Got a business idea? Futurestart could get it off the ground

19 Oct, 2017

Now into its second year, Futurestart is returning to Wakefield’s Unity Works. Aimed at individuals and early-stage startups seeking tips, tools and advice on getting a tech business off the ground, the free pre-accelerator is an accessible five-day programme spread over the course of five weeks.

Run by Emma Cheshire, CEO of DotForge accelerator and co-founder of the Leeds-based Futurelabs co-working space, Futurestart covers essential topics for startups – such as finding a market fit, developing a business model and landing initial sales.

Its alumni include gift-buying website Remind2Find, which recently accompanied Tech North on a trip to eCommerce Show North, and coffee-rating app Perc Applications.

If you want to apply for Futurestart then you’ll have to move quick, as the deadline to apply is October 23. Succesful applicants will be announced within two weeks. The programme begins on November 14 and runs for five weeks.

We spoke to Cheshire to find out more.

What is the focus of Futurestart?

Emma Cheshire: The focus is really about helping teams that are not yet formed, as well as companies up to around three years old who probably don’t quite have all of the answers to exactly what their business is delivering. So, technology businesses that might have a product but not quite a good fit with their market audience just yet.

Futurestart is all about giving people tools they can use to solve some of those challenges. Then there’s also a strong piece around developing your business model and understanding how you might go for funding.

So it’s for companies that aren’t quite ready for a full-on accelerator?

That’s difficult to say, as some companies that go on a pre-accelerator could get onto an accelerator. But I think Futurestart is more about your current frame of mind – are you quite early on, and not really ready for three months of intensive business development, but you would like some tools and resources to refine what you’re doing? If so, it’s for you. With accelerators you need to be full-time and fully committed, but Futurestart is more for people who haven’t made that whole step.

It’s held over five evenings spread across five weeks, so people can do it after work. That makes it a different level of commitment, which is fundamental. As well as learning new tools, it will give you experience and you can have conversations with people who run businesses without committing to developing your company.

What will take place?

It will essentially be five different areas: We will look at how you really understand who your market is, how you develop a business model and what people will pay you, which is about mechanisms for realising the value in your business. We will also do some work on thinking about your team, the skills and the resources you need for your business – we haven’t done that before. It will also involve developing a sales pipeline and how you mechanise the process of building relationships with customers, landing them and making sales.

The final bit is about refining the positioning of the business – you may be raising money or thinking about pitching to different types of customers or looking to approach a bank. It’s about giving you some of the tools that will let you go to the next step.

Have you changed much about Futurestart compared to last year?

This year we have two lots of funding from Ad:Venture, so through working in partnership with Wakefield Council we’ve had access to some of that funding. That’s brilliant because it means Futurestart is free.

We did some evaluation and feedback with last year’s teams to fix things that didn’t work last time out, and build on what did.

Two companies from last year’s programme – Remind2Find and Perc Applications – said they found it useful…

Fundamentally, at its core, Futurestart gives people focus – they specifically get one day or evening a week to do their homework and really move the business on that bit further. When you build up that momentum with a business partner it’s easier to keep things going as you’ve solved some of the challenges that come with that.

I think that’s why we’ve seen a number of people use the process and then go on to launch an MVP within a couple of months, which is great. That’s where they want to be.

Wakefield Council’s Jim Farmery and Futurestart alumni Steven Binnion from Remind2find

Why was Wakefield (and West Yorkshire) chosen as the area for Futurestart?

It’s specifically because we have a partnership with Wakefield Council. They were keen to put themselves on the map, and Futurelabs is very keen to be a hub for some of the other tech hubs in the North of England; we want to make sure there is a connection between them.

I’m passionate about helping people who aren’t based in Leeds – they may live elsewhere with their family – and want to feel connected within the ecosystem. We should be helping people with that rather than pulling them to the city centre. Jim Farmery from the council and I have worked on various projects together over the last 10 years, so this has been quite a natural partnership.

Who is your ideal applicant?

It’s quite broad. We have people who haven’t really done anything other than some market research and formed something of a team. And then we’ve had others who have been running a product for 18 months and wanted help to validate some of the questions they had about the business; it can be any of those points in-between. Some companies are incorporated and quite a few aren’t.

Going back to my first point, I think it’s about your state of mind – if you’re ready and want to give your business a push and move it on, when you have something there but want to refine it, then five evenings can move you to where you want to be.

We’ve had a few businesses that went through a real wobble and did a complete pivot as they found out that what they were doing wasn’t valid. That’s important  – we don’t want people to waste their time – we always want to push them and keep moving their product on.

Do you recommend any reading materials for startups?

We lean heavily on The Mum Test by Rob Fitzpatrick – it’s a great little book that you can read in two hours. Everybody has to read it before they go on the course as we give it for homework, but I recommend that anybody picks it up as it’s a great starting point.

The other kind of go-to manual is The Lean Startup by Eric Rise – that’s still a bit of a classic in terms of things to think about. Both are great.

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