"So what’s your exit?" is a classic question experienced investors ask startup founders at the end of a pitch; meaning, "what’s the payback?" but also, "do you plan to be acquired? Will you IPO? Is this the rest of your life or just the next three years?" Sometimes it’s asked to deliberately rattle you, other times it’s a gentle prod to encourage you to think about the future.
Not just the immediate future of feature requests, bugs, visitor conversion rates and unpaid bills, but also about the distant future — about how you want your startup journey to end.
It’s always a good idea to have a goal for your exit. Startups are a team journey, shared by you, your co-founders, investors, employees and customers. If you don’t share the same definition of a successful end to the journey it can break the startup apart before the exit arises. It can break up close friends when one group of founders/investors gets the exit they hoped for, while the others would have preferred another way out. Agreeing on how to end this before you begin is just smart planning.
So as experienced startup co-founders, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that when we started The New Agency we didn’t have an exit in mind; in fact, we didn’t even have an entrance in mind!
At the time, we were between opportunities, knew each other well, and we knew we had some skills and experience the nascent Australian startup industry could benefit from.
We wanted to design a service business that could help startup entrepreneurs get their startups started, but we didn’t know what that really looked like.
A rare TNA team get-together. Left to right: Torsten (back of his head anyway), Rai, Tony, Andy, Loic, Oliver, Jim, Jinka, Steven and Zach (the hand holding a bottle of Little Creatures).
A lean service agency for startups
The New Agency became an exercise in lean startup methodology applied to agency service design — what was most essential to servicing our startup customers? What could we leave out that would allow us to be leaner, agile, more profitable and responsive?
Most of the trappings of a traditional digital agency went out the window before we even opened the door — no glamorous city offices, no beautiful receptionist at a spotless desk in a reception area from a photo book on Italian Modernist design. No eccentric meeting rooms for our masses of employees. In fact, no employees at all, other than the two of us.
Some of what we added in was working in the cloud with independent experts drawn from the startup community around us — coders, designers and growth-hackers at first, and gradually as we expanded, adding product management, media relations, social media, even a lawyer and a CFO.
That was scary at first —for us and for some of our clients — as there’s no question a room full of busy people makes you feel like work is being done. But busy people cost you salaries and desk space whether they’re really busy or just trying hard to look that way. And traditional full-time employment just doesn’t scale up or down as efficiently as working on a project basis with other people in the cloud, especially when they’re proficient with cloud-based tools for communication, project management, collaboration and billing.
Future of employment
Yesterday, Tony and I met Bruno and Jim for quick pre-workshop coffee, and it was the first time I’d seen either of them face-to-face in months, but it didn’t matter — we’re so enmeshed in each other’s personal and professional life streams these days there’s almost nothing to catch up on when we’re face-to-face.
The four of us took the elevator up to the offices of a new client, and delivered a half-day workshop intended to refine the scope of a new startup venture for a 100 year-old professional services firm taking advantage of the internet’s ability to disrupt industries.
And we killed it! I mean, we totally killed it. It was inspiring to watch these guys fluently, expertly filling in the gaps, challenging the assumptions and drilling down to the core value. In the space of a couple of hours a whole new business came into focus across whiteboards, Post-It notes and drawing paper. Overnight and today it starts chunking up into sub-projects, estimates, deliverables and timeframes even though Tony and I are in Newport and the city, Jim’s in Milson’s Point and Bruno’s back on his farm near Dorrigo.
Working this way is future of employment for more of us than you’d imagine. But as William Gibson once said, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. You may not get to experience it for a few more years, but it’s coming, believe me.
And why the exit
While we’ve been killing it most days since we started The New Agency, there have been times when we’ve wondered how we could scale the business to such a size that maybe we could take a little money out of the business as a reward for all our hard work. We figured we had to be about 10x our current turnover to achieve that.
One alternative (call it “A”) we’ve explored was to raise money from investors looking to back a new kind of service agency. It would mean less flexibility in the sine curve which describes our growth and more pressure, not less, to succeed.
Another alternative (“B”) was to raise money from investors looking to invest in the early-stage startups we bring to market, like our mates at Pollenizer and BlueChilli have done. It’s gotten a lot easier since they raised their funds, but there’s still a lot of heavy lifting, and honestly, we didn’t fancy competing directly with BlueChilli and Pollenizer — those guys are just too like-a-boss, and good friends.
Which meant there was one alternative left — “C” smash our shit together with somebody who’d already successfully made option A or B work.
Which is why yesterday, you may have read that The New Agency has been acquired by BlueChilli, effective immediately, with a transition over the next four months in which we hope to complete ongoing client projects, some new short-term project leads, and set some up to be delivered by BlueChilli’s services arm, BlueChilliX.
I’m going to revel in the glorious title of Chief Growth Hacker at BlueChilli, responsible for helping our startups market themselves, communicate with audiences of customers, partners, investors, industry and media. As COO, Tony will be the rock upon which systems, processes and people build BlueChilli’s startups, just as he has done for the past two years co-founding The New Agency. CEO Seb Eckersley-Maslin will be able to focus more on 10x-ing BlueChilli’s growth, investment and relationships with industry and government.
Left to right: Tony Burrett, Seb Eckersley-Maslin, and I announcing the acquisition.
So two years into The New Agency journey, we’ve found an exit. We didn’t set out with an exit in mind, but the next step in the journey for what we wanted to achieve is an exit.
Tony and I like to thank an awesome cloud of expert startup practitioners and supporting professionals who have helped us build a new kind of business for a new economy:
One of the most inspiring pitches delivered at this year’s Tech23 startup event in Sydney on 29 October was from Marita Cheng, the dynamic and inspiring founder of 2Mar Robotics, which designs and manufactures a voice and iPhone-controlled robot arm for people with spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s.
This 2012 Young Australian of the Year has made amazing progress on delivering her vision for a simple, cheap and effective prosthetic limb in the short time since establishing her venture in April 2013 and for the progress she’s made we awarded her our Best Growth Hacking and Bootstrapping Prize to the value of $4,888.
Supporting the efforts of determined, talented startup founders is what we do. Good on you, Marita!
For months now we’ve been planning to write a lengthy blog post featuring all the cloud tools, mobile apps and stuff we use to deliver lean startup success rapidly and remotely.
But the days keep ticking by and the post doesn’t get published. So we’re breaking the task down into sub-tasks and we’ll make more progress by updating you on a tool-by-tool basis that you can follow along via the hashtag #toolday.
Today’s tool is Redpen.io, a simple tool for collecting feedback on visual design work. Like our favourite bug tracking tool, Bugherd, Redpen lets technical and non-technical users alike just click somewhere on the page to drop a pushpin and popup a comment box that automatically records who’s commenting and when.
To share a design and collect feedback, just drag your image file onto the Redpen page and it’ll upload and give you a short URL to copy and paste into an email, message thread, etc. You’ll be notified of comments as they’re posted.
Redpen is the work of Aussie startup collective The Pistachio Collective and we’re officially huge fans. Give Redpen a try.
How do I find out more?
Drop us an email at email@example.com and we’ll be happy to discuss your needs and the options available in the coming months.
Sadly our sponsorship of Aussie kayaker Ros Lawrence’s European summer campaign didn’t result in a second win in the Sickline extreme kayaking event as she’d hoped, but she did score an awesome fourth place and showed massive courage in recovering from some horrendous spills. Well done to Sportaroo for building a great web platform for athletes and sporting teams to fund their pursuit via a closer relationship with their supporters and fans.
We’re excited to return for our second year as a prize sponsor of Tech23, arguably Australia’s biggest tech startup event in terms of rewards on offer to the startups pitching and exhibiting.
Our "Best Growth-Hacking and Bootstrapping" prize package goes to the startup we judge has done the best job of using minimal cash, resources and time to prove their lean canvas hypotheses and find a product/customer fit that will get them to early revenue.
The package includes:
Maybe after a hard day working on your lean startup, the last thing you want to do is watch a film about a startup. But we found this documentary on the inside story of one of the world’s most intriguing startups entertaining as well as educational, inspiring and motivating.
‘Crocodile in the Yangtze: A Westerner Inside China’s Alibaba.com‘ follows China’s first Internet entrepreneur and former English teacher, Jack Ma, as he battles eBay and wins, building China’s first global web success, Alibaba Group.
The film is by Porter Erisman, an American who ran international marcoms for Ma’s company for eight years.
The film candidly covers the successes and the mistakes Alibaba encountered as it grew from a team of 17 crammed into a small apartment into a global company employing 16,000 staff.
Porter Erisman is coming to Australia for this exclusive screening as well and TNA’s Alan Jones be interviewing him in a Q&A session afterwards. Miss Alan, by all means, but don’t miss this film. Get your preview tickets now:
Tomorrow we will be running a workshop on pitching for startups at the inaugural Tasmanian Startup Bootcamp in sunny Hobart* leading up to a big competitive pitch event on Friday night. If you’re in Hobart (and somebody clearly is) please do come along.
The bootcamp is part of a broader initiative by Startup Tasmania to promote and support startup businesses across the state.
(*”Sunny Hobart” is defined as any day over 10 degrees centigrade)
Despite the inclement weather we’re always keen to be early on the ground any time a new startup community kicks off in regional Australia. We were there at the beginning of Newcastle’s startup community and more recently, Adelaide’s.
The best ideas and the best people are often to be found in the newest startup communities, perhaps honed to a razor-sharp edge by the isolation and lack of support.
The @thenewagencyau coffee bush has flowered! Now taking orders for Sydney’s most micro microbrew ;-)
TNA’s Alan Jones will be joining the roster of mentors helping Brisbane’s tech startup entrepreneurs develop their startup ideas at iLab October 3rd.
If you can’t make it to MentorBlaze but would like to get some mentoring time anyway, don’t forget you can book time for live videoconference mentoring with Alan on Clarity.
Hang on tight while we grab the next page