The future cities sector is thriving, exciting and occasionally daunting, especially for SMEs. How do you navigate the world of advanced urban services? What are the main challenges? We spoke with two founders, Sam Parton from OpenPlay and Christopher Bristow from BetterPoints, to learn about their journey to date and share advice to others looking to enter the start-up world.
How did you get into the startup world?
Sam: I quit a corporate graduation scheme to join a startup called WhipCar.com (Airbnb for cars). That experience gave me the confidence to launch my own, based on my frustrations trying to play sport.
Christopher: I have been starting businesses since the mid 80s so it’s now in my DNA. For me it has to be something I’m passionate about – it’s not about the money.
What have been your main learnings to date?
Sam: So many I’m not sure where to start! Focusing is probably the main learning and not trying to do everything all at once or be all things to everyone. Doing one or two things really well is key. Finding and motivating the right staff is incredibly difficult and shouldn’t be rushed. Communication with customers is absolutely key.
Christopher: Having the idea or concept is easy, the hard work begins afterwards. Pick you partners carefully, be prepared to do anything (legal) and don’t ask anybody to do something you wouldn’t be prepared to do, it always takes longer than you expect, don’t bet the bank on anything until you have a signature on the dotted line, don’t think you have a unique solution – there will be somebody somewhere with exactly the same idea… I could go on all day!
What were some unexpected challenges?
Sam: Product development, finding the right staff, trying to maintain the same high level of customer support as you grow. Operating in different time zones and cultures to your own.
Christopher: Cashflow was and is still the one thing that always comes back to bite you – even with the biggest customer organisations. You waste a lot of time as an SME chasing money owed. Moving from the commercial environment to public sector was an eye-opener – different procurement, decision-making. People freely make commitments to help or support, but it rarely comes to fruition, so it invariably lands back in your lap.
What did you wish you knew before starting out?
Sam: Not to build things unnecessarily as it wastes time/resources and to raise funding a bit earlier than I did. Being more confident in sales, particularly around pricing.
Christopher: It was different when I first started. Nowadays it’s relatively easy to be a startup – there are great resources and communities to support you. So, if I was doing it again I would say network like crazy, you can never have enough contacts, and take full advantage of the great funding and support services out there to hone your skills as an entrepreneur.
FCC: What advice would you provide to SMEs/start-ups looking to succeed in the smart cities market?
Sam: Be patient and double the expected length of how long your project runs for. Open Calls are a great tool, but more money needs to be channeled into them for organisations to put in the effort needed.
Christopher: Open Calls are a great way to bootstrap projects and ideas. I would advise SMEs/start-ups to spend time looking at what is happening in Europe – a lot of good stuff going on which could generate ideas or potential partnerships, or save you time creating something that is already well-developed in the space.
OpenPlay and BetterPoints were selected to receive funding and have been involved in our Capstone project, a health and well-being demonstrator in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
To learn more about opportunities to collaborate with Future Cities Catapult in upcoming Open Calls, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.