26 Nov 2014

Our top 5 tips for building a startup in digital times

By Jessica

This article was written by Glen and Jess for Virgin Unite and appeared in their Global Entrepreneurship Week blog series on 21 November 2014. The image is from our Summer 2014 programme. 

If you think about the businesses and social organisations that you admire I’m sure they will all have a strong digital element to them. You don’t need to be told that in this day in age every business is a digital business. But thinking about the digital side of things when you’re setting out is not always easy to do.

When you’re starting up your purpose driven organisation you need to think about the digital aspect of it right from the very start. This is not simply about putting existing products and services online, this is about thinking through how to use digital technologies to create new solutions to the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s about using technology to do things differently, and better.

At Bethnal Green Ventures we’ve supported 42 teams of startups who came to us with the ambition to create technology based solutions to major social and environmental problems.  For example, the team at drdoctor recognised the huge waste of time and money created by missed appointments at hospitals and surgeries in the NHS, so they quit their jobs and set out to solve this. They’ve created an SMS based system that is now used by people to manage appointments and gather data that will help to improve NHS services.

The startups that come to us make use of all the amazing technologies that have already been developed, and create new ones. This may sound daunting, but you don’t need a huge tech team or a massive amount of money to get something like this off the ground. The tools available today are more accessible, better and cheaper to use than ever before.

Top 5 tips:

1. Don’t just put existing services online: As we mentioned in Seven tips for Changing the World Through Technology one mistake people often make when building digital services is just putting the existing system online, where all the old problems are simply replicated. But because the web enables new ways of working and thinking these services can be completely rethought. Our alumni Open Utility are re-imagining the way that people can buy energy, and supporting small-scale energy generation

2. Be the user: Either solve something you know about first hand or spend lots of time understanding what your users want from technology. You need to get out and speak to potential users very early on to make sure you’re creating something they need and want. Andiamo learnt not to get too caught up in the process of user research, just get out and get talking to people, and listen with empathy. This was pretty important considering they’re revolutionising the way that childrens’ orthotics are made with 3D printing and scanning technology.

3. Get a technical co-founder: When we’re selecting for our programme we look for teams with at least one technical co-founder. This person doesn’t have to be the world’s best coder or developer, but they need to understand the basics so they can put together a simple prototype and know how to work with technical developers when you’re ready to scale. If you’re looking for a technical co-founder we suggest you get searching at the numerous hackathons, startup events and meetups such as Tech For Good.

4. Hand cranking is ok: A world-changing application isn’t built in one big go. Start off doing things manually so that you get very close to each step in the process of building a service that works rather than trying to make everything automatic. Following the Lean Startup approach you should focus on building a minimum viable product – be focused, start small and then iterate and add features or increase efficiency release by release.

5. Build, measure and learn: So you’ve spoken with users and you’ve developed a basic prototype of your product or service. You need to build in a loop of continuous feedback that you can measure and then act on. Referring to the Lean Startup again: “The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere.”

Top 5 resources:

1. Your own experience: Every frustration you experience – from internal company communications to hospital waiting times to “why can’t I buy power from my neighbour’s solar panels” – could be a world-changing innovation in the making.

2. Deep inside your potential users’ and customers’ heads: Get out there and talk and ask open-ended questions to find the flash of deep insight, like the fact that people having a panic attack are likely to reach for their phones, or that people on the autistic spectrum can make good developers or that people might let others stay in their spare rooms.

3. Codecademy (or other online coding tutorials): Even if you’re not going to be developing software, the better you understand what it’s like, the better you’re going to be at communicating with your tech team – which is critical in software development.

4. Good resources on Lean, or Agile thinking: It’s important to shift away from the idea that you’re building a product, i.e. something that’s created and then exists in a state of stasis. Good products work like services – they constantly evolve, trying to make things more efficient or serve their users better.

5Nesta have some great resources – from innovations in education to ageing to the growth of the creative economy – they help you understand a higher-level view of your problems. They also recently put out Going Digital: Five lessons for charities developing technology–based innovations – which could come in handy.