Check out the Product Innovation Framework!

Podcast: How to Spend Your Time on the Right Startup Ideas with Howard Gray

Tom:

Hey, so welcome back to the Lighthouse London podcast. We’ve got a bit of a first today. We have our first interview in the house. It’s Howard! Hello!

Howard:

Hello.

Tom:

So first off we should probably explain a bit about our relationship-

Howard:

Yep.

Tom:

I’m Tom by the way, I probably should have said that already. We go back a long way.

Howard:

We do.

Tom:

We were just talking about it just now and I think the timing we put on it was low. We thought a decade-

Howard:

It’s definitely double digits.

Tom:

… it’s more than ten years. It’s quite funny actually, we both have been involved in the music industry in the past and I suppose thankfully are out of that now. Or some of us are. Now, a decade or so later, we find ourselves in the same arena again.

Howard:

We do indeed.

Tom:

Now, as leading thought leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs. That’s what we’re doing now, eh?

Howard:

That’s what I’ve been told. Yeah.

Tom:

So let’s start off with a bit about what you do now.

Howard:

At the moment I work with a bunch of different companies. Some freelance stuff, consult with some companies, also set up my own venture called Rozel studio which is an agency slash consultancy with me and a bunch of like-minded compadres who set out to solve difficult business solutions for various companies but particularly those in the creative and technology industries.

Tom:

Nice.

Howard:

Everything from music companies to hotel chains to early-stage tech start-ups to creative agencies to-

Tom:

Yeah.

Howard:

… various others. So that’s what I’m doing right now. Really interested in start-ups of all shapes and sizes of course as well.

Tom:

Yeah, definitely. That’s where we find ourselves talking about this stuff quite a lot of the time. I guess you meet quite a lot of people- You do quite a lot of speaking as well, right?

Howard:

I do a little bit, yeah. I think I’ve probably always done it, but just on a more informal basis. I’ve started doing it more properly in the last year or so, so I’ve been doing stuff with Escape the City and Decoded and Founder’s Institute-

Tom:

Yes. Yeah.

Howard:

… and a really great school in East London called East London Arts & Music Academy which is run by Will from Chase & Status-

Tom:

Oh yeah, they’re cool.

Howard:

… which is a really cool music and digital arts school in Stratford. I’ve done some mentoring and workshops there as well which were really fun.

Tom:

Yeah, I mean every time we speak I’m always impressed by the fact that you seem to have fingers in many pies, and there’s always something new going on. You’re always telling me about some awesome new idea that you’re thinking of or have got on the go.

Howard:

Some of them are awesome, some of them less awesome. We’ll get into that in a bit.

Tom:

At the moment, this month’s blog posts and podcasts are talking about getting ideas going and kind of, getting that idea out of your head and into reality. As a man that has many ideas running through his head all the time-

Howard:

What?

Tom:

… first of all how do you come up with all these ideas you’ve got for new businesses and ventures you want to get going?

Howard:

I guess I do have quite a lot of ideas. Some are hare-brained schemes, some go a lot further-

Tom:

I wouldn’t say that.

Howard:

When it comes to having ideas in the first place, I suppose the thing that I find that is the best way of getting ideas is probably just being curious. Having curiosity about things in the world. They can seem mundane on the surface.
Actually, as an example, when I was just walking over to the offices here from the tube station, at the traffic lights there was a lorry going past which had a big container on the back from a Chinese company that I’d never heard of before. So I quickly went onto my phone, searched for it as I was wandering down the street trying not to walk into people, and searched for this company. I was just interested in what it was and why this Chinese container thing was driving through Southwark on a Friday afternoon-

Tom:

Yeah.

Howard:

… and discovered this company that do minerals and raw materials for various different things. I was just curious about what it was, started thinking about where did this come from? How did they ship it over here? How long did it take?

Tom:

Yeah.

Howard:

All these kind of things that just got me interested.

Tom:

Yeah, I mean there’s problems everywhere that need solving, aren’t there? If you’re naturally inquisitive about stuff then that’s a way to stumble across something that might be useful and might be worth exploring.

Howard:

Yeah I think when you start with being curious, you also start thinking about problems that need solving. When you’re curious anyway, then you sort of notice the problems a bit more acutely, and then you start to think about the solutions almost naturally off the back of that. I find they kind of come about at random times. The brain food is this curiosity, the ideas and solutions just appear out of that.

Tom:

When you least expect them?

Howard:

Exactly.

Tom:

Yeah. I mean, the next step from that is, how do you get that idea noted down? How are you recording all this stuff? I’m useless at that kind of thing. I have many ideas and they often come at moments when I’m nowhere near anything that could record them, so they disappear. I know from speaking to you that you don’t do that, because you’ve always got new ideas!

Howard:

I definitely have got frustrated when I missed a few. Ironically I ride my bike a lot in London and it being a big city, you have to be fairly aware of what’s going on around you. Unfortunately lots of my ideas come when I’m zooming down or freewheeling down a hill at 25 miles an hour, it’s dark and cold. So sometimes those ideas, it’s not really an opportune moment for me to write them down as I’m freewheeling down a street somewhere-

Tom:

Well there’s a problem that needs fixing.

Howard:

… there’s a problem! Someone needs to have a nice sort of portable bike notepad of some sort and I look forward to seeing that. I’ll definitely be buying one. Otherwise I try to keep a notebook by my bed, I know it sounds obvious, but genuinely I have woken up at three in the morning thinking about-

Tom:

Right.

Howard:

… some obscure bit of curiosity that I’ve had – this problem or this idea – and I try and scribble them down. I used to use Evernote, I don’t use it anymore. I still think it’s a really good tool. There’s actually quite a lot in the press at the moment around why they have been perceived to fail. I don’t think they’ve really failed as such but-

Tom:

Okay.

Howard:

… you know, why they’re struggling. That was from too many features that people didn’t need. That’s probably another story, but-

Tom:

I think that’s a whole different podcast

Howard:

That’s a whole different podcast! I use Apple Notes on my phone, I find that a really good way of just quickly jotting stuff down. I’ll almost just jot down the first few words of the idea and that will be enough. Then lots of notepads. I still write stuff on the back of my hands sometimes. Yeah I try and just carry some sort of writing material at all times.

Tom:

I’m always on Notes on my phone, you know. I mean, I’m often listening to podcasts and stuff and it’s slightly different things; these aren’t business ideas and stuff but I’m always listening to new things, trying to work out interesting ways to market our business and interesting things we can be doing with our clients. You’ve just got to get that stuff recorded, you know.

Howard:

Yeah, one of my To-Dos most days now seems to be ‘distill notes from this meeting’ or ‘distill notes from yesterday morning when I just scribbled down a bunch of not necessarily closely connected things.’ Just stuff that I’d observed or got excited by or interested in that day. So all sorts of web links and ideas and problems and company names and all this kind of stuff. Then I spend a bit of time after that trying to distill them into various places or make a bit more sense out of them.
I usually do that on the computer, so I usually do that on my laptop and store them. Excel is my preferred weapon of choice for that. I like the grid-based layout because I can think about categories, or types of ideas, or things to follow up, or things to park for six months, or whatever it is.

Tom:

Yeah that’s interesting, I’m always struggling with where to save interesting web links. I mean, I’ve got a Bitly account that I’ve chucked stuff into and that doesn’t really work. Bookmarks have been dead for a long time, but-

Howard:

Yeah the web links one is interesting. I find that still quite tough to-

Tom:

You’d think someone would have solved that by now, you know?

Howard:

Yeah. I remember Delicious quite a long time ago-

Tom:

I used to use that loads!

Howard:

I used to use that a lot, but it feels like with lots of those kinds of tools people dropped out of them after a while or the service didn’t-

Tom:

Didn’t that shut down in the end anyway?

Howard:

I think it did. I think they maybe sold or got acquired and then it kind of fizzled out somehow. I do think that’s actually still a bit of a problem, right now.

Tom:

Well on my phone I’ve just got loads of tabs open. I never even-

Howard:

Yeah, so do I, so I have to do tab culling every so often, and go through all of them and read

Tom:

Well the other day my browser crashed and lost all my tabs, so-

Howard:

It happens. Happens to me a lot.

Tom:

That’s good.

Howard:

So the web links thing, that’s still tricky. It’s a problem that needs solving. I think just the amount of stuff there is to read-

Tom:

See, just in the space of a few minutes we’ve had two good ideas.

Howard:

We’ve got little ideas.

Tom:

Two!

Howard:

When it’s not a web link, I will tend to drop it into a couple of Excel docs that I’ve got with a bunch of different tabs. Within those Excel sheets I try and keep just a small handful of categories – and boxes I suppose – of ideas within those, so I don’t have a huge monstrous list of hundreds and hundreds of ideas. I try and segment them out as much as I can, so there’s just a handful of things to think about at any one time.

Tom:

The next step from there is working out how to organize this stuff and how to pay attention to ones that you think are going to be of use. I mean, ideas should be written down, but some of them are going to be awful right? When you look back, you’re going to be like, ‘What was I thinking? This is obviously no good.’

Howard:

Absolutely. I’ve had tons of ideas that just either don’t go anywhere, or aren’t good ideas, or more to the point there aren’t problems that need to be solved, which is probably the main thing. This is a problem either doesn’t exist or not enough people have acutely enough or whatever it is. It’s usually around the problem rather than the idea is where the problem lies.

Tom:

When you’re having a look into whether you think this is a good idea or not, do you think it’s often quite quick to prove that something’s a bit of a goer or not? Or do you struggle with that? I mean, does it take a lot of work?

Howard:

It depends. I think the best ways to measure it – there’s a few ways to do it but I think a good first way is – is it something I’d be interested in working on for a good period of time?

Tom:

That’s very true, yeah.

Howard:

Then to be honest for me if the answer’s a definite no or a gut saying maybe not, it probably isn’t the one for me, even if it is a real problem that needs solving. Even if it is a “good” idea, if it’s not the idea for me then it’s probably not the thing to work on.

Tom:

That’s so important. I mean, you know, we speak to loads of people who come through the door with an idea of something they’ve noticed – you know, a hole that needs filling or an opportunity they’ve spotted – but quite a lot of these people don’t have a passion for that industry. You’ll spend a lot of time working this idea up, and you’ve really got to dedicate yourself to it. If you’ve got any inkling that you could lose interest, then this is not going to work, right?

Howard:

Yeah, I think so. I’ve got probably 50 to 70 pretty decent ideas for companies to solve problems, but they’re just not in the right space that excites me enough. I’ve identified them as what I feel are good ideas to genuine problems but I haven’t pursued them because I don’t have that passion where I want to be working on that, solely, and be dedicated to it to a number of years. You’re going to be working on something for at least a year.

Tom:

Oh yeah.

Howard:

At least! More like three to five to even ten or more!

Tom:

I think three to five is what most people say-

Howard:

Three to five is a good guide. After a year you’ll probably have a feel of whether it’s viable or not. If it’s going to become something you need to work on it for at least another two to three. Am I comfortable with working on this idea for three to five years? If the answer is a no, it’s probably not the right idea for you.
A tool that I use that maybe is quite interesting to think about is grading your ideas based on a number of different areas. Again it’s an Excel thing. I think we’re going to maybe turn it into a little product. That’s the plan. It uses the Fibonacci sequence – originally it used just a scale of one to ten-

Tom:

Yeah, I remember the first one you showed us.

Howard:

The first version, the MVP, was – I try and practice what I preach – the MVP was a zero to ten-

Tom:

Sounds good, MVP Excel spreadsheets. Brilliant!

Howard:

Yeah, and it actually did the job really well. I set up on one axis a list of criteria that I felt were important to judge whether this idea is worth pursuing or not. They range from the passion side to is it a value socially? Am I making a difference to the world with this? There were criteria around customers; how urgently do people need this? How desperate is their need for it? There was aspects around monopolizing a market; can I monopolize a market? Has this market been commoditized already? There’s a bunch of different areas. They roughly fall into-

Tom:

They’re quite varied in many ways. They’re not all about just solving a technical problems, I mean-

Howard:

No, no. I’d say the vast majority are not about technology. It’s more around market, customers, the product idea – that doesn’t even need to be technical, it’s just what the idea would manifest itself as – personal passion, and competition. Those are the main boxes the criteria fell into, so it’s five of them. Within that I had kind of five different criteria, a few of which I just mentioned, and I graded them from one to ten in my first version.
I put an idea into this Excel sheet, go through the criteria, mark them one to ten, one being least, ten being most. Then at the end of it you get a score, you then look at all the ideas you’ve got and you’ve very easily got a quick score of is this worth pursuing or not?

Tom:

I suppose you wouldn’t rely on that solely. You need to make an educated guess on certain things. You’re not just going to pick the top one and definitely go with it, but it’s a way to help you sort what you’ve been thinking about?

Howard:

Yeah, I use it mainly to sort ideas. If I’ve got a double digit number of ideas that have accrued – so if I’ve got fifteen ideas for things – that all feel okay, if I want to get that into three to five to do further validation and research on, that’s how I do it. I use this little tool to do that and then I go into Lean Canvas-

Tom:

Then you’d maybe speak to some customers, that kind of thing?

Howard:

Exactly. That’s at the point where I’ll start thinking, ‘Okay, what could this look like? Who would be the people that I feel would use it?’ I will then go find them and start talking to them about it, and ask them the right kind of questions to ascertain whether I think it’s worth pursuing further.

Tom:

When you get to that stage you don’t necessarily have to speak to a lot of people, you don’t have to spend ages doing this, but it does take time, so if you had to do that for all fifteen, I mean, there’s no point, right? You need to weed them down somehow.

Howard:

Absolutely. I go through the passion part first, that’s the first question. Then I run it through my little tool – very basic – run it through that tool. That usually chops my lots of ideas down to a handful. Then of that handful then I can easily go and find a few people to talk to about each one. Then that’s the point where you can really start validating whether the idea is right for me and right to pursue.

Tom:

You touched on it earlier; you’ve reworked how the grading goes? What was the thinking behind that?

Howard:

I have. In December I went to a course on SCRUM which is a product management methodology, product development methodology, and I went to this course on SCRUM, a SCRUM master certification. One of the things we did as part of the training was building our product roadmap. So, all the features that would go into a product.
The way that the development team would judge how big a piece of work is, is you don’t just judge it on difficulty or time, you give it a number. If you give it a number between one and ten, say you’ve got one thing that’s a five and one thing that’s a six, it’s very difficult to ascertain the difference there.

Tom:

Yeah of course, yeah.

Howard:

How much bigger is a six than a five? It’s kind of hard to say. It’s quite arbitrary. The way that in SCRUM methodology the size of different bits of work are measured is by the Fibonacci sequence, which is one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one. So the two numbers before it, added together.
I found that idea really interesting and when I was on the course I scribbled down in my Apple Notes, ‘When I get home I’ve got to check this against my matrix thing.’ I went home and set it up and obviously because the gaps between the numbers are much larger, you a) have to think a bit more, so you’re not just putting sixes in the whole time-

Tom:

Definitely yeah, it’s hard to do between a five and a seven, right? But-

Howard:

Yeah, if you use the one to ten scale you can very easily just end up putting in loads of fives and sixes and a few sevens, which means there’s not much difference between things. If you’re using this Fibonacci-style way of doing it then you’ve suddenly got these bigger differences which makes you think more about the criteria, and also you get a more pronounced result with what comes out at the end.

Tom:

It makes you think a lot about the very high numbers, but those are the ones you really want to look out for-

Howard:

Absolutely.

Tom:

… because if you’re marking something high, then that’s very important.

Howard:

Yeah, so if you’re marking something as say a twenty-one versus a thirteen, you’ve got to really think about that because that’s making it far more valuable. It made me think a lot more about how I was- When I was thinking about the ideas, it made me interrogate the idea and the way I was thinking about it much more deeply than just saying, ‘Ooh okay, it’s a six,’ rather than a five or a seven.

Tom:

Yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it actually, I think that’s a really good approach to take. How often do you review your spreadsheet? Like, a weekly thing? Or are you just dipping into it now and then?

Howard:

I’m usually in there every two or three days.

Tom:

Oh, okay, wow. Wow.

Howard:

Yeah, to be honest. There’s so much stuff that’s going in there. Sometimes it can be a bit unwieldy so I’ve had to create a few different versions. There’s a few ideas that were prioritized, and then have fallen back again. I then leave them to percolate for a while.
I just live with them for a bit, or again, I get curious again around the idea and the world around me and start thinking about the existing solutions that are out there and how good are they. Again, is the problem that I think there is, is it really that acute and really that strong?
I tend to be in that sheet every two to three days, adding new stuff, maybe adjusting my feeling on how big this market is, how easy it is to get started, all those kind of things.

Tom:

Do you ever find that you have things that just lurk there for ages? Or do you have to be strict and get rid of things?

Howard:

There’s a few-

Tom:

I know I do.

Howard:

… There’s a few really big ideas that have lurked that are still there-

Tom:

And you haven’t got rid of them because you know they’re good, but you can’t tackle them right now?

Howard:

I know they’re good and I can’t tackle them right now in some cases. Also, I don’t feel the timing is right-

Tom:

Got it.

Howard:

There’s a really great analogy someone said, I can’t remember who it was so I can’t attribute it, but start-ups are often like surfing in that you have to wait for the wave.

Tom:

Yeah.

Howard:

If you go too early you’ll miss it, if you go too late, you’ll miss it.

Tom:

Yeah, yeah.

Howard:

It’s all about that timing. Some of the ideas that I think there’s genuine problems and I’ve got the right idea for the problem that needs to be solved, but the method of execution or the market isn’t quite right-

Tom:

Got it.

Howard:

… which is why they tend to lurk. So there’s a handful there that I’m lying in wait for the time to be right.

Tom:

Sounds good man, I wait with bated breath! That’s really interesting to hear about the way you go about this stuff, I’m sure there’s plenty of people that are listening to this who have got a similar problem. I know I have ideas floating around my head, most of which are completely useless, but it would be nice to have them noted down somewhere!
That’s wicked, I think watch this space! A joint partnership coming soon. Brand new tool on the market. It’s actually on my list of things to do, which is so long at the moment. You want to talk about lists? This is scaring me at the moment. It is towards the top of my list to start making in the very near future.

Howard:

I’m pleased to hear it.

Tom:

I don’t think it’s going to be pretty when it first comes out, but-

Howard:

That’s our MVP.

Tom:

Yeah exactly! Really good to have you in. First guest on the Lighthouse podcast, that’s brilliant. Thank you very much.

Howard:

Pleasure.

Tom:

You can find us at wearelighthouse.com, go and check out all the other blog content. We have more podcasts to listen to, you can find us on iTunes. Find us on Twitter: @wearelighthouse. Where, Howard, can we find you?

Howard:

Find me on Twitter: @HowardGray, that’s G-R-A-Y. You can find me on my website which is howardgray.net and you can find my company at rozel.co which is R-O-Z-E-L.co.

Tom:

Awesome. I suggest everyone go and checks Howard out, he’s got lots going on. I think we’ll have you again sometime soon, right?

Howard:

Yeah I can make that happen for sure.

Tom:

Yeah, wicked.
Until next time people, catch you later!