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Seedcamp: 5 hours to go ’til we pitch

It’s 8.20 am in London. At 2 pm we make our last pitch of the week to the Seedcamp board of investors. We have five minutes to present, followed by ten minutes of Q&A. In that time, we have to condense years of thinking, building and selling into the few brief points that really matter – the points that conjure the vision of a truly great business.

Regardless of the outcome, this has been a fantastic opportunity. We have discussed potential partnerships with three other Seedcamp companies, including Sparkeo, Wordy and Publisha. We have met with mentors who have already connected us with two of the top CEOs in world publishing. And we have met face t0 face with investors from at least ten different firms.

We also had a master class with Dave McClure on pitching to VCs. Another with Ryan Carson on simple ways to analyse powerful metrics. And another with Jos and Ben White, the entrepreneurs behind MessageLabs and Notion Capital who recently achieved a $700 million dollar exit.

The mentor sessions have probably been the most valuable part, but also the most exhausting. Each session is between 30 and 40 minutes. You begin with a short pitch and then you ask for feedback around specific topics. Frequently you’ll have a group that will be adamant that you must do X, Y and Z. And the very next group will insist that no matter what happens, you must not do X, Y and Z. It’s confusing, daunting and draining. But also inspiring, compelling and exhilarating. It requires thick skin and a calm head so you can sift through the conflicting advice and think about it objectively.

We’ve learned a ton of new stuff at Seedcamp. Gareth, Gavin, Barry and I will be bringing it all home and we have a plan for getting what’s in our heads into yours. It’s all part of a fantastic new project that Cognician is working on with Old Mutual and I’ll be telling you all about it very soon.

Good luck to all the Seedcamp teams today! Every one of you guys is brilliant and it’s been a pleasure sharing this experience with you. Let’s stay in touch and do great things!

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Why you should enter entrepreneurship competitions

Tic Tac Toe

Wikipedia: Creative Commons

Cognician has entered three competitions now: The Enablis Business Launchpad Competition, which is run by FNB; The Cape Town Activa Entrepreneurship Competition; and Seedcamp.

We weren’t recognised in the Enablis competition, but we did much better in the Cape Town Activa Entrepreneurship Competition, where we won the ideas track. And recently, after participating in Mini Seedcamp in Johannesubrg, we were invited to take part in Seedcamp Week in London.

So what do you get out of preparing for entrepreneurship competitions? Simplicity.

It’s easy to talk a hole through someone’s head and tell them nothing. And until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time and energy  on communicating your business strategy in the simplest possible way, that’s probably what you’re going to do. Now Barry and I frequently sit down to do nothing more than think through strategy. But we’ve found that filling in the application forms for competitions has helped us to distill our thinking into the kind of simple shorthand that clients and investors expect. When we started doing this, it was like explaining the rules of Risk. But you have to aim for a pitch that sounds like the rules of Tic Tac Toe.

You have to turn big ideas into small soundbites. Not only will people understand you better, but it helps you to spot where your ideas are thin. Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The word limits in competition application forms force you to explain things simply. And you’d be surprised how difficult they are to fill in for that reason. Oscar Wilde said it best in a long letter to a friend: “I apologise for the length of this letter. I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one.” It’s hard to express your ideas simply, clearly and briefly. And while putting a word limit on expressing your entire go-to-market strategy might not help you actually get to market quicker, it will certainly help you to explain your thinking to someone who is uninitiated. It will force you to assess your ideas for their true power and not for your ability to ramble on about them until your listeners are befuddled into agreeing with you.

I was initially surprised to hear that Mini Seedcamp in Johannesburg received only 40 applications. But then I thought back to the process of filling in the form and preparing a video demo, which took about six hours. They also set the bar quite high by explicitly stating that pedlars of vaporware need not apply. And then I realised that 40 applications is quite a lot for the number of local entrepreneurs who would have met the criteria and committed the amount of time it required to apply.

Seedcamp is different from the other competitions we’ve entered in that it is mostly a face-to-face experience. As I’ve said previously, it breaks the back of your pitching fitness, which is more than just a competition requirement. Of course, you don’t need competitions to prepare yourself for real business. But it certainly helps to test your ideas and your mettle in a safe environment before you stand up in front of customers.

We’ll be blogging and tweeting from Seedcamp Week in London so please follow @cognician for our company’s progress and @patrickkayton and @barrykayton for our personal reports.

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Cognician is going to Seedcamp Week in London

We are thrilled to finally be able to announce our attendance at Seedcamp Week in London from 13 to 17 September. The other teams have some incredible businesses and we can’t wait to meet with the founders. This is like a week-long Christmas for entrepreneurs. For five days we get to talk about our businesses and troubleshoot with some of the smartest industry experts around.

Also flying the SA flag in London are iSigned and Getagreatboss.com. If you haven’t heard of iSigned already, then let me make a prediction: within three years, you will use them to store just about every valuable document you own. And your annual admin around policy renewal and such will be cut in half. Good luck Gareth and Hendrik! As for Getagreatboss.com, the proposition gets everyone nodding: People join companies, but they leave bosses. We believe people should join companies because of GREAT bosses. Good luck, Gavin!

Thanks to Seedcamp for the opportunity! And thanks to Jack Kruger and Old Mutual for the help in getting us there. It really wouldn’t have been possible without you guys. Talk about a brand living up to it’s promise that with wisdom you can do great things. We promise you that we’ll do just that.

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The cog we made for Clay Shirky

At the Tech4Africa conference I had the pleasure of meeting Clay Shirky and demonstrating Cognician to him. He was impressed with Cognician and particularly keen to think about how he could use it with his students at NYU – perhaps to get them to make their own cogs as part of the learning process. He also suggested that there may be a link with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which is content that we’d love to have in Cognician.

I asked Clay if he had any content that we could adapt into a cog and he suggested his recent article, The Collapse of Complex Business Models. In the article he discusses how businesses that reach a certain level of complexity are incapable of becoming simpler. At that point, the simplest thing to do is to collapse. Barry and I discussed the best way to adapt the article and we settled on the angle of using the concepts that Clay identified as lenses with which to view your business. So people responsible for strategic planning could use the cog to pinpoint where they may be in danger of becoming too complex. Reading these early warning signs may just allow them to prevent the decline into complexity and collapse.

So we split the article into sections, which now appear in full in the Cognician sidebar. And we created questions based on the key concepts in the article. Working through the cog allows you to focus these questions on your own business. So now there are no excuses for reading Clay’s excellent article and doing nothing about it. Download the cog, put the ideas to use and think about how you can keep your business simple. It’s not a comprehensive tool and I doubt you’ll see it prescribed in any MBA courses, but it’s a good way to get to grips with some strong ideas.

You can download the The Collapse of Complex Business Models cog here.

And you can watch a video demo below:

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Cognician is a go!

Shhhh! The new Cognician.com has just gone live! [Cue miniature vuvuzela.] We’re happy to finally make the site public and, more importantly, we are proud to allow the Cognician app to say, “Hello world!”

We’ll be working with our beta testers for a while to pick out the bugs and make the whole user experience smoother before we trade in our miniature vuvuzela for something more like an electric, tuba-sized one. But don’t let that stop you from spreading the word. Almost everything works. And Cognician is ready to help you think better, further and faster.

There are only six cogs in our cog store at the moment. Five of them are free. Please download them and play with them and let us know what you think. In the coming weeks, we’ll be adding loads more. And in time the shelves will be stocked high with all kinds of cogs that will help you think more systematically about nearly any subject you can think of.

Although our journey has only just begun, there are many people we need to thank for getting us to this point. And for those we haven’t mentioned – and there are many – we remain hugely grateful. So thanks to:

Phillip and Simon Barber from Thought Faqtory for helping us out with programming. We’re really looking forward to working with you guys once we’re properly off the ground.

Werner Janse Van Rensburg, for the late, great work on our user interface.

Donovan Graham from SymfonySL for seeing the vision and for cracking on without hesitation so that we could get our business started. We’ve formed an excellent partnership and we’re thrilled to have you as part of our team.

To the ingenious Robert Stuttaford, who built Cognician. It took a rare combination of experience, talent, and vision to understand what we were on about. And congrats on being a dad!

To Craig and Ian Rodney from Emerging Media who have given so much time and energy to spreading the word.

To Justin Spratt, the patron saint of start-ups, and the team at ISLabs for all their support, intellectually and infra-structurally.

To our investors for all your advice and support. We’re going to make you even wealthier:)

And lastly to Betty, Laragh and Jill, the ladies in our lives, who have supported us through ridiculously long hours and seven-day weeks. We love you!

And now… Now the hard work really begins. Bring it on!

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Five things I learned about getting the most from Seedcamp

On the 11th of August, I had the opportunity to participate in Mini Seedcamp in Johannesburg. It was one of most stimulating days of my career and I would recommend doing whatever you can to take part. You’ll break the back of your pitching fitness. And you’ll get free advice from some of the smartest people in tech. Why on earth wouldn’t you want that?

Thanks so much to Reshma, Philipp and all the mentors and entrepreneurs for making it such an incredible day!

So what did I learn about how to get the most out of Mini Seedcamp?

1. Be prepared to get grilled

On the morning of Seedcamp, while we were still waiting for everyone to arrive, the first person I met was user experience legend, Andy Budd. I introduced myself and Andy asked what Cognician was about, so I cleared my throat and gave my first pitch of the day. In his cheery English voice, Andy said something along the lines of, “I don’t really get that.” So I smiled and took a breath and tried again. And again, almost singing this time, “No, that’s not really interesting to me.” So I tried another tack and once again, “No, I don’t think that’s gonna fly.” This lasted for about five minutes and it all happened amidst the scent of fresh coffee in the chilly Joburg air before the day had even begun. Is this really what the rest of the day was going to be like?

No, it wasn’t. Although it wasn’t the last tough pitch I’d make, most of the scheduled sessions were a lot smoother. Regrettably, I never got the chance to actually show Cognician to Andy, because he went on to give what I thought was the best presentation at the Tech4Africa conference the following day. To have his acumen focussed on my user interface for 30 minutes would have been invaluable. Even if I had to sit on my hands while he ripped it apart.

2. Know your mentors

Knowing your pitch is a given. Knowing your mentors is just as important. A few days before the event, Philipp Moehring sent out a list of mentors and suggested that we get in touch with them and learn what we could from their LinkedIn profiles and such. I managed to reach a few, but I didn’t spend enough time on the task. Although even the blind sessions went well, I feel like I missed a big opportunity by not doing my homework better on the few people I didn’t know.

3. Ask specific questions

You can’t get the best out of a mentor in 30 minutes unless you ask them to respond to something specific. Two of the best sessions for me were with Alex Hunter and Gareth Knight. Not because they’re super smart and experienced. But because they were able to focus their experience on very specific challenges. I asked Alex about early stage marketing options for Cognician and Gareth helped with structuring our site for SEO. While they couldn’t possibly download everything they know on these subjects, they gave me pretty good guidance on where to start.

4. Take notes

There is absolutely no way you’ll remember everything from the day if you don’t take notes. Either do voice recordings of each session – with your mentors’ permission, of course – or type or scribble in a Moleskine. You’ll find that all mentors will have contacts for you to reach or specific recommended actions or both and more. And if you don’t follow up on them, you’re just being silly. So remember to get their cards and get in touch.

Also, some of my best take-aways of the day didn’t come from specific people. They came from recognising patterns in my notes. I found that certain issues kept coming up. Some of which I didn’t think were so important until now.

5. Steer your own ship

I recently watched the original first series of Star Trek. It features storytelling that is sometimes sublime and sometimes ridiculous. But nearly always satisfying is the superbly crafted character of Captain James T Kirk. In Dagger of the Mind, Kirk deals with an overzealous crew member who feels his protests are not being heard by saying, “One of the advantages of being a Captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.” Kirk is a rock under pressure. He takes nothing personally. He knows that he alone is responsible for the fate of the Enterprise and he will take advice from anyone if it benefits his ship, his crew and his mission. And he will ignore advice if he thinks it is poor. And that’s how you should treat your sessions with mentors. Be sincere, considerate, confident, grateful and humble. Being either arrogant or dismissive will get you nowhere. If you get a grilling, just be thick-skinned and remember that you are the one who is responsible for steering your ship.

Did I really have to mention Captain Kirk? No. Am I a geek? You bet your last Federation credit I am.

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