Trusting your instinct

We’ve all been there – a well reasoned plan.  It’s been carefully honed to come in with the right costs and timescales.  There’s nothing there you can obviously argue with, but you know deep down that when you put it all together there’s no way the plan is realistic.  Here’s the dilemma – with the plan you’ve got the project will probably go ahead, and ultimately overspend.  If you re-plan with numbers that feel right it’ll get canned.  Your instinct is shouting at you and mine has proved to be pretty reliable in these situations. So do you keep quiet, go with the flow and tell everyone how wonderful the emperor’s clothes are looking, or speak up….

….so now a tenuous link to Discovering Start-Ups 2012 last week.  I was there in the role of VP Business Development for Blendology.  With both the Chairman and CEO doing the pitch, I was a bit of a spare part most of the time, which gave a rare opportunity to enjoy the event.  The judges were rating the pitches on an absolute scale, rather than one against the other.  I ran my own private judging, based purely on instinct.  To avoid bias I excluded Blendology from my list.

Discovering Start-Ups 2012 (Picture courtesy Cambridge Wireless)

The pitches and pitchers were impressive, but for my judging system they fell neatly into a few categories:

  • game-changing, but maybe too good to be true
  • incomprehensible
  • possibly sensible but not very exciting
  • works for me

Clearly I’m not destined to become one of the great and the good appearing in judging panels for this sort of event, because only one of my top five appeared in the official winners’ list.  That was Skin Analytics, which was addressing a real need with a believable solution.

Well done to the winners, and good wishes to all the competitors.

I wonder whether it will be my instincts or the judges who will be proved right.  Well, let me wrap up with a confession on how wrong my instinct has been on the odd occasion.  Many years ago Psion Software was a major client.  I heard their tale of developing an operating system for mobile phones, and was very happy to continue to sell to the nascent Symbian organisation, but I openly admitted my scepticism on their world domination plan.  On that one I do feel a bit like the record producer who didn’t rate the Beatles.  Ironically, Symbian eventually purchased our business unit, and my team formed the core of Symbian’s Cambridge office.

Link to article telling us to trust our instincts:

…and on the other side, Martha Lane Fox says “Don’t trust your gut”:

Enterprise Tuesday – how do people recognise an opportunity that is worth pursuing?

It was standing room only for this first Enterprise Tuesday of the year, and an intriguing story we all heard. It goes like this.

Roll-to-roll solar cells

Professor Sir Richard Friend has been working on technology which enables printable plastic solar cells. These present advantages in manufacture and deployment, are potentially cheap and reasonably efficient. Eight19 was formed to develop this technology, and the work is progressing nicely.

So, where to apply it?  The three options suggested in the presentation were:

  • Building-integrated solar – using architectural features to generate electricity
  • Consumer solar – the market currently supplied predominantly by Chinese manufacturers, and only viable with Government grants
  • Emerging markets – off-grid in developing countries

The counter-intuitive decision taken was to follow the last of these. People in developing countries might not individually have a lot of money, but there’s a lot of them, and they have an appetite for electricity for lighting and to power their mobile phones, which in many cases are used not just for communication, but also for financial transactions.

So far so good, but now the slightly strange part of the story. The plastic film solar material is not yet market ready – work is still required to give it a decent lifespan. So, Azuri was set up to address this emerging market, not with plastic film solar material, but with conventional solar panels. It rather reminds me of what someone once said of moving into self-employment – if you’re going to start one company, you might as well start two, because it’s not that much more difficult, and you spread the risk.

So the outcome is two parallel threads, one developing a new technology, and the other developing the market that the technology might address, but with current-day technology. I guess it makes sense, but the guys had the humility to admit that they only got to that point with a lot of iteration. Great to hear some honesty rather than claims to have known the answer from the beginning.

So I guess the lesson from this one is, if at first you don’t succeed, try something else that might work better. And it also struck me that this company was a very good illustration of how a good team exploits people with very different talents, rather than clones. Sir Richard is the technical expert, Seena Rejal is the bright young guy building connections in high places, and Simon Bransfield-Garth is the seasoned businessman. Incidentally, many lives ago Simon was my customer – I well remember that he was very patient and pragmatic when things didn’t quite go as well as expected, which in the long run led to a good outcome for both parties.

Ogilvy Storytelling Lab Day


I was manning the Blendology stand at the Ogilvy Storytelling Lab Day a couple of weeks ago.  A very lively day, with many interested visitors to the stand – still working on the follow-ups.  I really hadn’t heard of Ravensbourne before this event.  It’s a pretty cool place, located just outside the main entrance of the O2, with a speciality in digital media.  We were located just inside the front door, so our visitors were not limited to the attendees of the lab day.  Many of the students dropped in to see what we were about – they are very much in touch with the digital world.

The event gave plenty of food for thought about the value of the data generated by Blendology’s connectivity system, and the free gift of the book “Sexy Little Numbers” by Dimiti Maex of Ogilvy is good inspiration too.  It’s really about big data, but many of the questions asked are transferable to the challenge of extracting actionable value from the knowledge of who connected with who at an event.  I’m looking forward to seeing some of Blendology’s development of the data visualisation.