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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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Google to give SA non-profits $2m for innovation

Google is committing $2m worth of funding to non-profits in South Africa through the Google Impact Challenge South Africa, which will see funding awarded to non-profits which are using innovative technology to reach their goals.

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Google is issuing an open call for non-profits in South Africa to apply to receive their share of $2m in funding. Four non-profits in South Africa stand to win $250 000 each, while 8 runners up will each get $125 000. 

Applications are open for the next six months, and non-profits can apply online at https://impactchallenge.withgoogle.com/southafrica2018

Winners will be decided by a panel of local judges and a public vote. The public vote provides a chance for the people to decide which organisation gets an extra portion of funding to help them impact their community. The winning non-profits will get cash as well as access to guidance, technical assistance and mentorship from Google, which they are free to take up should they so choose.

The South African judging panel includes HuffPost SA editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee, businesswoman & TV personality Basetsana Kumalo, South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha, Google SA country director Luke Mckend, singer and entrepreneur Yvonne Chaka Chaka, TV personality Maps Maponyane, singer/songwriter Simphiwe Dana, and computer scientist and entrepreneur Rapelang Rabana. 

The Google Impact Challenge South Africa will close on the 4th of July. The final awards ceremony will be held during the week of 26 November.

At Google for Nigeria in July last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced Google’s commitment to providing $20m funding to African non-profits over five years. This is the first initiative aimed at realising that commitment.

Says Google Africa CMO Mzamo Masito, “This is the first time we are running a Google Impact Challenge in Africa. Many African non-profits are doing great work with real impact and we’re keen to shine a light on them, and give a financial boost to innovative projects and ideas. We believe technology can help local and national organisations to better reach their goals and solve some of the continent’s most pressing challenges, and we are eager to back people who are using technology in new ways to make a positive difference in their communities.

“We also want to highlight the healthy state of social enterprise in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa today, and encourage non-profits to consider how technology can help them reach their goals.”

Other Google Impact Challenges around the world have supported ideas ranging from smart cameras for wildlife conservation to solar lights for off-grid communities to a mobile application that helps to protect women from domestic violence.

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New data rules raise business trust challenges

When the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25th, financial services firms will face a new potential threat to their on-going challenges with building strong customer relationships, writes DARREL ORSMOND, Financial Services Industry Head at SAP Africa.

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The regulation – dubbed GDPR for short – is aimed at giving European citizens control back over their personal data. Any firm that creates, stores, manages or transfers personal information of an EU citizen can be held liable under the new regulation. Non-compliance is not an option: the fines are steep, with a maximum penalty of €20-million – or nearly R300-million – for transgressors.

GDPR marks a step toward improved individual rights over large corporates and states that prevents the latter from using and abusing personal information at their discretion. Considering the prevailing trust deficit – one global EY survey found that 60% of global consumers worry about hacking of bank accounts or bank cards, and 58% worry about the amount of personal and private data organisations have about them – the new regulation comes at an opportune time. But it is almost certain to cause disruption to normal business practices when implemented, and therein lies both a threat and an opportunity.

The fundamentals of trust

GDPR is set to tamper with two fundamental factors that can have a detrimental effect on the implicit trust between financial services providers and their customers: firstly, customers will suddenly be challenged to validate that what they thought companies were already doing – storing and managing their personal data in a manner that is respectful of their privacy – is actually happening. Secondly, the outbreak of stories relating to companies mistreating customer data or exposing customers due to security breaches will increase the chances that customers now seek tangible reassurance from their providers that their data is stored correctly.

The recent news of Facebook’s indiscriminate sharing of 50 million of its members’ personal data to an outside firm has not only led to public outcry but could cost the company $2-trillion in fines should the Federal Trade Commission choose to pursue the matter to its fullest extent. The matter of trust also extends beyond personal data: in EY’s 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey, less than a third of respondents had complete trust that their banks were being transparent about fees and charges.

This is forcing companies to reconsider their role in building and maintaining trust with its customers. In any customer relationship, much is done based on implicit trust. A personal banking customer will enjoy a measure of familiarity that often provides them with some latitude – for example when applying for access to a new service or an overdraft facility – that can save them a lot of time and energy. Under GDPR and South Africa’s POPI act, this process is drastically complicated: banks may now be obliged to obtain permission to share customer data between different business units (for example because they are part of different legal entities and have not expressly received permission). A customer may now allow banks to use their personal data in risk scoring models, but prevent them from determining whether they qualify for private banking services.

What used to happen naturally within standard banking processes may be suddenly constrained by regulation, directly affecting the bank’s relationship with its customers, as well as its ability to upsell to existing customers.

The risk of compliance

Are we moving to an overly bureaucratic world where even the simplest action is subject to a string of onerous processes? Compliance officers are already embedded within every function in a typical financial services institution, as well as at management level. Often the reporting of risk processes sits outside formal line functions and end up going straight to the board. This can have a stifling effect on innovation, with potentially negative consequences for customer service.

A typical banking environment is already creaking under the weight of close to 100 acts, which makes it difficult to take the calculated risks needed to develop and launch innovative new banking products. Entire new industries could now emerge, focusing purely on the matter of compliance and associated litigation. GDPR already requires the services of Data Protection Officers, but the growing complexity of regulatory compliance could add a swathe of new job functions and disciplines. None of this points to the type of innovation that the modern titans of business are renowned for.

A three-step plan of action

So how must banks and other financial services firms respond? I would argue there are three main elements to successfully navigating the immediate impact of the new regulations:

Firstly, ensuring that the technologies you use to secure, manage and store personal data is sufficiently robust. Modern financial services providers have a wealth of customer data at their disposal, including unstructured data from non-traditional sources such as social media. The tools they use to process and safeguard this data needs to be able to withstand the threats posed by potential data breaches and malicious attacks.

Secondly, rethinking the core organisational processes governing their interactions with customers. This includes the internal measures for setting terms and conditions, how customers are informed of their intention to use their data, and how risk is assessed. A customer applying for medical insurance will disclose deeply personal information about themselves to the insurance provider: it is imperative the insurer provides reassurance that the customer’s data will be treated respectfully and with discretion and with their express permission.

Thirdly, financial services firms need to define a core set of principles for how they treat customers and what constitutes fair treatment. This should be an extension of a broader organisational focus on treating customers fairly, and can go some way to repairing the trust deficit between the financial services industry and the customers they serve.

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