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This article was first published on 5/3/14 in Tech City Insider.
Why do it?
Starting a business can an exhilarating experience, the thrill that comes from taking an idea and making it reality is a heady thing. The flip-side of the thrill for many entrepreneurs is the sense of trepidation, a young business is a fragile thing that can be snuffed out in a host of different ways, not least of which the entrepreneur’s own mistakes or miss-steps. Avoiding these pitfalls takes two things – good networks and good advice. Triage was the result of an idea to tackle both.
The Tech City thing
Up until 2010, “Silicon Roundabout” was plugging away nicely as a small but growing digital start-up hub. Things changed in November of that year when the Prime Minister proclaimed the area for Britain and renamed it Tech City. Three years on I believe this transformational act has been hugely beneficial, but at the time the bemused citizens of Shoreditch weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. Some were concerned they had become pawns in a political game, others saw huge potential for London to claim a place on the world stage.
It’s who you know
At the time I was studying an MBA at nearby Cass Business School and was rather desperately casting around for a dissertation topic and struck upon the idea of researching the business networks in the area. It’s common wisdom that for a technology cluster to succeed it is vital that business networks are open and collaborative. From the initial stages of my research in early 2011 I came to the belief that East London was a bit of a closed shop – there were quality networks, but it was difficult for newcomers to access them. Through the hard work of many people and organisations over the last few years, this has changed. Today newcomers can get a feel for the business networks quickly and it’s not too hard to figure out who is who. Networking with entrepreneurs like yourself has become easier than ever but this has created a problem. If they are just like you, chances are they’re stuck with the same problems as you – getting good advice when you don’t have the resources to pay for it.
It’s also what you know
My networks research also turned up problems with skills and knowledge gaps – as a marketer I noticed a lack of marketing knowledge, and I guessed was this problem ran into other areas. Certainly the conversations I was having with investors seemed to bear this out. Knowledge for entrepreneurs is tricky. No one comes to entrepreneurship with a full skill set and often the resources to pay for advisors don’t exist either, so we seek advice. In the start-up world there’s no shortage of advice, from sources as diverse as online forums and the person sitting next to you in the pub. The challenge for entrepreneurs is knowing good advice from bad, whether it applies to their specific situation, and whether it applies at their specific point of development. For example, you have an idea about a product, before you spend 6 months building it, a quick chat with an experienced investor would be invaluable.
I saw this problem of networks and knowledge and wanted to do something about it and finding a way to put experienced advisors in front of entrepreneurs seems to make sense. There’s nothing particularly novel about the idea of an advice “brokerage”, but by putting things together I saw an opportunity to help the entrepreneurs who most needed advice:
- There are any number of mentoring services in Tech City, but for the most part they help businesses who are a bit more developed and need ongoing one to one help. Triage is about quick interventions.
- There are also a number of office hours services put on by everyone from VCs to law firms, but these are not always available exactly when the entrepreneur needs them. Triage delivers access to experts within a couple of days.
- There are dozens of meetups where you can go for advice, but can you really trust the advice you’re receiving? Triage is backed by highly experienced volunteers.
The first two points are resolved by the Triage booking service. The third point was left unanswered until mid-2013 when Russ Shaw launched Tech London Advocates. Russ’ vision of hundreds of industry experts all dedicated to the advancement of tech was inspiring… and the thought of a captive pool of highly experienced, credible and motivated people was exactly the thing Triage needed to make it work. Luckily Russ liked the idea as well.
So how does it work?
- To access the service, you only need to register here once, then you can pop in whenever you like.
- We have set up a physical location –we have a desk in TechHub@Campus (thank you guys!) which is open 9am to 1pm weekdays and if the service proves successful we hope to open more desks in more locations.
- Upon arrival at Triage, you’ll have an initial discussion with the Advocate on the Desk, and depending on what sort of advice you need, they’ll set up a meeting with the next available specialist Advocate, usually within a day or two.
- Typically these meetings are half an hour or so – sufficient time to cover the problem, but sufficiently short to keep the meeting focused.
Why all the face to face?
Like most tech people I believe in disintermediation. However sometimes face to face is better; when you are sick might go online to check up on your symptoms, but ultimately you’ll go see a doctor. Triage is designed knowing the value of face to face contact for networking purposes. So the Initial Meeting in TechHub gives you a chance to discuss your problems with an experienced Advocate, perhaps they’ll turn up something you hadn’t considered, likewise for the Specialist Meetings.
A final word
Triage would not have been possible with enormous amounts of help from a lot of people, but specifically all the Advocates who volunteered half a day per month to work the Desk or an hour a month of their time for Specialist Meetings. I can’t thank them enough. To the entrepreneurs, I’d hope you’ll use Triage whenever you need it and hope you find it valuable, if you have any suggestions please do Tweet us, but remember that it’s provided by volunteers, so please respect people’s time and read the Triage code of conduct on the registration page.