Many years ago, back in the first dotcom boom, I was working for one of the Big 4 accountancy firms. As the office “eCommerce Champion”, one of my jobs was to try to flog stuff to advise dotcom startups. Some senior partner had observed that “the best way to make money in a gold rush is to sell shovels”, so that’s what we were supposed to do. Even better than that, if we were to lend people the shovels / support at no cost to the plucky dotcom entrepreneur, we would make even more money out of them when they became massively successful and had their inevitable stock market IPO.
Of course, it didn’t work out like that. Very few of those dotcom startups actually got off the ground. The most common problem I encountered was that many of these entrepreneurs had no idea of their own limitations. And just like kids who watch X-Factor and think they’ll be a successful pop star when they grow up, these wannabe entrepreneurs had been to too many startup conferences, heard gurus spout buzzwords and motivational pep talks at them and hundreds of other wannabes, and come away thinking that they were going to be the next Martha Lane-Fox.
There was a whole industry back then ostensibly to support these dotcom pioneers. There would be conferences where people with half an idea would be attracted to spend an evening in some trendy wine bar by the promise that there would be venture capitalists there itching to invest in your, yes your startup. The entrepreneurs would all get name badges with a coloured dot indicating that they were an entrepreneur, we shovel-sellers would get different coloured dots and both groups would search in vain for the mythical venture capitalists. There would be a keynote speaker too. If you were lucky it would be an actual successful entrepreneur willing to share his wisdom in return for little more than looks of awe and jealousy. More often, the speaker would be a guru.
Well, ‘guru’ wouldn’t necessarily be this person’s job title. They’d be someone from a big company – usually IT or consultancy – whose job it was to convince other people of the benefits of some aspect of new technology. If they weren’t ‘gurus’, they’d be ‘e-commerce evangelists’ or ‘new media opinion formers’ or even ‘digital prophets’.
When the dotcom crash came, these gurus and evangelists and prophets faded away. I honestly don’t know where they went. But they’re back now, and so is the startup industry. Entrepreneurs are rarely told at these conferences that most startups fail to even get off the ground, particularly those which start off as nothing more than a good idea (businesses based on the in-demand skills of their owners do rather better). Rather, these conferences are all about the good news and the potential in your business idea. The atmosphere is a cross between an American faith-healer’s sermon and those events where people come away convinced that they’ve always wanted a timeshare in Majorca. The guru / evangelist / prophet will tell the entrepreneurs what they want to hear, there’s a bout of intense networking where everyone swaps business cards with trendy new logos (or in trendy new materials – always be wary of the man with a plastic business card…), a certain amount of wine or lager is drunk and everyone goes home happy.
But not one of those entrepreneurs has helped his new business one little bit.
Seriously, if you’re an entrepreneur with a great idea for a new business, you should be spending your time developing your product, testing your service, talking to potential customers, providing free pilots to organisations who could benefit but might not be able to afford it (there’s no shortage of local charities), doing some small-scale production as a proof of concept – in short, working on your business. Don’t waste your time on “digital prophets”*.
* You think I’m joking about the job title “digital prophet”? This gentleman is David “Shingy” Shing (yes, that is his real name) and he is AOL’s (yes, they still exist) very own “digital prophet”.