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Startup of the Week: Sideways 6 – How the "mum test" can help build a winning startup

This week ITProPortal had the pleasure of sitting down with Will Read, founder of ideation network venture Sideways 6. Before his foray into the tech entrepreneur landscape, Will spent 18 months on a graduate scheme with a large media company. Will's frustration with the lack of innovation and employee engagement reached critical mass, and he quit.

Thankfully working at the media company not only inspired Will's idea for a professional ideas-sharing application, but also highlighted the kind of company that he wanted to be a part of. In our interview Will shared with us his insights about the inspiration process, why you can't trust your mother, and the best time to start your enterprise.

Productive "pub chat"

One of the things that stood out to me was when Will mentioned how important the pub was to the formation of Sideways 6. After six months of "pub chat" with Will's mentor (and then boss), Richard Ackerman, they decided to "give it a go" and form a company.

Will spoke about how being able to talk freely and without judgement enabled the duo to spot opportunities in the market and constructively shoot down or develop ideas.

"You have to be really brave to go at it alone and be a single founder, and I guess that's where you don't get the benefit of mulling an idea over a few drinks," he said.

In reality, a pub chat is simply about being in a creative social space, Will explains.

"You have to test ideas and assumptions and the quickest and easiest way of testing an assumption is to tell your friends. Not tell your friends because they'd be nice about it, but to do the 'mum test.'"

Your mother gives terrible advice

Having never heard of the "mum test" I probed deeper: "The mum test is about getting to the questions that when asked even your mum would tell you if it's a good idea or not" Will told me. He recommended that any product developer should read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. The book is about how to ask questions that provide an actual critique of your product, and effectively utilise customer surveys.

Naturally any idea you present your mum with is likely to elicit an enormously positive response with little regard to how good the idea actually is. Will gave an example, "If I'm trying to start a company selling a two-pint glass, and I'm saying 'so do you think you'd buy a great two-pint glass that would be more fun and wacky, and that sort of stuff?' Half the people would be like 'yeah I suppose so, I would like that' but you're not actually scratching an itch."

Instead of asking "do you think you would...?" Ask "Can you think of a time when...?" Will further elucidated, "When was the last time that you wanted a drink that was more than a pint? And they'll say 'I dunno really, a pint kind-of does me' and you kill your idea, but you don't waste time". "You can conjure up ideas in people's heads but until they're actually handing over a cheque to you, it's not a business," he stressed.

The route to business

Will Read is part of the new wave of entrepreneurs currently flooding London. Intelligent, passionate, and willing to have a go, Will quit his graduate scheme and, on a whim, applied for the NEF (New Entrepreneurs Foundation).

However impulsive Will's decision was to join the NEF was it certainly wasn't random: "growing up I'd always wanted to be an entrepreneur, doing something of my own or be part of something exciting and growing." Part of the NEF's program is pairing participants with host companies that help develop the 'Neffers' business acumen. "I started working [an] internal communications consultancy with Richard [Ackerman]".

After several months of the aforementioned pub chat Richard backed Will and Will founded Sideways 6.

Should you quit your job?

Despite Will's route he admitted that he was naïve in his decision "I should've spoken to the graduates that were a year, two years, three years ahead of me... if I had gone for a coffee with three of them and tried to find out what kind of people they are, how they were enjoying things, and that kind of thing, then I probably could've worked out that it wasn't for me."

The hiring process for graduate schemes often asks for "'entrepreneurial' people that want to do this, this and this" however "that was window dressing and what they actually wanted was highly capable people," Will unveiled. "You can explore what there is for you, I know people on my graduate scheme who've moved off it to positions [in the same media company] where they feel more fulfilled and that was through asking [for a change]."

Despite his earlier protests to a mother's advice, Will explain how he came to his decision to quit: "I spoke to my Mum, and she said 'do you want your manager's job?' I said no, she said 'do you want your manager's manager's job?' I said no, she said 'it doesn't sound like there's much more to say'"

The insecurity of job "security"

The biggest barrier for most when it comes to pursuing their startup dreams is the risk of losing a stable income. However Will believes that "working in a startup isn't inherently near as risky as it has been in the past," largely due to the fact that "the startup culture in London is ripe. There's investment, there's startups that have gotten investment that you can go and work on, thousands of great SMEs [small and medium enterprises] you can work for."

Particularly for graduates the risk in starting a business is minimal; "this is the time when you've got the least things to worry about. When I was with a big corporate my rent was pretty low, I didn't have children, wife. I didn't have anything to worry about apart from paying rent and feeding myself," said Will.

He concluded, "The marketing power of large organisations helps get graduates coming out of universities, but there are thousands of other options that are just as stable, just as worthy."

The key to inspiration? Work an unfulfilling job

When I asked Will what exactly lead to inspiring Sideways 6 he told me: "I guess it was more a collection of times when I thought I had some good ideas. I thought I could influence what was going on around me, and maybe even had ideas that were a couple of ranks above me in the organisation. Or ideas that might benefit a part of the business that I don't work on day-to-day, and there was no way for me to feed that back."

Similarly "It felt like the organisations culture discouraged [staff feedback], and if I went up to my manager and said 'I really think we should be doing this', they'll be like "OK, I'm glad you think that but it's not your business." That stayed with me and I grew increasingly frustrated and left." Will shared.

Whilst Will's old company shunned staff feedback, others were chomping at the bit to get their hands on an easy way for staff to share and discuss ideas.

"When I was working at the internal communications consultancy, we had people coming to us who needed bespoke systems"

Will then told us that the brief was always very similar.

"The systems needed to be able to set challenges, collect ideas from across the business, and people should be able to submit their ideas from another part of the business."

Turning inspiration into a product

Upon seeing the value of a platform that facilitated an ideation network Will thought "we should productise this," but "there are a few big products out there on the market. So the question was 'why aren't people using these products?', 'why are multiple large organisations coming to us to build bespoke tools?'"

Using his new-found "mum test" questioning prowess Will deduced that "these people wanted something different to what was on the market," furthermore he found that businesses "don't want over-engineered, too-many options, too-many-thing-to-configure software. They do want simple, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin software."

Time to start up your startup?

Despite our conversation being chock-a-block with interesting tidbits and advice for startups, I've collated my three favourite pieces of advice that Will revealed in our conversation:

  • "It's all about testing your assumptions so you don't waste time, effort, and money on something that will essentially fail"
  • "Have conversations and if you don't think they're valid make 30 of the product and try to sell them, and just see if people respond to what you're trying to do, and just scale up from there."
  • "You need to do the smallest thing to prove that your business could succeed"

Will shared his crucial tip to running a business: "Make sure you aren't the smartest person in the room". He explained further "You need to surround yourself with good people, who can give you very good advice, who can stretch you. People who ask you when you're doing things, people who hold you to account when you promise to do something, people who are able to give you advice because they've been there and done that."

Look out for our next Startup of the Week feature, next week, and of course if you're part of a growing business yourself, let us know using the Contact tab below.