We purposely use tried and tested technologies (like Django) because they’re… tried and tested! We avoid ‘shiny’ new technology as it invariably takes many times longer to get anything working (due, commonly, to the immaturity of the product and lack of suitable documentation/experience).

The main Foundation Sessions we offer are as follows:

  1. Value Proposition Design:

    Who is your customer, what do they really want and how much are they prepared to pay for it? Does your solution give them what they want?

    The majority of startups we see are essentially creating solutions in search of problems, if only because they haven’t done sufficient investigation of the problem they are solving. This needs to be addressed before anything else. Also, this session is as much for our benefit as the startup’s so that we can understand what they are doing.

  2. Unit economics:

    Does it cost more to acquire a customer than you’ll make from them during their time with you? How much do you need from investors, are you on target? Would your solution really make money sold that way?

    Most startups shy away from unit economics for as long as possible. This is generally because they are either afraid of the answer and/or they have no idea how to answer. There’s no magic in this. Our feeling is that the sooner we spot issues with the unit economics the sooner the founders can make decisions to rectify those issues. Even if the founders don’t have a clear idea of how many customers they will have at any given point in time it’s still important to make up some numbers. These numbers may be arbitrary but without them there are not targets, and without targets it’s impossible to tell if you’re succeeding or not.

  3. Wardley mapping:

    How should I deliver the value that I have identified? What is my operational strategy? What do I need to but and what do I need to make?

    It is esential that startups concentrate on one thing and do it very well. Everything else can be done once you’ve managed to convince enough customers to give you their hard-earned cash. Wardley maps are a good way of working out how to achieve the one thing the startup has decided to create.

With the exception of the Value Proposition Design workshop all of our Foundation Sessions are voluntary. We can’t, and we don’t, force our startups to do anything - it’s their business after all. There is no time limit on these sessions, they take as long as they need to take. We offer up to 6 sessions for each startup (there are other specialist sessions we offer in addition to the three core sessions described above). However, we will only agree to run these sessions if we can see that they will add value (i.e. we won’t run them for the sake of it).

Assuming the foundation workshops are successful we can then work on up to two small-scale experiments that test a specific hypothesis. In general, these will be things that we can build and use within a week or two.

Once a startup has gone through the process described above there is still the possibility of engaging us further in exchange for Share options. We will only consider this if we feel it is the right thing for the startup. Any work we undertake needs to be within the bounds of the time available to the team. In this, as above, both sides are able to step away at any time if they choose.

We try to be as flexible as possible.

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