Nic Lawrence: Hard Won Lessons on an 18 Year Rollercoaster Ride

Nic will share some of the key points of his 18 year journey building Light Blue Optics (now Kaptivo), the hardware startup he started with three colleagues from his university research group in 2004. 

They saw the potential to combine emerging display technologies to develop holographic digital projectors. Over 18 years he’s navigated multiple product pivots and funding rounds, he’s been CEO three times, sold the company four times, and finally exited the business in April 2022.

Nic discusses why some of the ideas he picked up at BoS Conference were hard to implement in a hardware business and some of the key lessons he will bring to his next venture.

Find Nic’s talk slides, video, transcript, and more from Nic below.

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Can you hear me okay? Okay, so I got asked to speak relatively late on, maybe 10 days ago, something like that, mainly probably because I’d just finished an 18 year startup adventure roller coaster. And as part of my self therapy, I thought I’d write a blog post and post it on LinkedIn. And Mark saw it, and I’ve been to BoS a few times. And I’m a big fan. So I got invited at the last minute. So it’s not gonna be the most polished presentation that you’ve seen over the last few days. And if I have been yawning in your talk, that’s because I’ve been staying up too late to finish my slides. I’m sorry about that.

But I can honestly say, I’m living the dream at the moment. Unfortunately, it’s that dream while you’re standing on stage. And there’s lots of people looking at you, you don’t know what you’re gonna say, luckily, I am dressed so that’s good. I don’t know what dream you have when everything feels a little bit out of control. Mine is I’m driving a double decker bus. But unfortunately, I’m driving it from the backseat on the top floor, you can’t really see where you’re going, you’re running people over. So I’d love to know, maybe later over coffee, what your out of control dream is.

So here is what I’m going to talk about. I have a lot of slides, but I tend to go quite quick. So we’re going to start with a little bit of background, who I am, why am I here? What am I going to talk about? I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I’ve been doing for last 18 years. And I think to try and make it less my life story and a little bit, hopefully useful. I’m gonna try and say, of the many, many things I’ve learned, I guess a lot of them have come from BoS. And I’ve often come here. And I’ve had usually two or three talks in particular, sticking my head, I’ll try and take them away and apply them. And it’s been hard. One of the reasons being, is this the business of software, and I’ve generally run hardware companies, so it’s not always obvious how it translates. So that’s the structure. And at the end, I’m going to say, alright, what am I doing now? Have I learned anything from all these years, and I’m gonna give you the two page, very simple overview of what my new company is, which I’ve had to totally rewrite the copy of thanks to the talk earlier. So it’s still rubbish, but it’s less rubbish than it was before.

Okay, so here’s a bit of background. So you can tell from my accent, I’m not a Cambridge boy. I still say grass and path; I grew up in Darby. We would call people that we bumped in to in the street duck. That’s how we greet people. If you have a bread roll, we’d call it a cob. So you can map the whole of the UK based on how we use those words. I don’t know I’m looking at that and look down here. So I went to a big school. And one of the things I’ve learned over these last two days is some words that helped me to explain my experience, actually. So I think my biggest I had a very, very blessed childhood, really very lucky childhood. And I think the thing that my childhood and school life gave me actually was psychological safety.

Because I really liked school. It was fun. I was almost as tall from age 12. So I didn’t get bullied that much. But because I felt comfortable, I guess, I was always that kid who asked lots of questions. Why is it like this? And if I didn’t understand anything, I was usually brave enough to say, I don’t understand. Tell me about it. Which I think people who are American always ask me, What are your what’s your superpower? And I think asking questions is probably my superpower. So I generally don’t care. Whether you want to be asked a question, I’ll ask a question. One of my geeky secrets as a teenager was because I live so close to school, like a pop home for lunch. And I put the business news on. I don’t know why I just thought it was interesting.

So I’ve always had a slight interest in companies and starting a company. I learned very early what sort of company I didn’t want to work for because I wanted to get sponsored through university A and I applied to lots of ones and the ones that offered me the best perk was British Rail research. So I got a five year free train pass, travel anywhere in the UK, which is a really cool perk as a student. And I learned that I didn’t really want to work for a company like that afterwards, because it was lots of things I didn’t like. Unfortunately, I didn’t think any jobs that I saw were what I like. So I ended up staying at University for 10 years and the end. So I did engineering, I did a PhD. Everyone told me, I couldn’t do a PhD because I hadn’t got a first. Luckily, someone dropped out at the last minute.

So I did one. And I loved it. And the reason I liked it was we had lots of freedom to just explore crazy ideas, talk to interesting people. And the it was round about the late 90s, early 2000s. It was the internet froth and stuff I did my first startup with a mate from university, which had zero business model, but we had great fun, we built things, he went off to be some massive cheese in McKinsey. And I stayed and built small companies as a job. But my biggest learning actually, from that time was, it doesn’t really matter what you don’t know. Because now they’ve invented search engines, you can actually teach yourself, you can Google it. And before you know it, you can blog it and do it. And that was a really useful thing. For me, that was my big takeaway from university.

What it is to be an Expert.

So I was actively trying to avoid getting a proper job. And I ended up starting a company with three mates from my research group. And during my PhD, ended up writing a paper which sort of summarise what I’d come up with. And I presented it at a conference and actually won a student paper award and they invited me to go to America to get an award. It’s all very exciting. And this guy was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. And I’d never met him before I didn’t know anything about him. But he gave a talk, which absolutely stuck in my head forever. So he’s one of my heroes.

So Professor Roger Hunt is a world expert. He was a world expert on colour science, so very niche. But he defined what it is to be an expert. So he said, an expert is someone who’s made every possible mistake in a very narrow field. And I really liked that I thought that was brilliant. And the longer I’ve gone on, the more that’s resonated. So I have, I am becoming an expert on running a startup because I have made a lot of mistakes. So that’s how you learn, isn’t it? So some of what I’m going to talk about is some of the bad things I’ve done or the things I’ve learned along the way.

So in terms of what I have been doing, the company that we started is mission was to put a laser base video projector in every mobile phone. So we were addict tech startup, there were four of us were very keen. We raised a lot of money from VCs and from angels, I think we raised $55 million overall, over the years, some most of that was in the first half of the company. So we probably spent six or seven years before we actually had a product. When we did have a product, it turned out it wasn’t something that the market particularly wanted, it was too big, and we had to invent a whole new class of products. So we turned it into this thing that looked like a book that projected a 10 inch thing on the any surface. It had an infrared touchscreen, so he made like a virtual tablet display. And we launched at CES, we’re very proud of ourselves. We got Stephen Fry to do the voiceover of our techy video. It was super scaly and Wizzy.

We didn’t have any customers a couple of weeks later, Apple launched the iPad that became a competitor. And we came second in that race. We couldn’t make it cheap enough. It was really really cool tech, but it wasn’t even a product, let alone. We probably sold a few 100 of them or something. It was commercially it was a failure. But it was a massive learning experience. And then understandably. So actually, I’ll go into the who did what in a minute, because that’s on my next slide. But we did a big pivot. And we thought what can we do with the same technology? We took the touch part and we super scaled it and made it into something useful for classrooms, so two metre wide touchscreens, we were making the tech that made that work.

So we had a licencing business and then we had another pivot In 2016, where we worked out, these fancy whiteboards are quite nice. But in our, in our office, we just use normal whiteboards. And we wanted to work with those. And we had a office in Cambridge and an office in California, how do you collaborate, we ended up making a product for ourselves. And that became kaptivo, which was our last product. And over the years, it’s probably got slightly less technical, it still got clever tacking, but it’s just not quite so out there. And it’s got dramatically more commercially applicable. So we’ve learned there’s maybe a pattern there. And we’ve got a lot more customer focused.

So yeah, that’s how the timeline of a company goes, we had three eras, three different sets of technology. The blue bar in the middle, is the number of CEOs we’ve had, we’ve had five different CEOs during the time, I was number one, and number four. So I’ve done a few different jobs. So it’s been really good from an education point of view. And we’ve employed a lot of people probably 150 plus people over the years, we’ve stimulated the local economy, that’s, that’s a way I like to describe how we’ve used the money, we’ve never been super successful investment for our VC, various investors.

I’ve actually managed to sell the company, or part of the company four times, which is possibly unusual. So you know, you can see sort of two thirds of the way along, we have sort of a big line that goes down it, that’s where the VCs got really sick of us and said, right, you’ve had loads of money and not having any more, do what you like, but you’re on your own. So those little stars are all the times that we’ve sold something either part of a company or the whole company. So we’ve had four kind of exits. And we also did a Kickstarter, when we had to reinvent ourselves.

So we really had to, like, lift up every stone and look under every mattress to work out how on earth are we going to fund the company, and be very inventive. And I haven’t done an IPA, but pretty much every other type of fundraising I have done. So that’s been quite interesting. Yeah, and we’ve had lots of different business models. And you can see that at the end, we the SaaS there. So when we started doing kaptivo, in the end, it was a hardware product. I can show you what it is actually, I’ve got them here. So it’s a smart camera that you stick up of a whiteboard, they’ve used it or BoS a couple of times to with sketch artist and allows you to it can tell the difference basically, between people in front of the board and what you write. So it removes the people in real time, just leave the content, and then it streams it into your web browser or your zoom call your team’s call or whatever. So it’s quite a cool tool for remote collaboration. And then eventually, 18 months ago, we got acquired by lifesize, who is a smaller competitor of zoom, based in Texas. So for last 18 months, I was working for them. And then latterly I helped them sell the company again, or parts of the company, again to another firm in the space. So I’ve had a fairly varied career. What have I learned? So what I’ve learned, I’m going to talk about three areas. So I’ve got a couple of products right to things.

Product Lessons: Focusing on the Wrong Things.

So this is perhaps one of the first things I’ve learned is it’s really easy, especially if you come from a technical background like we did, to focus on the wrong things. So the arrows meant to show the sort of direction of travel that we’ve gotten. And we very much started with look at our cool technology, isn’t it? So we made a video of how cool it is. We spent years working in the lab on this thing. It’s so cool. And then that’s great, but you have to sell it alright, we’ll make it into a product. Okay, cool. It can do this and this and this. And then gradually, people sort of hit us over the head enough that we worked out actually we needed to not just present a product we had to present a solution. What’s it do? What outcome does it give you? And then. So this is getting pretty close.

And then the problem with that is that you are probably assuming that all of your customers are the same, or you’re assuming that they all need that solution. So as you start to understand your customers and talk to them and segment them, all this stuff that you’ve heard described better over the last couple of days, we kind of got a bit off. So you need to understand what they’re trying to achieve. Who are they like, okay, yeah, we’ve seen this before we know how to help you. We’ve helped other people like this, you start to get more successful.

Product Lessons: Whole Product Solutions.

Okay, so that’s the product. That’s what’s in the box. I mentioned this phrase whole product solution. So I did a strategic marketing course, probably 2025 years ago, just randomly, I don’t know why. But I just remember a couple of phrases. And one of them was whole product solution. So actually, he was talking about Crossing the Chasm where you go from early adopters, to more mainstream customers. And he was basically saying, segment the market to find a very small area, and aim to dominate it. And a market is a bunch of people who talk to each other and have the same sort of needs. And to dominate it, you need to give them not just a product, but a whole product solution. And then they talked a bit about what that so for us, as we talk to our customers, they said, Well, that’s all great, your camera, but how do we fix it on our walls with our requirements? And how do we manage it when we’ve got 100? And how do we do this and do that.

So we ended up having to make a whole suite of accessory things that went with it. And only when we had all of that still we have a whole product solution. And we started becoming able to have repeatable sales and to find customers with the same sort of needs. So that was one of my learnings. Ask yourself, what is your whole product solution, because it might not be what you think. But your customers will tell you. Product Market Fit is talked about a lot. I love Rahul’s talk that was done a few years ago, very, very systematic way of doing it. My experiences, it’s quite hard to do it well. And I think in retrospect, one of the things that we weren’t very good at was getting enough customer feedback, and then using it to segment our customers properly.

So we managed to identify a couple of segments and those that we had identified, we actually sold quite well into, but we could have done it a lot better. I think I was sitting right in the slide yesterday or something. And it just struck me that actually, our marketing groups very rarely spoke to customers. And our sales people spoke to customers a lot. So all the feedback we got would mainly be from from the sales people. And they would pick and choose which feedback to give us because if it was a big customer, they’re gonna go going to get lots of commission from then they’d give us that feedback. And that would become the fire that the product team had to capture. So in retrospect, we didn’t do that, right? Well, we had some of the theory, but I think applying it well needs practice, and it probably needs the help of experts that can come in and help you to do it. And I got to run customer success after we got our fifth CEO who said, Nic, have you ever done customer success, I said customer what he’s like, great, you’re gonna learn how to do customer success. So that was quite fun. We learned how to instrument our product, how to get a lot more feedback, how to think about onboarding, all those kinds of things. And we did end up getting a really good net promoter score. So in the 70s and 80s, consistently, which I think is quite good.

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People Lessons: It’s All About People!

Okay, people. So I have to say that although I started out as an X engineer, as an engineer, and I was initially focused much more on the tech I would now say I’m more interested in people. I think I’ve spent most of my working life building things. But at one point, I look back and realise actually, most of the things I’ve been building are not products they’re well, I hesitate to say cultures but their processes and ways of finding or retaining or motivating people and actually people are more interesting to them products to me. So if you if you ever find my Twitter, bio, Twitter’s very cheesy, isn’t it? My little line I put on there is I think probably should be simple and that people should be complicated.

And obviously, products should be simple. If they’re not simple, then people won’t use them. But I think it’s important that we don’t try and make people simple. Because people are not simple. And the older you get, the more you realise that’s true. So the highlight of my 18 years have been the people that I’ve worked with this is a trade show in 2019. So it’s it’s mainly the commercial part of the business. But trade shows are weird, aren’t they, if you go to a trade show, as a customer, it’s like the worst thing ever. That’s like, the most depressing thing you can do, probably. But if you go to a trade show, where you’ve got to stand, and you’re showing all your latest stuff, and your customers are there, and your team’s on fire, and everything comes together, then it’s amazing. So they were some of the highlights for me.

People Lessons: Hiring.

So yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really, really amazing people over the years. So I think I’ve got four formal points on people. So obviously, hiring is key. We’ve heard some really good, much better slides on this on how to do it in detail. This is just my thoughts on what worked for us. We were very, very picky. But I think that is actually good, because bad people can completely disrupt the team. And good people will strengthen the team. And I guess one of the learnings is, you don’t know what good and bad is necessarily, and it’s certainly not what your bias is, but take a lot of care because it is important. We didn’t notice too, eventually. And we learned everything the hard way by doing it wrong.

First, that as soon as we put more emphasis on flexibility in terms of the jobs we’re offering. And as soon as we started feeding it through that website that checks for language bias, it does help you get a much better and broader range of, of applicants. If you want to annoy my wife, the question that is right up there to make her get absolutely wild is to say she works half time. She has a she works in Genetics Institute that does research on cancer and Alzheimer’s an amazing worthy things. And she works half time. And she has people saying to her working half time must be so nice. Do you watch a lot of daytime TV? I wouldn’t want to be in the same room if someone asked her that because people just have no idea, do they? People make choices for all sorts of things. And it’s, you get some really crappy questions of people. Do view your hiring process through the eyes of customer.

So I’ve had some terrible experiences. I’ve applied for jobs where the whole process took 10-11 months before they told me hadn’t got the job? Seriously. I’m proud of a few weird things. One of the things I’m proud of is we had a candidate who we interviewed and we decided he wasn’t good fit. And we gave him a bit of feedback. And the whole thing probably happened pretty quickly. And he came back the next week and said that was the best hiring process have been through. That was great. Thank you. Can I apply again, or something? I was so touched because we really hadn’t done anything special. We’ve just been prompt, we told him how long it was going to take. We did what we said we gave him some feedback. And it just shows how low the bar is. I mean, I think we might get a slightly false view here. When you hear about how amazing some of the processes are. There’s a lot of companies do some really crappy hiring out there. So if you can just get better than do that. So retention, things that I’ve noticed.

People Lessons: Retention.

We’ve had people who’ve worked for us for 10, 12, 14 years, some of them and they’re some of the smartest, most amazing people I’ve ever met. So we were never probably the highest paying people in Cambridge. We were constantly having some kind of cash crisis, especially in the in the latter years. So why did people stick around? I think it’s partly because they really enjoyed who they were working with. And although we weren’t ever curing cancer or solving big problems, we were helping people learn remotely, we were doing something that people believed in. And so that was important. things that can make people leave is people can put up with certain amounts of stresses and rushes for things. But if you’re always in that mode, then people will just walk away at some point.And we have had times where we’ve done that for too long. And certainly poor communication and making stupid decisions will annoy them. So obviously, no one does that on purpose, but that will drive people away. This is one of the things I’m proud of. So the company was called light blue optics. So little wordplay, lively topics. And the idea was that every couple of weeks, we would have a lunchtime talk, you could talk about anything. And the only rule was, it had to be a non work topic. So these are some of the talks that I remember. And the company would buy dit by lunch, and the company would usually pay for something if it was central to the talk.

People Lessons: Light Blue Topics.

So top one, my engineering manager was from Barcelona, very passionate about that company bought and Iberico ham, and he carved it for us and gave us a big talk. That was a lot of fun. The head of the research group was really passionate about whiskey company bought a few nice bottles, and he gave us a nice talk on on things. You can tell we’re a fairly geeky lot from some of the subjects.

I really pushed the boundaries on my talk, because mine was the slightly edgy similarities and differences between being a Christian and being an entrepreneur, which is a very not done thing in a mainly atheistic tech company with a Jewish boss and Muslim developers and everything. But I think because we had a environment where everyone respected each other, and we could be open, people would often talk about what they believed and stuff. And I think that’s cool. I think if we’re respectful to each other, that’s the way I think it should be, personally. Think it’s a shame if we’re too scared to talk about things. So yeah, we had a lot of fun with that. And people remember that, and the guy who organised that, I think he’s so proud of it. And rightly so because that was a thing that people remember.

People Lessons: Redundancies.

Redundancies, I think this is probably my low light of my time. I’ve had to make people redundant, three or four times, I think, over the years, and it is the absolute worst, it’s the thing I hate the most. So these were a few things I could think of to make it slightly less rubbish. So get your facts straight, get some proper advice, follow it rigorously. Be gracious, communicate well, all the things that we’ve heard before, if you can help people find a job afterwards, give them a good reference. Another thing that really touched me was when I wrote my article, couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how sucky laying people off was and I said I’d had to do it three or four times. And one of the guys who commented, said, Yeah, I was one of those people that you laid off. And I came back to work for you, again, until I retired. And it was because it was nice people there. So I’m proud of that. I think I haven’t had a massive billion dollar exit. But I think getting things like that right is important.

People Lessons: Life is Complicated!

And this goes back to my point about people being complicated. So I think this is partly a function of age and experience. So when you’re in your 20s, perhaps in your 40s techie guys doing a startup, life’s a lot more black and white and stuff as you get older. And maybe if you have kids or you have things that go on in your life, you gradually realise that hang on a minute, look at all these statistics, there’s like massive percentages of people who were somewhere out there are going through really awful things. And sooner or later, it hits you that they can’t all be other people. They can’t all be people that you don’t know. Maybe it’s you maybe it’s the person you’re working with. Maybe it’s that person that you’re in the process of making redundant. Maybe it’s the person who’s not shown up for work some reason, whatever. So be kind of people don’t always necessarily want to tell you what they’re going through straightaway. But you’ll be amazed how many people are going through stuff.

And I think, I don’t know if it’s a man thing, but people in general, maybe it’s British people are generally not very good at talking about things they’re going through, or we’ve got better over time, but I’ve found that if you If people talk about what they’re struggling with, generally people go Yeah, actually. I’ve been through similar things or whatever. I think that’s important, which we should encourage that.

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Random Lessons: Money or Control.

Okay. I was really trying to find a third P. But I couldn’t. So I just put random stuff. I was going to talk mainly about money. And then my teenager would say Ps, which means money, apparently. But I thought that wouldn’t be a good fit for this audience. So Rosemary, who was speaking yesterday, she actually has been working in the same building as me, I know a little bit. Remember, she said she wouldn’t buy a dishwasher off someone? Well, I sold her a dishwasher two weeks ago. I’ve spent the last month clearing out our office and shredding all the documents and throwing things in the skip and closing things down. And one of the things I had to get rid of was the dishwasher. And she came and took it at all, I was looking for a dishwasher. So that it’s a true story. Well, no, she gave a donation to charity, because that’s what we’re asking. So I’ll call that a sale.

So I’m slightly jealous of her because she took a different path to me, I don’t know which pill I took, but I took the other one that she took. So I took the we were a deep tech startup, we didn’t really have a lot of choice, we had no money, we had a big, scary, technically difficult problem to solve. So we had to go down the VC route. And we took a lot of money and took a lot of time, she took a different path. And the reason I’m slightly jealous of her to be honest, is because you retain a lot more control. I think, by going the other way, you have a bunch of risks, and maybe you won’t get there at all, maybe it’ll take too long and you get overtaken.

Random Lessons: Bootstrapping.

But if there’s one thing I would like to do differently next time, is try the, the bootstrap route. So I’ve probably been to BoS four times, something like that. And the first time I came, I thought, wow, there’s a lot of really crazy people here. They’re all like bootstrapping their companies, they all work remotely. This doesn’t sound like me at all. But you’ll see at the end, I’ve tried to learn a few things, I’m going to try my next one a little bit differently. But most people here will know this. But if you take multiple funding rounds, you might only give away a certain amount each round, but compound interest effect, you’re going to end up with a very small amount of your company after a long time. And you’ll might find yourself asking, is it really worth it? I own like 1% of my company after all these years, etc, etc. which is not great.

Random Lessons: Pitching to VCs.

The other thing is, I have when you said PTSD from pitching to VCs, I was like, Yeah, I remember that. I’ve pitched to a lot of VCs, in America, and here and in Europe and all over the place. And it’s not a nice experience. However it just depends a lot on what state your company is in. If your company is doing well, if you’re at the start of your journey, if you’ve got some traction, if it’s a big problem. Sooner or later, you’re gonna get them queuing up to invest, I think or flipside is if you’re trying to get money because you’ve run out of money, and you’re not profitable, and all that it’s really hard. Now, I’m a white man, so probably even harder if I was in a minority group, but yeah, it’s like, you wouldn’t jump in the ocean to have a swim if you had a big cut in your leg. Because it’s a bit dangerous. But if you go asking for money, when you’re about to run out in a month, you might get some money, but you’re gonna get a really rubbish set of terms and etc, etc. So there’s a lot to be said for retaining some control, I would say.

Random Lessons: Burnout.

So, yeah, about three or four years ago, we, we’ve just been making kaptivo for a year or so. It was the only product in the market was getting a lot of excitement. And we had a big company approached us about possibly buying the company and the GM of the group took us out for dinner and everything. We were feeling quite excited about it. And then I met him at a conference couple of weeks later, and he took me aside and he said, You look completely burned out. I’m like, what. But actually, he could see something that I couldn’t see myself which was all those. So at that time, I’ve been doing the business for maybe 1415 years, we had two offices one in California, one in Cambridge, I was a CEO. Most of our investors were in California, I lived in Cambridge, I was doing one week, a month in California. One month, I was in America three times in the month. And I was gradually getting completely worn out. And yeah, it took someone to tell me that for me to realise.

So I guess the takeaway is, just be aware, it happens, I didn’t think I’d be the sort of person that it will happen to. And I think the only solution is to gradually find balance. So for me, it was we found a US CEO to run the the US office, that’s where most of the investors were. So I changed my role slightly, I tried to get more exercise and see my family more and just generally chill out a little bit. And I think that was helpful. I don’t think I’m quite there yet. People always say that you’re crazy busy, you’re waiting for things at once. But I’m a hell of a lot better than I was. So just be careful with that.

Yeah, so I’ve just finished after 18 years, I’ve run a company. And although I haven’t enjoyed it, the last year, the last month of me and one other guy who I just made redundant, and he’s serving out his notice. And our job is to empty the office and skip everything and turn the lights off. That’s been a interesting experience. I’ve had the full lifecycle of my business. And I feel, I feel very proud that we’ve sold it multiple times. And some of the team has gone off to join a new venture. And I knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ve, I’ve had my roller coaster ride. I want to do something different. Now. So the question is what I do it again, what would I do? And that’s why I wore this t shirt you see, I don’t know if you read it. I’m not delusional. I’m entrepreneur.

What to do Differently Next Time.

So if you’d asked me three or four years ago, do you wanna do another startup, when I was feeling really burned out? I would have said, No, I just want to crawl under a rock and do something different. But now, I’m definitely ready again. And in fact, I have started a new company about a year ago with a couple of mates. And I’m going to tell you very quickly what it is. So what did we learn? And what are we trying to do differently? This time, so I’m, I’m not a fraud. Now I can come to this conference in full publicity, because I’m a software, we’re doing a software company. Now we’re not hardware. That’s the first thing. We’re really trying to apply some of the things that we’ve learned over the years. So we’re trying to say, we have some high for some hypotheses, we have a problem that we think is exciting. We think we have a solution to it. But we’re not going to kid ourselves that we’ve proved it, we’re going to work out how do we validate it with some customers. So we’re trying to do things the right way. I believe maybe it’s not in the same sort of scale as I do.

But I believe that we are a purpose driven business, certainly a principle driven business. And the next slide, I’ll explain what it is. And we’re trying to be super, super careful with money. So couple of reasons. Partly because money is control, as I’ve said, partly because it’s being funded by me and my business partner, and I still don’t have much money. So that’s a good reason. And the other thing is, it’s in a completely different markets and a different business model. And it’s not one that I’ve worked in before. So that’s normally not, not a great thing. But maybe maybe the reason why I do startups at all is because I like a challenge I like I like to learn. And the thing that was difficult about the hardware startup was learning was just slow, because you build something, and then you learn and the whole thing takes three or four months. Whereas with a software business, you can learn fast and if you’re talking to customers every day, you can learn fast and that’s my ambition with this, I really want to learn fast.

Okay, so let me give you the very quick overview about what it is we do. Okay, so the new products is Genee. It is an app based business. And it’s for anyone, it’s for people who want to find local deals, local offers local places to eat dishes even, which are completely personalised to you. Whether that’s dietary requirements or things you like, or things you’re not allowed to eat, etc. And sure, there’s a bunch of apps out there that do this. But one of our particular twists is that we are completely privacy centric. So all the personalization happens on your phone locally. So it does learn more about you over time. And it’s very context aware. But rather than going off and putting a big machine learning model in the cloud, and sharing all your data with everyone else, it’s doing everything local. So all that algorithms are completely different to the machine learning algorithms that we’ll be seeing.

So the problem it’s solving for you is finding local products and services. And food is just the first market that we’re trying. Our vision is that it will be everything that you need. So it could be events, it could be getting your car fixed. And the sort of trends that we’re trying to exploit are, everyone likes super personalization, they want things that are right for them. Dynamic real time, this is the right time. So context aware stuff. Privacy is something that’s kind of grown on me. So it’s still a bit of a niche belief as to how many people are passionate about not giving their personal details everywhere, probably it’s five 10% of people at the moment who are super passionate about it.

So I was really interested listening to Brennan’s talk. Because the way I was interpreting your talk was, in a sense, you’re addressing the same problem from the complete opposite side. So the goal is to super personalise things, and to target your message and things to people. And it’s by finding out more about them and doing it. And we’re effectively trying to do is similar sort of thing, but a completely opposite way. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. So that’s the consumer side. And we’ve effectively got a two sided marketplace. So from a business point of view, it’s really aimed at local businesses.

So the problem we’re trying to solve for them is helping local businesses doesn’t matter how big to have a sort of level playing field and to find and attract new customers who they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise find. To allow them to. So, so this has very faint sort of rings of olio. In that, imagine that you are a pub, and you have a barrel of beer that’s gonna go off tomorrow, or something. If you could create a dynamic offer to say, that particular beer, half price for the next 24 hours or something, and have a system where you can just do that to create an offer. And that affects dynamically what people in your area are getting on their personal assistants. That’s exactly the sort of thing that our platform can do. So give local businesses more control by allowing them to create dynamic offers to attract people. And the third thing is, we have a sort of checking mechanism. So our goal is to bring customers through your door. And then once they’re through your door, it’s your job to close a deal and sell them something. So the business model is you come in, you check in with the app, a check in delivers us means we charge you the venue, a small fee for bringing a customer. And thinking about it from the anxiety point of view. The anxiety we’re trying to address is okay, this is a new concept. How do I know I’m not wasting my money? If I sign up for 50 pounds a month for your service?

No one might use it. And the anxiety here is okay. Well, it’s not a fixed cost per month, it is a pay per customer, you only pay for what you get. So that’s kind of the idea at the moment. And we have been building a little MVP app. We are about to do Alpha launch in a couple of weeks. I have been saying that for about a month. So it might not be exactly a couple of weeks, but it’s really close. And we’re going to launch in Cambridge. Now we have a chicken and egg problem because no one’s going to use an app that none of the businesses have signed up for and none of the business is going to sign up for an app that no one’s using.

So that’s one of our problems. And the way we’re trying to solve that is we are pre loading the app with all the menu data for all the venues in Cambridge ourselves. Because it’s all public information. So on launch, it will be instantly useful for people to use. And then once we’ve got some customers on boarded and know how they use it, then we can go back to the businesses and say, look, we’ve got all these customers using it, would you like to be an active partner and start having your offers and etc. So that’s our plan. So yeah, that’s what I’ve learned. That’s what I’m doing. I’m gonna finish there. I think we’ve got five minutes left. I’d love to know, your own startup journeys might not be the everyone might not want to shout them out. But feel free to talk to me later or shout a few out if you want. Thank you very much.

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Mark: Thank you. Thank you. I know when we were talking about this, you were like, well, what are people going to learn from my story? And I think you know, one of the things that’s really fascinating about Boston, some of the things that we we talk about, and people share, and they gain the most from are the lessons that come from challenges rather than success stories, or the kind of, hey, this is really hot. And just kind of looking back through the years over some of the really big talks, and some of the most impactful ones, they have been those ones where people learn really, really important things. You think about things when things are hard, much more than you do when they’re going well. So I really appreciate you sharing and talking us through that. So some questions.

Q: I was interested. So you had the CEO role twice. So what made you give it up? What made you take it back? And what do you do differently the second time around?

Yeah, good question. So first time around, we is more or less a condition of as taken our Series A that we got a prophecy, oh man who was a grown up and who had done it before. So that was the the reason why I stepped aside the first time. So I raised the seed round and the angel rounds. And then as part of the series A, and it was pretty good to see someone come in who had run businesses before in America and in the UK, and learn a lot from him. But in retrospect, as a company, we scaled, but we hadn’t validated anything. So we were spending a lot of money, we were spending a million dollars a month. But at one point, we had like 80 people, and we didn’t have a product that anyone wants to buy. So that was not a good place to be in. And then the second time around, was when we were just starting to have the idea for kaptivo.

And basically, me and my co founder went to the board and said, Look, we could do this ourselves, we know what to do. We’ve been we’ve got like 10 plus years more experience, we know exactly how we could do this. Backers, and so they so gone. So gave us back the reins. And what did I do differently. I was a lot more customer focused. So what problem we’re gonna solve for who How do we know? Not long after starting a CEO, I was a boss. And I think Gareth Marlow was talking. And I realised Yeah, actually what I really need is a CEO coach, someone who can give me a bit of mentoring and help me. So we hired Gareth and he came in and did some sessions with me and with the team and we tackled, what are our big strategic existential threats and how’s our plan and how do we communicate? And that was super helpful for me. So I think owning some of your weaknesses, I’m trying to address them. That was one of the things I’ve learned and I think I’ve just grown up a bit so I was willing to do that. Good question. Thank you Yeah.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Nick. I really really enjoyed that talk and I have a lot in common recognise a lot of what you were saying. I’ve got question very specifically about the last bit about Genee, about product development, because we were hearing from Bruce earlier about, once you’re in a much once your products in a much more mature state. In fact, you know, I can just I can just report back that and you can book me that this is we’ve just done exactly what Bruce said, which we’ve put together our our development teams into cross functional teams, we call them squads. It’s very common, works really well, anybody wants to talk to me about it. Afterwards. I’m very happy to talk about my experience of it.

But I was going to ask Bruce there, so I’m now sorry, I’m not recycling my question for you. Which is, that’s great. Once you’ve got a mature product, you understand what your tensions are. And you now need to do that kind of cross functional negotiation to do product development. Beyond what do you do at the very beginning? How have you how have you developed your product right now? When you don’t have a huge team, you haven’t got squads? Conway’s law applies, it’s whoever’s opinion in the room starts to make all the technical decisions, how have you mitigated? You know, some of the issues down the road? That things like, Oh, my God, we’ve got to reform our our teams into squads to to mitigate against the silos that built up? How are you thinking about that? Basically, how have you put all of your effort into this new product, to think about tackling some of those issues?

Okay, thank you. I’m not super familiar with that law. So that puts me at a disadvantage to answer your question. But at the moment, there’s three of us in the company. So that’s a nice, odd number, so we can vote on things. So the profile is, I’m the CEO. And I’ve also so my background is in product management as well. And I’ve actually spent half the last year relearning how to code. So I’ve been doing the data side of the app. And the two guys that work with me, my co founders are both people who in the past have worked with me and for me, so one of them comes from a operational background. And the other guy used to be a DevOps engineer who’s taught himself how to create apps.

So we’re super lean. And we argue a lot every week about features. And we’re desperately trying to get into the next phase, which is more data driven from customers. So we did an initial set of surveys and interviews with a bunch of customers, to give them a bunch of pain points or problems. And they told us what was most resonating what was most important for them. That’s why we’re launching on deals, deals and offers because that’s what the feedback we got. But as soon as you put things in people’s hands and they start using it, we’re gonna learn completely different things. So the thing that I took away from Bruce’s talk was, as we get a bit bigger, I could totally see as having one team work on the consumer side and one team work on the backend side for businesses because they’re going to have completely different requirements and different focus.

Mark: Thank you, Nick. Thank you very much indeed for sharing.


Nic Lawrence

CEO & Founder, Genee Labs

Nic is founder of Genee Labs, Kaptivo, and Light Blue Optics. An electronic design engineer, he moved straight from his post-doctoral research at Cambridge to founding and leading the growth and development of Light Blue Optics. An entrepreneur who is a product person at heart, he believes people should be complicated and products should be simple.

Nic is now running his new startup – a software business.

More From Nic.

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