Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Social Impact of Technology Innovation

More than a billion people are estimated to be living with disabilities (source WHO).

One of the main problems for people with disabilities is their lack of independence. Their dependency on others is excluding them from our society, from employment opportunities, and adversely affecting their dignity and self-esteem.

Assistive Technology (AT) has been proven to make a significant change in the lives of people with disabilities. It can drastically improve their quality of lives, make them more independent, and enable their inclusion in their communities.

Assistive technology is defined as: “any product or service that maintains or improves the ability of individuals with disabilities or impairments to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives” (source British Assistive Technology Association).

And yet, to ensure that assistive devices are appropriate and used effectively, they need to suit both environment and user, and need to be accompanied by adequate follow-up of a rehab professional (occupational therapist, etc.).

Unfortunately, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, only 10% of people living with disabilities are actually using assistive technology in their daily lives.  In low and mid-income countries, the number is even as low as 5%. This is a critical unmet need, and a great opportunity for a significant global impact.

In my humble opinion, the solution requires a two-prong approach: increase the rate and scale of innovation and availability of assistive technology, and at the same time improve the adaptation and effective usage of these products and services.

To increase the innovation of assistive technology there is a need to encourage more entrepreneurship in this space. Today, there is an abundance of so-called hi-tech entrepreneurs, who are taking advantage of the many great ecosystems that were created to make it easier, simpler and faster to develop innovative products and services, and start new companies.

These ecosystems include startup accelerator programs and incubators, a wealth of VCs and private investors competing to invest in these startup companies, and many service providers, such as lawyers, accounting firms, design and manufacturing companies that have created new business models targeted at engaging startup companies from day 1.

Moreover, there is tremendous hype and publicity around hi-tech entrepreneurs, who have gained fame and celebrity status. And technology startups are now the most desired companies to work for.

On the other hand, social or impact entrepreneurs, face a very different reality.
There are only two accelerator programs in the world for assistive technology (A3I, Remarkable); there are very few impact investors, and no ecosystems to assist them in converting their great ideas into successful products and social businesses.

This must change!

If we want to have more innovation in the field of assistive technology we need to encourage more entrepreneurs to make it their purpose in life. Simply put, we must create similar ecosystems for impact entrepreneurs to those that exist for hi-tech entrepreneurs. This needs to be a coordinated effort of leaders (including successful impact entrepreneurs and thought leaders), socially responsible global brands (i.e. large global corporations), impact investors, and governments.

Such an effort can create the required awareness and incentives that are needed to encourage more entrepreneurship, and make a real impact in the world of people with disabilities.

In addition to creating ecosystems for impact entrepreneurs, there is a need to train rehabilitation professionals on matching and adapting assistive technologies for people with disabilities.

They need tools and training that will enable them to easily and quickly find and match the right solution for their client, and apply it effectively to their client’s environment and needs. Such tools will significantly improve rehab professionals ability to leverage assistive technology to increase people with disabilities’ independence and improve their quality of life.

Inclusion of people with disabilities in our society is not just doing a good thing, and the right thing. It’s the smart thing. When 15% of the world’s population is sidelined and not participating we’re not functioning at our full capacity and potential. Just imagine what great things we can accomplish when we will operate at our full potential.

That’s the real impact potential of technology innovation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Founders Prenup Agreement

Founding a startup company is much like getting married. In fact, the relationship between founders is often described as important, intricate, and complex like a relationship of a married couple.

Indeed, much like a marriage, the quality of the relationship between the founders can determine the success of the venture.

Much has been written about the importance of selecting the right partner to start your company with. In this post I would like to focus on a less popular topic, but equally important, and that’s the founders agreement, or the founders “prenup agreement”.

When you and your founding partner are at the beginning of your venture, everything seems rosy, exciting and full of promise. Much like a loving couple before their marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

And much like a couple before their wedding, it seems very awkward at such wonderful and optimistic times to discuss and prepare an agreement that is intended to formalize the relationship and address possible issues, future contingencies, and conflicts.

And yet, that’s probably the smartest thing you can do before you incorporate your company.

Here are some valuable tips from my own experience, and that of other entrepreneurs.

  • Don’t delay! Make sure you get the agreement done, and signed, before you incorporate the company, and/or raise money. If you let it linger for too long, it might never get done, which could result in major issues down the road, and even with an ugly break-up later.

  • Lawyer up! This is not a DIY project. Yes, you are smart enough to start a company, and even invent a breakthrough product, but this requires the advice, input, and writing of a professional lawyer, preferably one that specializes in startups, and has done similar agreements in the past.

  • Be specific, very specific! As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Wherever needed, be very specific. For example, don’t write that each founder can hold a full-time job elsewhere until a significant financing round has been completed. Significant is subject to interpretation, and each founder can interpret it differently. Instead, define a specific amount, for example $250K.

  • Address potential conflicts, but keep it simple. It’s important to anticipate and address potential issues, such as asymmetry among the founders (i.e. one has another job, and one is full-time in the startup), what happens if one founder decides to quit, or is terminated, etc. However, as in any agreement, you will never be able to cover all possible scenarios, and there is value in keeping the agreement simple and clear. So, decide what is truly important, and what you can leave out of the agreement.

I know it’s not the most pleasant experience in the early stage of a new venture, and yet you will be happy you did it, and did it right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How to select your target market

Often startup companies develop a technology that has multiple applications and potential markets. By now, most entrepreneurs have learned that a startup company must focus on a single market, at least in its early stages (I would argue that this holds true for latter stages too).

Trying to address multiple markets, with conflicting customer needs, can spell disaster to a startup company, and an early demise. Trying to develop several products at the same time, or develop multiple marketing and sales channels early on, often results in a very high burn-rate, which leads to depletion of company’s cash, and a premature death of the company.

The challenge then becomes how to select the best market out of all the possible options. But how do you know which market is the best one? What is the right set of criteria to use in making this crucial decision?

In this post, I would like to offer a set of market selection criteria, which I have developed based on my own experience, and that of several successful investors.

Following are my five criteria for selecting the best target market:

1.  Size of opportunity.
This includes the overall size of the market (TAM), your serviceable share of it (SAM), and estimated share of it (SOM). For example, are we talking a billion potential customers/units, 100’s of millions, or just a few millions? Is it a mass market, or a niche?
2.  Value proposition.
In which of your potential markets is your value proposition strongest? Where are you a nice-to-have and where are you a must-have?
3.  Time-to-Money.
How long would it take you to generate first revenue in each of your potential markets? This also implies how much money you would need to raise to survive until you can generate revenue.
4.  Risks.
Which market presents the lowest risk? This includes technology development risk (which product is more complicated to make), competitive risks (which market presents tougher competition), and market risks (uncertainty, regulatory risks, disruption, consolidation, slow growth, etc.).
5.  Funding.
Which market (and business model) would be more attractive to investors, thus making it easier for you to raise money?

I’m sure these are not the only, or even the best set of criteria. Indeed, I would be happy to receive your feedback and suggestions for other criteria.

Bottom line, whether you decide to use my proposed criteria, or come up with your own, what’s important is to make a timely decision and focus on one market, and even one application to get your startup running and get successful market traction as fast as you can.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Foundations of a Great Start-up

I’ve written before about the importance of picking the right co-founder/s for your venture. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this decision. And yet, even if you’ve chosen great co-founders you still need make sure that you and your co-founders are functioning as an effective team.

Based on my own experience, and the painful experience of other entrepreneurs, I believe there are four critical elements to a successful founding team.

1.   Mutual trust. This is by far the most important element of any team. You and your partners need to have complete trust in each other. Otherwise, don’t even start your company.

2.   Full Confidence in each other. This means confidence in each other’s skills and abilities to perform their respective roles and responsibilities professionally, successfully, and with high quality results.

In order to move fast and meet your goals you will each need to take on a significant role and responsibilities in your start-up; lead a certain discipline or task; make the appropriate decisions; work independently. In short, this means you need to be able to depend on each other. Otherwise, your team’s progress will be slow and you will miss your goals, which will lead to disappointment and frustration. Moreover, you will be perceived as a dysfunctional team by investors, partners, and your own people.

3.   Shared vision and success goals. If your vision is to build a great and lasting company, while your co-founder is seeking a quick exit, you are bound to have significant disagreements in almost all aspects of running your company. For example, what’s the right business model, who are the right investors for your start-up, how to structure your organization, and more.

A common vision and definition of success for your company should be established early on in your work together. Don’t skip this important discussion, since it will come back to bite you.

4.   Symmetric level of commitment. This topic is rarely talked about, and yet I believe it’s very critical for a healthy and positive team dynamics. An asymmetric level of commitment is when one of you is fully committed to the start-up, working fulltime to move it forward, with minimal or no salary, while another partner is doing it part-time still holding on to his daytime job, including full salary and benefits. This may seem harmless enough, or at worst a petty issue. Believe me it’s not. Many start-ups failed due to this issue.

When one of you is risking everything, sacrificing her (and her family’s) quality of life, while her partner is taking no risk and sacrificing nothing, it’s a very real and personal issue. It can lead to conflicts in key decisions regarding fund raising, company formation, and equity distribution. It can poison the team atmosphere and cause resentment among its members.

An asymmetric level of commitment can undermine all the other three critical elements above, starting with trust.

Therefore, ideally all co-founders should commit to leaving their jobs and dedicating themselves to the start-up at the same time. If there is a situation where one of the founders needs to stay in his current job a bit longer either due to contractual or personal obligations, make sure there is a clear deadline after which he either joins the founding team fulltime, or is taken off the founding team (will not be considered as a founder). Although this may cause some discomfort among the team, it’s better to deal with it early on then later, when it threatens to destroy your company.

A great founding team is by far the most important element to a successful start-up. More than a great idea or a brilliant business model. The best idea in the hands of a dysfunctional team will be wasted. On the other hand, a great team can start with a bad idea and eventually arrive to a good idea and the right business model.

There are many challenges and struggles to overcome when you’re building a new company. Be sure you’ve got the right team, based on the right foundations, in order to improve your chances to succeed.

All the best!


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

It’s Good to be Down

As we’ve all come to know, life is a series of ups and downs. We all strive to have more ups than downs; make the ups last longer and the downs as short as possible.

When we’re up our confidence is high, we’re happy, satisfied, and our overall outlook on life is very positive. Conversely, when we’re in a down period, our confidence is low, our self-esteem is low, and our perspective turns negative. For many a down period is a period of depression.

However, as hard as we might try, it seems that we cannot prevent having down periods in our lives. I believe it’s like our mistakes. They are there for a reason. Mistakes are how we learn best. They are a survival mechanism. We can also turn the down periods to be significant learning and improvement experiences.

To begin with, we can try to understand what is it that got us to this down period in the first place. Was it something that we did? Or that someone else has done to us? If it’s the former, then that is an opportunity to improve ourselves. If it’s the latter, then perhaps we can learn from it about other people’s behavior, and how that behavior may adversely affect us. This knowledge can help us change our own behavior, or choose more carefully the people we work or associate with.

But what if the root cause to our down period was not people related? For example, what if it was triggered by a specific industry event, or a local economic problem, as some countries are experiencing these days?  In such cases we can learn how to reduce our exposure to similar problems in the future by learning new skills to increase our value and demand, or change our career altogether.

However, sometimes we just need to accept that there are things beyond our control. For example, global catastrophes (like the financial crisis of 2008-11), or natural disasters (like tsunamis or earthquakes), that can adversely affect us no matter what we do. And yet, even in these types of down periods we can learn how to survive, persevere, adapt, and eventually come out of them stronger and better than before.

Moreover, downs can be a life detoxification period. They are a humbling experience that allows us to learn what truly matters in our life, where we should spend our valuable time and what to ignore. We can use down periods to clarify our values and priorities in life, and review our goals. Often things become clearer when we remove hubris and hype.
Bottom line, down periods can be great opportunities for learning, improving, and creating the next up period. I believe that taking this approach will result in longer ups and less downs. And that is our goal after all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Fighting for Independence

An important part of my time is invested in a great program called A3I. This is the world’s first startup accelerator that is solely dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities.
The purpose of A3I is to encourage and assist entrepreneurs to realize their ideas that aim to solve problems, and address the important needs of people with disabilities. The goal is to create a more inclusive society where people with special needs can lead a normal life like each and every one of us.
I serve this program as a member of its steering committee, as well as a mentor to some of the entrepreneurs. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life.
It’s so refreshing and inspiring to meet entrepreneurs that really want to make a difference. That are not driven by hype or financial rewards. It also reminds me time and time again what really matters in life, and how we take so many things, like our health, and personal independence for granted.
I recently met with one of the startup teams for our weekly mentorship session. We discussed the unique value proposition of their idea (we use the “Lean Startup” concept and Business Model Generation as our framework). I asked them to try and put themselves in the shoes of their target “customers”, and imagine how their lives will be different after they start using their proposed product, and why. What significant impact would that product have on the lives of their customers?
And then one of them said: “independence”. And that’s when it hit me. How we take this basic need for granted. We are so used to being independent in our lives. We can go anywhere; choose what to do and when; dress ourselves in any clothes we want; communicate with other people at will; shop for what we need. It’s hard for us to imagine our lives without this basic independence.
But that’s not the case for people with disabilities. They are not independent. Far from it. Moreover, their dependency on others is also adversely affecting their dignity and self-esteem. Many of them are courageously fighting for their own independence. But they need others to join that fight.
We need more programs like A3I and more entrepreneurs who are willing to make the commitment and sacrifices that are required in fighting for the everyday independence of people with disabilities, the same independence that we enjoy and have come to take for granted.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Looking for Mr. /Ms. Dependable

One of the main challenges for any organization is finding the right people. This is true no matter the size or type of organization, or the business it’s in.
It’s crucial for start-up companies where every person matters and hiring mistakes can be very costly.
In fact, I’ve written before that in my humble opinion, a leader’s most important task is to select the right people and place them in the right position within their organizations. That will enable the company to perform at its best and be successful in the long-run.
But who is the right person? What are the main attributes or skills that make her “the right person”? That is the most critical element of recruiting or selecting the right people for your team.
I personally place high value on people that are trustworthy; fast learners that can take initiatives and lead them; problem solvers (not just problem reporters); effective team players.
However, if I can only choose one attribute that sums up the kind of people I look for my team I would say: dependable.
These are the people that no matter what you know that you can rely on to get the job done. They will find a way, and they will always come through for you, and for their team.
The dependables are those you will take with you to any company you go to.

They are the backbone of your company. They are a select few, so if you are lucky enough to find them you must do what it takes to retain them.
As leaders we are only as good as the people we have on our team. That goes for companies too. My advice: find people you can depend on.
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