5 Lessons from Business Accelerators – Part 1

2015 was quite a year for me, having been involved in two Business Accelerators and embarked on my own agile journey.

 

When I first came across the term business accelerators, I was confused about what they are. I soon learnt that they are start-up bootcamps, designed to accelerate a start-up within a short period of time. Start-ups will get mentorship and connections. They will also go through problem discovery, customer development and acquisition, and pitch in front of investors.

 

My first accelerator experience was at the R9 Accelerator. I was part of a start-up team solving business-government interaction painpoints using agile and lean start-up methodologies.

 

I then became so infected with agile that I jumped straight into another accelerator. I was the Agile and Venture Development Consultant at the Lightning Lab Manufacturing Accelerator. This is where I coached several hardware start-up teams to apply agile and lean start-up methodologies. I helped them to improve business models and efficiency through facilitating prioritisation planning, stand ups, reviews and retrospectives.

 

I have learnt heaps from these experiences but there are 5 lessons that I would like to share with you.

 

  1. Be married to the problem, not the solution
  2. Prototype, test, learn and iterate
  3. Figure out your unique value proposition and test it with customers
  4. Communicate frequently and have granular tasks to help boost efficiency and collaboration
  5. Focus, focus, focus

 

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Be married to the problem, not the solution

 

This is often the easiest mistake to make for entrepreneurs and I have done it myself. We have a solution in mind before we even deeply know what the problem is. Then we try to sell our solution to the customers and find it hard to believe when they say they don’t want it. Then it is a heart-wrenching exercise to detach ourselves from “the solution”.

 

For example, at the R9 Accelerator, my team had to pivot half way through the programme as our solution did not match the problem. We focused on the problem that businesses in the horticulture and viticulture industries struggle to find enough suitable seasonal workers. Our proposed solution was an online platform where businesses can find suitable seasonal workers and vice versa. However, we discovered that the labour market in the horticulture and viticulture industries is influenced by social and economic factors, which our digital solution could not address.

 

I am proud of the fact that we dug deep into a very complex problem within a short amount of time, 6 weeks. All credits go to constantly talking to the horticulture and viticulture businesses, rapidly prototyping, testing and validating with them. However, looking back now, a trip to the Hawke’s Bay would have been worthwhile because nothing beats getting to know the problem face-to-face. An in-context immersion (a technique from Human-Centred Design) would have allowed us to play fly on the wall, observing people’s behaviours, emotions and surroundings. Having the businesses walking us through their decision-making would have also been invaluable.

 

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Prototype, test, learn and iterate

 

We all know of some products that have a mountain of features that we do not use. The Lean Start-up approach prevents this from happening by introducing the build-measure-learn feedback loop into product development. It is about building the minimum viable product as soon as possible for customers to test and give feedback. Then the product goes through several feedback loops and iterations. From this, the assumptions we have about our customers are constantly being validated and we are pushed to build the most valuable features first. By the time the product is launched in the market, we would have customers lined up wanting the product.

 

At the R9 Accelerator, after our pivot, we designed an online form for employers to submit information to support their employees’ work visa applications. Our biggest assumption was that employers would submit forms online. To get businesses to imagine our solution, we drew a paper-based prototype and stuck it onto a computer screen. During testing, we would often let employers navigate the prototype themselves so that we could observe and note down what functions were intuitive and useful. Then we iterated our prototype and tested with employers again.

 

It was scary prototyping and testing so early with our customers when we had nothing more than a concept and a paper-based prototype. However, I have learnt that early prototyping not only saves time and money but also helps to build customer loyalty. Nowadays, I would ask why not and why not earlier.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this post, stay tuned for Part 2, where I will share 3 more learnings with you.

 

 

Suki Xiao
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