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Why I won’t run another startup

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Lured by the lights of the startup industry, ARTHUR ATTWELL found himself as the product in someone else’s show. After closing his startup business, he made a few rules for himself.

Earlier this year, I closed my startup. So now I get to reflect on what I’d have done differently. Hindsight is unfair and inaccurate, but I still enjoy its lessons. This is one, a note to my future self: Don’t call your projects ‘startups’. It’s a semantic trick, but a really important one. Here’s why.

‘Startups’ have become a commodity in an industry of startup conferences, websites, courses and competitions. As founders of young organisations, we struggle to distinguish genuine guidance and support from the distracting pizzazz of the startup industry, where we’re just the product, not the customer. Lured by the lights, we spend valuable hours crafting slide decks, jumping on planes, giving presentations and filling out entry forms, almost always so that someone can sell tickets to the show. I worked it hard, and I didn’t see the return. I want that time back for my business.

Here are five new rules for myself.

1. No more startup events

I’ve been invited to four startup events just this week. Wait — checks email — that’s five. It’s a freakin’ craze. Startup seminars, breakfasts, retreats, showcases. Say no to all of them.

Startup events are supposedly ‘good for networking.’ I made an interesting connection at one or two, I think. For the most part they’ve sucked vast amounts of time I really should have put into working on my organisation.

Your next project may be in publishing, healthcare, engineering or another industry, but it’s probably not in the startup industry. At a startup-industry event, you’re only going to meet startup-industry people. They are not your customers. Only go to events packed full of potential customers in your industry.

Very occasionally, treat yourself to a dinner with a few entrepreneurs you like — it helps fight the loneliness. Otherwise, if you’re not out selling, get back to your office and work. Or go home and spend some down-time with your family.

2. No more startup competitions

Then there are the competitions. Innovation competitions, pitching competitions, business-plan competitions. Sometimes the prize is an investment in your company. (First prize, an investor! Second prize, two investors!)

Honestly, do you want an investor who comes shopping for startups at a cocktail function? Winning an investment is like your bank calling to say you’ve won an overdraft. Lucky you.

It can be worse. I got a call from a major international consulting firm to tell me we’d won a big innovation award. But I can’t tell you about it because I have to pay them a licence fee if I do. Seriously: they wanted 7500 euros just to let us tell people we’d won. Another time, I got interviewed on a startup-support radio show, only to be asked to sign a letter afterwards saying they’d given us R188000 in airtime. (I didn’t sign.)

You can also win ‘business support’, or well-meaning MBA students to ‘help you grow your business’ for their course project. I’ve spent days with teams who are new to my industry using my time to tell me things I already know. I want those days back.

If you’re certain that you have time to enter competitions, only enter the ones where they’re giving out loads of free money and you know you can win. Don’t be the product.

3. Beware the warm glow of startup media

The startup-industry press is so seductive. It’s pretty and says it loves you. Being a startup, especially based in Africa, is great for media coverage, more especially if you win a startup award.

At Paperight we kept a long list of posts and articles about us that came from startup-industry acclaim. We won startup and innovation awards in London, Frankfurt and New York, an Accenture Innovation Award, and public congratulations in South Africa’s national parliament. We were featured in several ‘startups to watch’ articles and were profiled on the websites of CNN, Forbes and others. We were even featured in a book about open-business innovation. We’re fairly certain that the awards made this coverage happen.

But in not one case did we see a corresponding spike in sales (or calls from investors), and for a young business running out of runway, sales are all that really matters. For a while, the acclaim is great for motivating staff, and to help inspire an investor’s confidence, but the effect wanes after a few awards. Don’t chase coverage in the startup industry. Find your own industry’s media outlets (they’re harder to find and less sexy than the startup press) and focus only on them.

4. Don’t tell customers you’re a startup

Every office-bound exec wants to love a startup. Like a pet. But no one wants to buy from a startup. Especially big companies. Big companies want to buy from big, stable businesses. They want to trust that you’ll still be around in a few years. And their people need to feel you’re a familiar name. At Paperight, we needed book publishers to trust us with their most valuable IP. It’s insane to think they’d give it to a ‘startup’. We could have put our whole business in a cupboard for ten years, then dusted it off and they’d be more likely to work with us, because we’d be too old to be called a startup.

5. Get real help

The startup industry appeals to a very real need for emotional, intellectual and financial support. But (except in very rare cases) it is going to distract you more than it delivers. It’s bad for focus. Instead, find experienced confidants from an industry like yours. If nothing else, their emotional support will mean more to you than a hundred hollow prizes.

I’ll be surprised if I stick to my new rules. So remind me, please, because I’ll probably forget: run a business, not a startup. You don’t have the time.

* Arthur Attwell is the co-founder and director of Electric Book Works. Follow him on Twitter on @arthurattwell

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SqwidNet challenges students to dream up IoT solutions

SqwidNet has a technology competition for university students across South Africa to come up with innovative Internet of Things projects. Entries will be accepted until 25 July 2018.

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This nationwide competition has been designed to challenge students to develop and create innovative projects focused on solutions that use SqwidNet / SIGFOX technology.  SqwidNet is the licensed SIGFOX IoT network operator in South Africa.

Applications of IoT have been seen in a number of industries and SqwidNet says it would like to see young South African minds using this technology to address African socio-economic problems.

“Statistics show that the IoT market opportunity for the Middle East and Africa region is poised to grow by 10% a year from $85.1 billion in 2017 to $114.4 billion by 2020,” says Phathizwe Malinga, acting CEO of SqwidNet. This means the market is ripe with opportunities and these young students and graduates from across the country are welcome to submit ideas for projects focusing on environmental and animal protection, energy, health, transportation, and any other areas of sustainable development.”

All qualifying entries will have the opportunity of their designs being seen by SqwidNet partners, with the possibility of commercialising successful solutions. In addition, SqwidNet will offer participants access to their entrepreneurship programme, (IOT)E. The participants will also be given the opportunity to register as SIGFOX University Partners, which will give them access to dedicated content.

Winners will be announced on 1 August 2018, with the winning entry standing to win cash prizes for their team and institution faculty. The winners will also get a chance to present their design in IoT Valley in Toulouse, France. All participants will be provided with hardware and software development kits, free access to SqwidNet’s IoT network and API access, and mentoring /support both from SqwidNet’s South African team, in relation with the Sigfox Adoption & Evangelisation team.

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OLX sets new security standard 

OLX has blocked nearly 200 000 scammers from its site, writes COLETTE VAN MONTFORT, User Centricity Manager for OLX South Africa.

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OLX’s investment in tech innovation and skilled recruits have set a new standard in user safety.

We have raised the bar last year in the level of user support we provide to our community by introducing a fraud hotline and a dedicated fraud team – both are the first of their kind in South Africa. Those efforts have paid off. Since June, the fraud team has blocked nearly 200 000 scammers from our site, and we still reached the highest number of unique ads in the past two years in the last quarter.

Aside from building a skilful team of fraud specialists, OLX has invested heavily in the platform’s security.

Globally, we noticed that the number of chats far exceeded the number of calls in OLX. The feedback we received is that chats are non-intrusive and familiar while keeping personal information private. So, we wanted to increase the safety within chat by introducing contextual safety tips that follow current scam trends. For example, if a user is asked to pay for an item via PayPal before seeing it, a warning will be sent to the user with a safety tip. Additionally, an automatic alert is sent to users when they are chatting with someone who has been detected as suspicious.

Because OLX sees the value of building a loyal community of users and employees, they rallied their users (with the online campaign #StaySharp) and the local team (from business development manager to intern) to help in the fight against scamming that has decreased fraud incidents in the past 6 months by 44% whilst other global classified players have become a breeding ground for scammers as reported by NBC2 Investigators recently.

The OLX team encourage anyone who comes across any fraudulent activity on the app or website to call the fraud hotline: 021 406 3900 Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm. The fraud specialists are always happy to help.

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