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NetStart – a candid chat with Lee Strafford

Last year, I attended a number of sessions organised by Lee Strafford to learn and if possible engage with his project NetStart (previously called Project Sahara). Today, I learned that after much time investment in engaging with Regional Development Agencies, Universities, Developers and other like minded individuals, Lee has come to the conclusion, that no one is willing to look at the bigger picture of creating an ecosystem and radically change. Let’s take a step back. My understanding of Project Sahara was:

  • Create an environment where multiple startups can thrive within an ecosystem.
  • The ecosystem will include, entrepreneurs, investors, deal makers and service providers including mentors.
  • There will be a fund set aside to invest in startups similar to Y-Combinator or Seedcamp
  • NetStart will take a small shareholding as of the case with above two entities
  • A web services platform will be developed to help startups overcome scalability and back-up issues.

I had a problem with above, as Lee’s strategy involved in changing the mindsets of RDAs, Universities, etc before working with startups. Too ambitious and cloudy in my mind. Lee also perhaps believed that having undergone the pain of starting up, growing and exiting, he understood the startup requirements. I cannot recall Lee ever asking what I need for edocr. Bit like Oracle saying how great they are without asking how Oracle can help edocr or anyone it is speaking to. This is something I discussed with StewartT from Sun Microsystems many times. SunM been an enterprising player, the programme was about selling to startups. Through dialogue Stewart changed his engagement to resolving problems startups have. By doing so, the community has accepted him and is engaging with SunM in a positive manner. edocr is no different to any other startup in the web 2.0 domain. So, if I am Lee, these would be the services that would make the most impact:

  • Funding – provide seedcorn funding or work with the startup to secure seedcorn funding.
  • Team – provide mentors, interim managers or staff to strengthen the senior team
  • Product – provide a mechanism to validate and improve product
  • Go-to-market strategy – help fine tune strategy as well as make vital first introductions

Last thing in my mind is a web services platform, which may relieve my back-office pains. If I can have expertise that help me generate revenues quicker and more, that would be where I would put my concentration. Yes, back-office functions are important, but startups can live with these problems until traction is achieved.

I also believe that Lee and other must have known that it is damn hard to change the RDAs and Universities. It would have been much easier to help number of startups achieve traction and then use them as case studies to lure RDAs and Universities. This is exactly what Lee hopes to do in the future. But I also felt from Day 1, this was all about building the web services platform. And guess what? This is exactly what Lee is working on! Do I need this platform? Perhaps not! Lee has telcos and other large players in mind as clients.

To conclude, NetStart is becoming a product company – quite a difference from the initial discussions. Lee has significant experience of taking a startup and building it to a UK brand. I wish Lee best wishes with NetStart, which is strangely enough another startup.

I hope above does not come out as criticism of Lee and NetStart. I like Lee and both of us love to see the region developing an ecosystem for digital startups. My contribution to this is through Northern StartUp 2.0, where incremental change is achieved. I have no vision of changing the region to become another Silicon Valley. All I am trying to do is get few people together once a month and allow them to talk to each other, so that great startups such as edocr can be born!


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