It was 20 years ago today: Resigning my job

It was the 9th of the 9th ’99 when I walked into the headmaster’s study and handed in my letter of resignation…

Twenty years ago today.

It was a big step. I felt I had to give this crazy new tech startup a go, and it was before we had kids, so felt it was a good time to take a risk. If it didn’t work, I could always return to teaching. Teaching was not going away.

I had landed an amazing job at a top school though, so the decision was not straightforward. Getting back in would not be a walk in the park, should the new venture fail.

But failure was the farthest thing from my mind.

I was in a romance with the new idea, the technology, the opportunity and the time felt right. We had to get out there before someone else did this. We were originally going to launch in February 2000, but we’d pulled that back to December 1999. Three months to launch!

We had a business plan, we had a rinky dink proof of concept (on a floppy disk – remember them?). It was now time to sign up some brave real estate agents as customers, raise some seed capital, build the first version of the aussiehome.com property portal and launch this baby.

I still had a job til the end of December, so funds would still be coming in. I had savings in the bank and my wife had a job in the city.

If I knew then what I know now I would have certainly done a lot of things differently, but I have to take my hat off to that school teacher 20 years ago who gave it a red hot go, resigned their job, took the leap and launched into that pre-launch period with gusto.

Sometimes you have to jump into the unknown. Take a measured risk. I knew I was not happy with teaching, so this new venture had to be tried. I had to ‘get it out of my system’, but in the moment I felt nothing but conviction that we would make a success of it.

A map-based real estate website, which would make property searching much easier, paid for by monthly subscription fees from real estate agencies, plus perhaps some third party advertising too.

How could we fail?!

~~

PHOTO: https://stocksnap.io/photo/UJCAEUARJZ

Advertisements

Bubble, meet another bubble

I was speaking at a business breakfast the other day, and the subject of the morning was ‘creating an enterprise culture in WA‘.

With our long history in successful resources and other entrepreneurial ventures, one might think that we had a great enterprise culture already.

And we do. If you want to develop a mine, Western Australia is probably the best place to do that from. The capital and investment bankers are here, the lawyers, accountants, exploration and commercialisation people are all here and they all have buckets of experience. We even have two mining billionaires, two of richest people in the country, including the richest woman.

The WA economy is worth about $235B, and about $70B of this is mining – that’s 30%. The largest sector, a sizeable chunk. Many other states and countries would love to have this undeniable source of riches.

But what I was talking about, was the early stage tech sector, which often gets ignored in all this entrepreneurial talk.

In the era of digital foreign invaders such as Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Uber and others, where are the Australian scalable businesses that can grow to multi millions and even billions on an idea and some lines of code? Businesses that can create enormous wealth, jobs and capital in a fairly short time frame (such as under 5 years).

OK, you may have thought of Canva (now based in Sydney) or Atlassian (also Sydney, and listed on the NASDAQ). Name ten others. Three. One.

I am genuinely worried about the Australian-owned tech economy we are going to leave our children. Nothing wrong with the digital vikings, I use them all, but, relative to their size, they don’t create many Aussie jobs or pay much tax in this country (hence contribute less to the broader economy, such as building roads, schools and hospitals, yet they are taking advantage of that very infrastructure).

We (as a country, state and community) need to do all we can to help our own brave Aussie scalable tech businesses along. They can do amazing things in a relatively short period of time. If given a helping hand.

They often don’t need much money to get them going, and yet can scale (or fail) fast. You may not have to wait years and years for approvals, plying multi millions in just to see if there’s something there. Often, a 6-figure sum is more than enough to get them out there, if not a 5-figure sum.

And the upside is tremendous. Canva got going 7 years ago and is now worth over $3B.

So, there I was rabbiting on about this, and I mentioned the fact that while over $9B was invested in all WA businesses in 2018, only 0.3% of this made its way to early stage tech businesses.

One of the audience members then shot to their feet to deplore my statistic (“I don’t know where you got that from…” … err from Business News and Techboard actually – see full sources below) and they felt there was plenty of investment in innovation and we were a fantastic economy doing great things.

While I agree with the positive sentiment (I love WA, the economy and the life here), I was a little bemused for a second. They did not like the stat, they so they were simply choosing to ignore it (fake news, obviously). In the era of Trump, this is what we have come to.

Which brings me to the point. We all live in our own bubbles, gathering information that the internet and social media already knows we like (we’ve previously clicked on it, liked it, searched for it, read it… so it sends us more stuff like that).

When we are confronted with some data that contradicts our world view, it’s uncomfortable. Our natural inclination is to rail against the source, query the author, or just flatly refute it.

The speaker from the floor was a well-healed stock broker. He’d done various ASX/mining deals before and was no doubt extremely well off. Had he had any experience with early stage tech startups, that were pre-revenue? Had he visited a co-working space? Been to a meetup? Had he sat down with startups to hear their views, and see what they were doing? Had he invested in them?

I doubt it.

But then again, what do I know about his world either? Have I done ASX mining deals? No. Do I live and work with junior miners, and truly understand what they do? No.

My bubble (which is predominantly early state scalable tech startups – I love em!) and his bubble (ASX listed junior mining exploration and commercialisation businesses) rarely meet. We rarely talk. We rarely listen to each other.

Even though we inhabit the same city, breathe the same air, drive down the same roads and sometimes frequent the very same breakfast events, we move in very different circles.

I reckon we could each help each other. But it starts with listening, and being open to data that may not conform with your existing world view, and decades of experience. I am open to this. I’d love to know more about his world. Perhaps I could teach him about mine.

Bubbles need to meet other bubbles. When they do that they pop, and something quite new happens.

~~

PHOTO: by Pixabay from Pexels

SOURCES

  1.  “Goldman, Freehills top deal tables”, Mark Beyer, Business News, 21 Jan, 2019
  2. “Australian Startups and Young Tech Companies Funding Report”, Techboard, 31 Jan 2019

It was 20 years ago today: what’s in a name?

In the fourth post of this series, I recall 20 years ago when we decided on a name for our startup, and the issues it then caused for the next decade…

Before the idea, there was context, an unforgettable comedic event before we talked to people we trusted about our idea.

Now, a few weeks on in mid 1999, we were actually thinking seriously about forming a business, raising funds and building a prototype.

We jumped on the ASIC website to buy ‘aussiehome.com Pty Ltd’ business name (having landed on ‘aussiehome.com’ as the best website domain a few days earlier).

We gave ourselves 50% ownership each, and with the company now formally established, we could set up a bank account to hold our initial seed capital. We valued the business at $1M (nice round number) post money, and would look to sell 20% to investors for $200K if we could.

Before that, we needed a business plan, and a rinky dink prototype of the site.

I remember being up in Exmouth during that mid year winter school holidays. I was still teaching, and had somehow agreed to go on a Year 9 camp. In order to get emails, I had to climb onto the tin roof of where we were staying to get reception, so I could contact co-founder Nick.

Weirdly, 20 years on, I’ve just been back to Exmouth again for the first time since 1999. Memories of that time flood back. Exmouth had just had a cyclone back then, and I remember farmers asking us if we’d seen any sheep out in the bay or on the islands. Apparently 50,000 had be swept out to sea during the storm.

Everything was moving fast. Within a few weeks we had bashed out a very ugly html prototype, and had the first draft of our business plan. We went back to our MBA professor, and he seemed interested in investing. He gave us a few names to follow up on, and we would go and show our demo and idea to several high net worth people around town.

One meeting would become three more as we asked for more introductions.

Looking back, I’m sure we made sensible decisions during this time, but there was certainly some gaps in our knowledge. We failed to set up a shareholder’s agreement between us (mistake), as we rather naively presumed all would be well. Or perhaps did not give it a thought? Later, when things got tough, we had no clear exit for either of us. We were locked in.

The name ‘aussiehome.com’ would continue to cause confusion with ‘Aussie Home Loans’ (or ‘Aussie’ or ‘Aussiehomes’) for years and years. Even nine years after the sale of the business, friends of mine still get the name wrong.

It’s aussiehome.com, not aussiehomes.com, I still say. So many people said they could not find our site, because of the confusion over our domain name.

We did not realise the high profile name of the ‘Aussie’ brand would create issues for us. Oddly, we never heard from Aussie Home Loans. They would never complain about our brand name being so close to theirs. We even approached them in the early days to see if they’d like to partner, and they ignored us.

And so we marched on. I thought the name was distinctive, clear and cool. Very Aussie.

A year on, there was even an ASX-listed Perth company called ‘Aussie’. They did a quick IPO (or back door listing? I can’t recall) but did not last long. We remember having a few chats with them, but it went nowhere, and they got bought out by Aussie Homes anyway.

Years later, I was speaking at an event, and even had a clear type written intro the MC would read out to introduce me.

“Ladies and gentleman”, said the announcer, “Please welcome Charlie Cunningham, from Aussie Home Loans.”

Agh well. Twas my cross to bear.

~~

These days, I speak about naming and trademarks every now and again – here’s my slide deck on the very subject.

Photo by Matthew T Rader from Pexels

It was 20 years ago today: markets are conversations

In the third post of this series, I recall 20 years ago when conversations with various people massaged ‘an idea for a business’ into a business itself …

Before the idea was born, there was context. Then – spookily – an unforgettable comedic event would herald the idea.

Now, the idea needs testing. Could it become an actual business? What problem would be solved for customers, and why would they pay? What did the existing market look like? Were there any competitors and threats (there always are)? What skills and experience would we need on board if we are to launch this thing? Who would build it? How much money would we need to get this off the ground?

A gazillion such questions occupied our thoughts in those early weeks and months in mid-1999.

I was still teaching – but the buzz had gone out of it for me. My co-founder Nick did some relief teaching at the same school, and we chipped away at the idea in our spare time. I would drive to his place one evening a week or he to mine, and we’d spend a half day every weekend on it.

We drew out some sample pages for what we wanted in a map-based property search website. We researched existing sites, and map data, and the tech behind mapping (which is GIS, apparently). Nick even walked onto UWA campus and knocked on the door of a GIS Professor. She told him that what we wanted to do was eminently possible.

We approached our former MBA professors, to see if we were ‘mad’ or actually had something that might have legs. One of them sat us down in his leather sofa’d study in Nedlands surrounded by shelves of hard back volumes. We showed him our one page of bullet points for what we had called ‘Real Simple’.

We wanted to “make real estate simple”. Make it easy to find properties for sale or rent, all on interactive, zoomable maps of Perth.

You’d be able to see the properties (colour coded depending on whether they were for sale or rent) on maps, plus see the local parks, schools, roads and transport routes. All the things people actually want to see when they are choosing a place to live. After all, we figured, people buy into the lifestyle of the suburb, as much as the property itself.

The Professor made encouraging noises, but there was much work to be done. He wanted to see a proper business plan, cash flow projections. ‘Come back with something a little more fleshed out, and we can discuss it,’ he said.

Unfortunately, the ‘realsimple.com’ domain name was already being used by a Californian IT company. Today, it seems to be a home and lifestyle magazine.

We thought ‘PerthHome.com’ would be good, the domains were available, but the 2 ‘h’s in the middle looked odd, and you could hardly go with ‘Perthome.com’. Anyway, we thought the idea had potential beyond just Perth, so we landed on ‘aussiehome.com’.

We liked the ring of it, and we could play on the ‘aussie’-ness of the brand. (‘Want to find your next Aussie home?’) The .com was available, so we grabbed it. Later the ‘.com.au’ domain also became available, so we had both.

We then set up the business using the ASIC website, aussiehome.com Pty Ltd, with Nick and I as 50:50 shareholders. We decided to put a few thousand up each to cover admin and other out of pocket expenses.

Looking back now, we were a little too trusting. How well did I know Nick, or he know me? Going into business is a big step, and I’m not sure we had “the conversation” about each other’s rights and expectations. We certainly did not draw up a shareholder’s agreement between us, nor had any exit plan, should, for any reason, one of us want to leave.

Naive you might say. A mistake, certainly. It would later turn out, when things got very tough in those early trading months and years in 2000 and 2001, that we both felt ‘stuck’ with the business and each other. There was no exit, no way out, except to make it a success. Perhaps that drove us on. Maybe it was brilliant, in hindsight, or we just got lucky..?

For now though, it felt like the start of an exciting new adventure. We weren’t thinking of the worse case, we were solving problems and pushing it forward.

We spoke with people we trusted about the idea, and after each conversation we’d learn something more about our business. Talking it out really helped. As a general rule, people don’t steal your idea. They are busy living their own lives. Pick who you tell, for sure, but don’t keep everything to yourself.

I would later learn this through the excellent ‘Cluetrain Manifesto‘ book, which was published that same year. It would come to define markets as just as ‘series of conversations’ between people. If you think about it, every market is just people talking with each other, persuading each other, selling to each other, buying from each other (or not).

During these weeks and months – it took 7 months from that Dame Edna night to our official launch in December that year – I had the feeling that something would eventually derail us. A door would be closed in our face, and we’d think ‘Agh well, it was a good idea, but it was not going to work.’

Quite the opposite happened. We seemed to open every door put in our way. And so we marched on.

As hard as we looked, we could not find a map-based property website anywhere (in the world). This was 6 years before Google Maps was launched (interestingly, in Sydney, Australia).

Property websites, such as they were, had very little content on them, hardly any listings, and seemed to be out of date and very clunky to use. Certainly in Western Australia, there was little direct online competition to concern us. We were more worried about someone else getting out there with our idea, than the incumbents. Or perhaps the main newspapers getting in on the act. They would have most to lose, and could have owned this space if they wanted to. As it would turn out, they didn’t, much to their cost.

As we researched the tech, we found a local GIS consulting company that could build a prototype for around $50-$70K. Take an isolated mining town like Perth and there you shall find GIS expertise. We happened to living in a global GIS centre.

We figured we needed to raise $125K or so to have enough get us to launch. We wrote various drafts of a business plan, and spent more time on the tech, acquiring the required map databsets and the like.

As two co-founders we had a lot of energy and drive for the project, but between us we had little or no experience in real estate, technology or business. Nick had done property deals before, but was mainly a hedge fund dealer and investor. I was an Economics teacher. We had few contacts in business or real estate in WA. We had few business connections in Perth.

But one thing we could do was talk. And so we did…

~~~

It was 20 years ago today: before the idea

The first in a series of posts about 1999 – the year I went from being an Economics teacher to dotcom entrepreneur…

‘It was 20 years ago today’ the Beatles famously sang on Sergeant Pepper in 1967. Well, more than half a century later I’m reminiscing and musing about 1999, 20 years ago.

1999 turned out to be quite a pivotal year for me. I had completed a full time MBA course at UWA the year before, which I did on first arriving in Perth, WA, from having lived and worked in Singapore since 1990.

By January 1999, the MBA course over and I was back in a full time teaching role. Lisa and I were DINKIES (double income, no kids), as she worked in the city.

I remember my parents coming for a visit and they were blown away by Perth.

‘You’ve landed on your feet here son,‘ said Dad, as we walked across the endless cricket ovals of Hale School, where I was Head of the Commerce.

I was coaching cricket too, and often the headmaster (and former Australian cricketer himself) John Inverarity would wander down to the nets to make some comments to the batsmen. Usually he would be accompanied by some legend or other of the game, such as Dennis Lillee, Geoff Marsh or even Barry Richards (who lived locally, and whose eldest son was in the 1st XI). I was just this rather average club cricketer from England. I sure had landed on my feet.

So 1999 was supposed to be the year I would relax back into a teaching role, after the previous two years spent emigrating, completing an MBA, fixing up our house, making new friends and settling into life in a new country.

Yet, by the end of it, I was running a tech startup (or ‘dotcom’ as they were then known).

Before an Idea… the Context

Remember 1999? The Y2K bug? The Dotcom Billionaires? GST being passed into law in 1999 (it would come into effect July 2000). John Howard PM. Richard Court Premier of WA. The referendum on moving from a monarchy to a republic went down. A certain Malcolm Turnbull was running the republican case. The Aussies won the cricket world cup (they were in the middle of a 16 year run of beating all comers). Stars Wars came out of hiding with the terrible Phantom Menace prequel, yet it topped the box office that year. The Sixth Sense and Toy Story 2 were also huge, as were The Matrix, American Beauty and Fight Club. Britney ruled supreme. The President was impeached (but not convicted). There was a shocking school shooting at Columbine. Sadly, some things have not changed in 20 years.

Having bought our first house when we moved to Perth two years earlier, I’d been amazed by the pain staking process of having to wait for the weekend papers (which had minimal information on each property listing, often no price or address), then trawling around the home opens, week after week. It was grossly inefficient, and only by chance really did we alight on the one we bought, courtesy of a great real estate agent, who then became a good friend, and colleague, Phil Knight. We still live in the same house today.

By 1999, dotcoms were being set up all the time, all over the place. The news was full of stories of the latest dotcom venture, billionaire, investor, and the rush to the ‘new millennium’. Boring old traditional bricks and mortar businesses were out of fashion. Every new business would most likely have an ‘e’ or ‘i’ in front of it and a ‘.com’ behind it, so we saw edocs.com, ebusiness.com, inature.com, etoys.com, boo.com, … gazillions were raised (and spent) by these and thousands of other businesses, worldwide. eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and others soared. The race was on. Share markets rose, the new millennium came and went (Y2K was not an issue) and stocks kept rising.

Certainly real estate was ripe for disruption. (It still is.) The information on listings was mainly held by the agents, with scant glimpses released by the weekend and local papers. Internet sites (such as existed in 1999) were limited and held a small proportion of the listings. They were clunky to use, and none showed where the properties actually were.

Push Me Pull You

Around this time I received a letter from UWA Business School that would stir up all these thoughts together.

Incredibly, the letter told me that I had topped the MBA, and after the formal graduation ceremony that April I would receive my award at a ceremony a few weeks later. This blew me away. I’d topped few classes at school, but nothing like this. My scores were set against all the clever business and professional people in Perth, and I had actually topped the whole blooming MBA graduating class of 1999.

‘This has currency’, I thought, ‘And next year there will be a new top graduate. For the moment, and for the next few months, I am it.’

As we moved towards the end of that first term I was somehow not having a good time at school. I can’t put my finger on why, but teaching was not doing it for me anymore.

I grew frustrated and bored. The students would simply regurgitate the class notes in boringly repetitive essays, and yet attain marks that would easily allow them to sail into UWA on a BComm course, which is where most of them were heading. A cardboard cutout could be teaching them. Or a trained monkey. The zing of teaching had gone. I was ready for a new challenge.

On holiday in Esperance in Easter 1999, Lisa and I were walking down a beautiful white sandy beach, and I stopped for a minute and said, “I don’t want to teach anymore… I want to go and do something else.”

It felt good to say it out loud.

Instead of trying to persuade me otherwise, or tell me I was being an idiot, Lisa simply said, “Go do it.”

[TIP: Don’t try and start a new business without an amazingly supportive partner.]

Trouble was, I had no idea what other thing I could do.

The traditional route for the MBA grad was to go into consulting, but how could I consult to business when I’d not done one myself? What other jobs were there for ex-teachers? I’d not gone into the MBA looking for a career change anyway. My idea was that it would be a good feather in my cap when I go for a headmaster interview. Head teachers end up running fairly large organisations. An MBA would be useful.

Should I now turn my back on the career I’d been building over the past 13 years?

I was confused, and frustrated. And at precisely this moment, Lisa and I would have a night out at the Regal Theatre that would open the next door…

To be continued…

~~

Photo by rawpixel.com

NEXT: Dame Edna pulls me on stage

A Dog’s Brexit – or why you don’t give students a vote on homework

Watching the fall out from the 2016 Brexit vote has been met with increasing alarm and bewilderment. No matter what side of the debate you are on.

The increasingly entrenched tribal views of each side of the Brexit question have added to the mess. No one is listening anymore. Hard, extreme core groups are facing off against each other, making it hard to see a sensible way forward or any palatable compromise that can get passed by the UK parliament that is also acceptable to the 27 EU member nations, and that also honours the ‘Leave’ result of 3 years ago.

At this stage, no one knows what the end result will be. At the time of writing almost anything is possible: from a no deal crash out of the EU, to a managed exit with some kind of deal, to a long delay, to a total change of mind and remaining in the EU.

The poor British public are losing the will to live – they are either saying “get on with Brexit!” or “for goodness sake, stop this Brexit madness!”

It’s an extremely complex issue, as global and regional trade, business and politics are intertwined in all kinds of ways. Hundreds of thousands of companies in Europe rely (and have been built up on) free movement of goods, people and services over the past 45 years, and to rip that up is very destabilising.

Even more so, when those businesses have no idea what the final outcome of all this wrangling will be. Uncertainty is the greatest killer of business.

What happens to the millions of Europeans who have settled in the EU, and those Brits who have done likewise in Europe? What happens at the Northern Ireland/Irish border, and what implications does this have for the 1998 peace deal (‘The Good Friday Agreement’)? What about Gibraltar?

It is for these precise reasons  – and many more – that a complex issue such as Britain’s membership of the EU should never have been boiled down to such a simplistic choice of Leave or Remain in 2016.

Lunatics taking over the asylum

It’s akin to asking school students whether they would like to ban homework or not.

I bet if you held that vote in pretty much any school, it would come down on the side of ‘Leave’.

“We want to take our lives back!” you could hear the Leaver camp scream. “It’s a golden, new future that awaits us – we can do this!” they would argue. “Imagine all the time you would have now to do those other things you can do, like social media, listening to music and going to parties?!”

Sounds like much more fun. I am sure it would get up. It’s easy to bash things that are difficult to understand. Even easier if you want to stick it to those in power.

No doubt there’d some some brave souls arguing the benefits of remaining with homework, the educational benefits, the long term lessons it teaches in working independently, solving problems yourself and solidifying your understanding. The study skills it teaches. The self reliance. The confidence. The feedback on learning it provides.

But they’d be drowned out by the leave populists. Why not try it? What’s to lose?

On the Leave side, there may even be some arguing against homework stating its adverse impacts on education, how only the richest kids have nice study areas at home and how divisive this is. And how mean it is to set homework which some students can’t complete. But mostly, the Leave arguments would be based on emotion, not facts.

“I don’t really accept your alleged ‘facts’ about the benefits of homework,” a Leave proponent would say, “I am more interested in how homework makes students feel.”

And so, when it comes down to it, on polling day, a majority vote to ban homework. Great celebrations ensue. The lazies love it. They can’t quite believe it.

But it’s not long before issues start to take hold.

So we’ve voted against homework, does that mean all work done at home is banned (Hard Leave) or just that teachers can’t set and grade homework (Soft)? It was not all that clear. Leave meant different things to different people.

Parents and teachers bemoan a further dumbing down of an entire generation of students, and the results the school can deliver. The older students are only a year out from uni anyway so aren’t as bothered. It’s the youngest ones that will suffer.

The implication of banning bright, studious pupils from doing work at home is becoming hard to implement. There’s a back lash against the vote, and the decision to even hold it in the first place.

(It was only held to appease a noisy hard core of teachers who had had enough of marking homework. The head teacher had been pressured to hold a ‘put up or shut up’ in or out vote. That head teacher has since resigned and the much-harangued successor is now feeling duty bound to follow through on the decision.)

A mass exodus of families starts as they move out of the school catchment area, selling their houses and buying in other suburbs where the local schools still have homework. House prices fall around the school.

Sounds crazy right?

The Real Politic

Politicians are elected to make decisions in a representative democracy.

This means they represent their constituents and make decisions on behalf of the people. It’s why they are there. They don’t go back to their people every time they have a decision to make. The public have their own lives to live, and differ among themselves anyway.

Politicians are then held to account at the ballot box every few years. They make the decisions and vote on behalf of the people, for what they believe is in their best interests.

The referendum was flawed from the outset. Even leavers could not agree on (nor know) what they were leaving for, and how that would be arranged. No one is happy. One lesson from the mess is not to ask a simple question to a complex issue; especially if those answering it have little idea of the long term consequences, or understand what’s good for them.

~~

Photo by Deeana Creates from Pexels

11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

The Gunninghams at the cavalry charge field, south of Villers Guislain, earlier this year

One hundred years ago today, at this time, the guns fell silent. The great war was over.

We pause now to remember those that fell, that never came back, those that were scarred for life, families affected… the massive sacrifice. It was a bludgeoning war, a stalemate of forces stacked up against each other, smashing away for 4 years at terrible cost.

But within it, were personal stories. Here’s one…

At 9.35am on 1st December 1917, the Indian 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse) Cavalry were ordered to charge on horseback up a valley with the intention of capturing the town of Villers Guislain.

This was northern France, during the wider Battle of Cambrai, that had been raging for months. The battle was the first time tanks had been used in war. They were moderately successful, many broke down, so commanders still liked the fast paced nature of a horse back attack. After years of bloody stalemate, you had to do something different to break through.

My grandfather, who I am named after, Charles Harris, was on horseback that day charging up that hill. I remember him telling me how some of his regiment fell off their horses during the battle, and he wondered why this was happening as the ground (mainly cabbage patches) was not too hard going. They were being shot off their horses of course. Something that did not occur to him in the adrenaline of the moment.

As bullets whizzed overhead, the Lancers made it to the top of the hill and jumped over the trenches. Most of the fighters had fled, and some returned to their positions as the mounted cavalrymen overshot their positions, were halted and then jumped back over the trenches and retook them a second time. 3 officers and 42 ranking servicemen were killed. My granddad (‘Pop’ as we called him later) survived.

Now becoming surrounded, two volunteers rode back on horseback to get word on what to do next. One was killed, the other – Lance-Daffadar Gobind Singh – had three horses shot from under him, an action that would result in the awarding of the Victoria Cross.

The upshot of this skirmish was that the 2nd Lancers were told to retreat to their former position. They had gone too far too fast, and could not be supported. Pop and his crew had to fight their way back to their own lines.

Earlier this year, together with my two older brothers, and our families (which included three great grand children of Pop Harris) found the location of that brave cavalry charge, just over 100 years ago. I had last visited with my own parents in 1980, and when I saw the crucifix in the road, I remembered being there 38 years earlier, and how Pop had told us the cavalry turned left at this point then up the hill.

When I saw the crucifix, and the path to the left, I knew this was the place

This week, the Daily Telegraph in England, in homage to those that fought in the Great War, reprinted a series of articles and stories from the time. They chose to reprint Pop’s obituary that they had ran in 1996, when he passed away 6 days before what would have been his 100th birthday. (‘ Lest we forget: Brigadier Harris, the Battle of Cambrai veteran who charged the Germans on horseback – obituary.’)

I remember listening in awe to Pop’s stories over the years. He remembered that charge as if it had been last month, yet he was telling me the story over 60 years later.

Of course, if he’d not lived to tell the tale, he would not have had my Mum 12 years later, and neither me, my brothers, or our children would have existed.

What bravery. What a generation.

And so today, at this hour, I pay tribute to The Rev Brigadier General Charles E ‘Pop’ Harris, and all those that fought with him on that day and in that war, on all sides. May we never endure such a terrible event again. May we never forget the sacrifice of that generation, and those since.

Future Generations: 3 of Pop’s great grandchildren with poppies from the nearby field.

 

 

Your wealth is ultimately tied to the customer problems you solve

Anyone running a business should understand, with laser like clarity, the customer problems their business solves. Not only will this mean the business will be focussing on the right activities, it will also be the single greatest determinant of the business owner’s wealth.

There’s a coffee shop (restaurant really, that also does a nice coffee) overlooking a lake near where I live. When I have a new client to meet, and it is convenient for them, I suggest we meet there. For me, it’s a pleasant, neutral venue in lovely surroundings, where I can hear the founders’ story, what they want to do with their business, what they have ‘got’, and if I can help.

The customer problem the local cafe solves for me is that, as I work from a home office, I don’t want to invite the business into my own home, and I don’t necessarily want to pile out to their office (if there’s a second meeting, we can meet there), so I need a ‘third place‘ (as made famous by Starbucks) to meet.

Once the order for coffee is taken, I also want to be left alone to have a conversation with the client. I don’t want to be ignored, I don’t want to be pestered. I don’t want to feel we have overstayed my welcome just because we have finished my coffee (ooohh, how I hate that).

Coffee with a lake view

My local cafe understands this. They are friendly, attentive, chirpy even, and seem genuinely pleased to see me. I frequent the place so much they guess that the person at the front counter peering inside is probably coming to see me, or if I have arrived after the client, they point me to who it probably is.

In this way, they are going above and beyond, and they will have my business for a good while yet. In fact, the place is so thriving, that visitors usually remark ‘Wow, this place is a gold mine‘ or ‘What a great place.‘ Some come back on their own volition later on.

Contrast this to a cafe I used to visit. They seemed genuine and friendly at first, but as soon as your cup was nearly finished, they would pounce and whisk it from you asking ‘Anything else?‘ (which  was plainly delivered to mean ‘Can you leave now!?‘). Staying any longer made you feel uncomfortable. I would barely stay 30 minutes, and after a while, never went back. At my local cafe above, I stay an hour per visit, and often have 3 meetings there in one day. I like my coffee. And I like it there.

The second cafe seemed to be focussing more on solving their problems (getting as many customers in and out of the place), than paying attention to their customers’ problems (a third place to meet, a catching up place, a filling in time space, or whatever). By focussing on the wrong things, and taking a short term view, the ‘cafe-I-never-visit-anymore’ lost my business, and I wonder how many others? I passed it the other day and it had shut down. Meanwhile, my local thrives.

Now I am not a restauranteur nor am I well versed in running cafes – I often do a rough calculation of revenues at the place, notice the high number of staff and wonder how they make money – but if I was to run a cafe I think I would realise that the third place concept was well established and understood by now. Customers are not flocking there for the wonderful coffee, or even the view, but for a service that provides them that place other than home or work (even if it is nothing more than to catch up with old friends or fill in an hour reading the paper.)

If I was running a cafe, I would like to think I’d train my staff to appreciate what the third place meant. I would provide free wifi. I would encourage local business people to meet up, linger, and ‘become members’ (a simple loyalty stamp card would suffice). Yes, I would make more money from the evening meals served with alcohol, but if I am to open during the day, then I would encourage more and more to attend and keep the tills ringing over. The more that come through, the more will be enticed by the carrot cake and muffins, or to have lunch, or to come back one evening for a nice meal, give me nice reviews and to spread the word.

It’s the funnel concept of selling – tip more in at the top, and more shall be returned to you down the bottom. Tweak the conversion rates, and off you go.

In the end the value of any business – and the wealth it creates – comes down to one simple question: how well do you understand and then solve the customer problem?

For, as I have said many times before, only if you solve a customer problem (the person who pays you for your product or service) will you create value; only if you create value will they pay, and only if they pay will you even have a business.

And… if you rinse and repeat this enough over a period of time, your revenue will grow, as will profits (as long as you control your costs) and the business will be worth a pretty dollar or three. This could ultimately determine your own wealth.

If you are not born into money, or have not made it in property or mining, then probably the best way to build wealth is to create a business you own, build it up and sell it (or live off the wonderful dividends it provides). The recent Australian Rich List (self made under 40s) all made their money in business, with 42 of the 100 in tech or online business of some sort. Only 6 were in resources, and 1 in property. The next generation of wealth creators have understood the process well.

Meanwhile, enjoy the coffee.

Learning startups at uni… what a blooming great idea!

Now in its second year, UWA showcased its Launchpad graduates – which gives participants full six credits for any undergrad course at the university – at an annual pitch night…

They never had uni courses like this in my day‘ – is what almost every audience member over the age of 25 was probably thinking, as they watched the nine graduating teams from UWA’s Launchpad unit pitch on Monday night.

Not only that, most people were also thinking ‘I wish they’d had‘. And ‘what a great idea‘.

Yes, it’s true. A 13-week course, with mentors and guest speakers, took enrolled students through all the main stages of ideation, lean canvas model, customer problem, market validation, key metrics, channels, the pitch and reflection, culminating in a pitch night.

FUTURE LEADERS: Graduates from ‘Launchpad’ – UWA’s startup unit

KPMG consultant Graeme Sheard and Bloom Lab co-leader Jack Hallam put the students through their paces in a 3-hour workshop every Monday, with weekly assignments including blogging and business plan development.

It’s the only university in WA to offer such a course, and in a fitting conclusion, the final pitch night at Bloom showcased all 9 businesses, before a panel of judges, which included visiting Professor  Martin Katz from the University of Denver (Colorado, another hotbed of startups).

Last year, Humm Tech went through the program, and they were on hand, via video link to wish the graduates well. As reported a few months ago on, Humm are now based in San Francisco.

CLEVER CUPPA: Easy Brew’s drip coffee solution for adventurers

The startups this year were a real mixture, with five of the nine having a social enterprise angle, and four being educational.

The businesses ranged from a neat little coffee capsule for making a great cuppa in the outback to story telling cooking classes to help better understand different cultures to a program to help Year 12 students find their true purpose.

After much deliberation, the judges gave the pitch contest to Charlotte Pennel from ‘Mother & Bride’, who in a pitch perfect performance, explained how her new wedding planning web service works. Yes, she got married earlier this year – and found the process of the wedding planning a pain – and yes, her mother is also in the business. And she already has four weddings booked up on her platform.

Honourable mentions were given to the team from ‘I Can and Will Do’ (educational resources for rural kids in Cambodia), ‘EnviroVend’ (vending machine to replenish food and staples, to reduce plastic) and ‘Pay It Forward’ (an app that allows you to gift a meal to a homeless person).

All great ideas, and some real potential businesses here. Plus, another unit ticked off at uni. How good is that?!

~~

MAIN IMAGE: Charlotte Pennel pitching her ‘Mother & Bride’ startup

This article first appeared on Startup News.

How win free media for your business – Part THREE (Press Releases)

In the THIRD post in this series on ‘how to win free media for your business’, we look at press releases.

Earlier we looked at the importance of thinking like the media, and there were also 15 pieces of advice to bear in mind when contacting the media.

A well written and target media release can be worth its weight in gold in terms of the free publicity and promotion it can provide for your business brand.

Be aware though that journalists may receive hundreds of media releases a week by email, so it’s important your message follows a recognisable structure and is easy to read (layout easy and clear with no typos and grammatical errors).

When I worked at Business News – a relatively small media business in the grand scheme of things – we received 1000 press releases a week, and very few (less than 10) probably ended up being a story.

Now, in my role running Startup News – an even smaller, niche publisher – I can tell you we receive several press releases a day, perhaps 50 a week, and only 2 or 3 become stories.

That’s because many of them are pretty rudimentary (this person has been appointed here or done that deal there) or are not targetted at the publication in mind (for example, Startup News only publishes stories on WA startups, so there’s no point sending us a press release about a Melbourne tech business with no connection to WA).

Faced with these odds, your media release needs to get to the point quickly, and have some degree of urgency.

The best ones will leave the impression that the media outlet needs to READ THIS NOW without resorting to click baity techniques like actually putting ‘READ ME NOW’ in the heading or subject line of course (!).

It’s fine line between appear authentic and having something to say without coming across as desperate.

Generally, an effective press release will have several elements to it:

  1. Inverted Pyramid – the most important information is at the top, in the headline, and first paragraph with supporting detail below. This will also be on the subject line of the email.
  2. First Impressions matter – most journos and editors do not read beyond the title (or the email’s subject line) and the first paragraph before they have decided to publish or not. It needs to be newsworthy. What’s new and interesting for their audience?
  3. Send by email – the universally accepted method of reaching media. The email itself should be short (no more than 2 paras with the main gist of the story and who is available for interviews and photos). The press release and photos (or links to photos) are an attachment to the email, in word format, not pdf, so the text can be copied and pasted. Ideally, the media could simply lift your release and publish it as is, or with minimal changes (except perhaps to make it even better.)
  4. Title your release ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ in block capitals.
  5. An attention-grabbing HEADLINE then follows, with the BODY of the press release and CONTACT & ABOUT ‘XYZ Pty Ltd’ on the company at the bottom.
  6. Include QUOTATIONS from someone knowledgeable and authoritative (e.g. the CEO). It might be why this novel product is going to be useful to the industry.
  7. Clearly mark the end of the release with ‘ENDS’.
  8. Make the release no more than one page. Sentences should be no longer than 25 words. Every sentence starts a new paragraph. Make it as SHORT as possible to get the story across.

Here’s an example of a recent press release sent to Startup News…

PR1

Structure of a well laid out media release

Notice how the various elements of the release are clear and it has made it easy for the media to follow. This release has followed good practice to the letter, and it was no surprise that Startup News duly published the article, almost exactly as per the release. The main photo had also been supplied…

PR2

The resultant article mirrors the original release, almost word for word, including the headline and opening para.

What was then interesting was in follow up social media posting, there was acknowledgement of the article, from the person mentioned, and his friends, so the information reached an even broader audience…

PR3

Flow on effects of social media add to the reach.

That’s how to do it.