12th June 2018

Introducing Ourselves: We’re launching a venture studio.

Leo Mercier

Leo Mercier

Midway between a product studio, fund and incubator, we’ll be working with entrepreneurs and companies to fund, build and scale startups.

We’re building a new company. What follows is an introduction to what it is, the concept of a venture studio, the thinking that got us here and our story so far. We’ll be writing more about it over the next few months. And you never know — hopefully there’ll be some useful ideas we’ve picked up over the last couple of years, spent building digital products for clients big and small.

What’s the plan?

TLDR: We’re launching a venture studio. It’s called Ourselves. We build digital startups from scratch.

Midway between a product studio, fund and incubator, we’ll be working with entrepreneurs and companies to fund, build and scale startups. That means taking an idea from a few words on a pitch deck to a real-life company with a product, team and customers.

We’ll own equity in all ventures, and make our money on the upside of the successful ones.

We’re putting together a team of talented people to deliver the work needed to get each venture off the ground. Sound like an agency? It should do — with the right people and culture the agency model produces great work consistently.

Our plan is to harness that consistency to create valuable companies. By having a team to create the products, strategy and culture at the heart of each venture, we can ensure every venture ships a winning product built to solve real user problems. We’ll focus on building them up to the point where they’re ready to fly the nest as stand-alone businesses.

We’ll have a group of investors to provide key early stage capital, and offer their voice and mentorship to the ventures. Raising money is a crucial task for early startups. By providing seed funding in tandem with a process for building the products, we’ll reduce the friction in deciding how and where money is best spent.

Startups have a lifecycle. We’ll be focusing on the earliest stages when the most work can be done to maximise the probability of success. By accounting for the typical early speed-bumps, we can lower the failure rate and focus on what’s important — scaling the business.

We aim to build up a group of ventures, getting bigger and better with each one. This is the key advantage to the venture studio model — the leveraging of institutional knowledge to build new companies.

The ventures

What kinds of ventures will we build? There’s no set criteria, but our focus will be on high-growth digital ventures that can be rapidly scaled.

That’s the vision. In simple terms, we aim to work on ventures that are doing something different, with interesting people and that are, above all, exciting.

Technology is exciting. Now is the time to be building digital products, and the barriers to entry — starting a company, learning a new technology, working with inspirational people wherever they are in the world — have never been lower.

Digital products are uniquely powerful tools — they can solve problems on an unprecedented scale and create new markets where none existed before. We aim to build products that do both.

The story so far

The story behind Ourselves is less epic: two best friends running an award-winning digital product studio.

A few years ago we decided to start a business. We had some ideas and enough bravado (justified or otherwise) to make the leap.

Starting with our own product ideas, we pivoted early on to become a product studio working for clients. Since then we’ve built up a successful business with clients around the world and a string of (in our humble opinion) great projects under our belts.

We’ve worked in some interesting and unusual areas. To name a few: a blockchain product for an energy giant, a co-working startup, a chatbot dispensing IVF advice, a political data consultancy (no, not Cambridge Analytica), remote education in rural Abu Dhabi, launching a swimwear brand.

Along the way we’ve learnt a thing or two about building products, running a business and the good and bad ways to launch startups. Our major insight is that while there’s no hard and fast formula, there is something like a “science” to building digital companies. It’s a system and philosophy which great startups discover, and which good agencies sell, in small chunks, to clients.

We decided to build a company around this insight. Ourselves is that company.

How do you identify a good idea?

Everyone (and their dog) has a startup idea, how do you know when one has legs as a business? The truth is there’s no simple answer — startups succeed and fail for many reasons.

But that’s not to say it’s impossible — venture capital firms exist to spot ideas that have the potential to transform industries. Whether a startup delivers on that comes down to execution, but identifying which have the raw potential to work is crucial. Most startup founders are too invested in their own idea to look at it objectively – and admit that it might be wrong.

The reality is that most startups shouldn’t be built, because they aren’t working on a problem worth solving.

For the minority that are worth pursuing, there are two things you need to know before you start:

  • Is there a demand for a product that solves this problem?
  • Will our product solve that problem successfully?

That’s square one. There are many other things to consider — market size, growth strategy, risks — but that’s the cornerstone.

So how do you find that out with enough confidence to bet time, money and your reputation on? Our answer is simple. Try it out.

Put together a landing page for what the product could look like, then measure the response. Build a prototype and get feedback from users. Research the technology. Look at the data. Speak to the company that might be your first client.

This can be done before spending any time doing the hard bit — building the actual product.

More than that, you’ll discover things that you hadn’t thought of, or were obscured by the narrative you’d sold yourself on. Getting an idea out of your echo chamber and in front of real people is the easiest way to get a sense of it’s potential. It doesn’t work for every idea, but it forms part of a wider approach that prioritises evidence over intuition. This is a key idea— many startups pivot when they realise that what they’re doing isn’t going to work, but that a different direction might.

So how do you run these experiments? A landing page can say anything. A prototype can simulate anything. By looking at multiple variations of product you can test how alternative directions might play in the market. All before you’ve gone down the rabbit hole building a business that’s cast off in the wrong direction.

Central to our process will be spending time doing this research before moving forward with any venture. Those that don’t make the grade are cut, those that do have a solid base of objective research on which to build the product and raise money.

Building a great product

This isn’t easy. It takes talented people, a clear vision and the right approach. Product agencies and established startups take years to learn how to do it. We know because we’ve been on that journey, learning hard and incredibly useful lessons along the way.

Building this capability from scratch is a challenge. Building it as a founder under conditions of uncertainty, with pressure from investors and fast-moving competitors is uniquely difficult.

It’s one of the main reasons startups fail — they can’t get a good enough product out the door.

The process we’ve developed as a digital agency at Crowdform is built on some widely understood principles — human centred-design, agile, lean — to name a few. They’re a set of tools designed, in a broad sense, to solve problems through “continuous innovation”. You start with a set of assumptions, rapidly test your hypotheses, then use your findings to build better products on a quick turnaround.

Everyone knows about these ideas, only a few companies implement them successfully. It takes more than just regurgitating the jargon. You need to internalise an approach which is experimental, smart and based on knowledge of the technology you’re working with. That’s how we deliver great work.

You need a winning approach. You also need talented people doing their best work.

This gets to a core truth of successful projects — execution is everything.

Alone, a good idea is necessary but not sufficient. It only counts if you can turn it into a product that actually solves a problem for real people in a profitable, scalable way.

By having a team of talented people that already know how to build great products, the defining advantage of a venture builder is that it can consistently deliver on the potential of good ideas.

This removes another main reason for early failure (alongside absence of demand) — a poor product.

The venture studio model

Venture capital firms have their origins in ’50s Silicon Valley. Internet startups emerged in the late ’90s. Digital product agencies are a feature of the last decade. Incubators are an even more recent invention.

The venture builder model, which combines all of these, is something new.

There are some amazing examples already out there — Rocket Internet is the best known — but it’s still a novel business model on the cusp of breaking through.

A venture studio is all about the people that make it work. It’s built on the entrepreneurs, talent and investors that turn vision into businesses. Successful ventures are the end product.

It’s a model that aligns the interests of all stakeholders, and is built for the demands of a rapidly changing landscape — for startups, agencies and investors alike . The goal is to build great companies that solve real problems. What could be more interesting to work on than that?

What’s next?

So that’s what we’re doing. There’s plenty more to talk about (which we’ll be doing over the coming months), but that’s the long and short of it. We’ve got exciting news in the pipeline about the first ventures and will be launching our website soon.

  • What do you think about the venture studio model?
  • What do you love and hate about working on new companies?
  • What’s the best way to predict startup success?

We’re looking for people to help us build Ourselves. If you’d be interested in joining our team, investing in our ventures or building a venture with us let’s talk at hello@ourselv.es.

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Crowdform is a digital agency based in London. We’re a multidisciplinary team that builds websites, apps and digital products.