Get out of the weeds! Offsites and startups

by Adrian Lloyd

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I work for a startup.  It’s Episode 1 Ventures, a 2 year old VC fund I helped found.  It’s different to the startups I invest in in that I have fixed revenue for 3-5 years (our management fee) depending on how long it will take us to deploy our 1st round capital and I only have to “sell” to those who pay me every time I want to raise a fund.  Otherwise, there are plenty of similarities to the startups I invest in – constant selling to customers (startups) to attract them to our fund, constant improvement of our offer for our target customers (the startups), concern about how we are doing vs the competition, fear about running out of cash (in our case, how long it will take to raise a 2nd fund), concern about who to hire.

Our work is intense and we get very involved in the day to day.  We work in the business very hard but we rarely, if ever, have time to work on the business.  So we decided to have an off-site over 2 days in Devon last week so we could regroup as a team, consider how we’re doing and work out how to do it better over the next year.

I believe that this offsite was the most productive time we have spent as a team since our foundation 2 years ago.  And I think you should do an offsite too.

Here are some, I hope, interesting thoughts about our offsite that might help you with yours.  They are about our VC offsite, of course, but totally applicable to startups too.

1. WE HAD VERY CLEAR OBJECTIVES to measure the success of the offsite against

Goal: Strategy Refresh Episode One

  • Reflect on lessons learned and how market has changed
  • Identify stakeholder priorities and needs
  • Carve out market positioning
  • Perform gap and feasibility analysis
  • Develop thesis for the next year – and how to get there

2. THIS WAS THE LONGEST TIME WE HAD SPENT AS A TEAM TOGETHER – we were a team, not a collection of individuals

3. WE HAD A PROFESSIONAL FACILITATOR

Our facilitator happened to be our LP and Venture Partner, Paul McNabb who was experienced at running offsites at Cisco.  The value of having a facilitator is that he/she will keep you on point, on time and notice a lot which the core team does not.  It helped us enormously that Paul has a strong vested interest in our success – he really cared that this went well.  So it did

4. EVERYONE HAD PREPARATORY WORK

Arguably this is the most important point alongside the 1st.  We all had clear tasks to complete before the offsite and we all had to present our work at the offsite.  This meant that we all understood that each team member couldn’t work on our normal work at the same rate in the run up to the offsite, meant that we were all bought in to the offsite, meant that we all were engaged at the offsite and meant we all had clear accountability after the offsite to execute on the actions attributed to our sections

5. WE STAYED SOMEWHERE AWESOME, AND IT WASN’T A HOTEL, AND WE ATE REALLY WELL

We stayed at Paul’s house overlooking the River Dart in Devon.  We were lucky to have Paul’s home available to us.  I believe that getting out of the city to somewhere stunning and natural is important.  The views over the river and steep, wooded sides to the river valley inspired me, relaxed me, made me feel lucky.  The fact that it was a home and only we were there felt great and meant no distraction at all (from hotel staff / other guests etc.).  We made sure our meals were excellent and I wish we had all got invovled in making the meals, but Paul loves to cook so that wasn’t on the cards!  When we ate out, we at out well.

6. NO “BUSINESS-AS-USUAL”

Phones were turned off and we only did our normal VC work before and after the offsite work was complete and in between the organised meals and activity.  As soon as one person starts getting deep into business-as-uasual then everyone feels they have to too.  It was critical, I think , that Simon, our managing partner, did not get sucked into this work.  He led by example.

7. WE KAYAKED OUT INTO THE CHANNEL

I generally dislike team-building activities, and thankfully so do the rest of the team.  But I love getting out into nature and doing sport.  And thankfully so do the rest of the team.  Kayaking was perfect – as team- or individual-oriented as I wanted.  I could kayak with a team mate for a bit and then peel off.  The sun shone, a seal said hi, a cormorant waved and I had a bracing swim.

8. WE DEVELOPED A LONG LIST OF CLEAR ACTIONS WITH RESPONSIBLIITIES CLEARLY ALLOCATED

Obviously an off-site is a waste of time if nothing changes as a result of it.  We had Jess, our sharp-as-a-tack exec assistant, take critical minutes of the entire offsite with actions clearly marked and who is responsible for each action clearly attributed.  Paul helped enormoulsy as facilitator turning great conversation and debate into conculsive actions.  We are working through them now.

9. WE CHECK IN ON OUR ACTION LIST EVERY MONDAY MORNING TO SEE HOW WE’RE DOING

In order to ensure shit gets done, we prioritise a check-in on the action items every Monday morning.  This is the Non-Urgent Important stuff which is so much more valuable in the long-term than the urgent important business-as-usual work.

10. HERE’S OUR FULL AGENDA TO GIVE YOU SOME MORE COLOUR

DAY 1

  • Intro and objectives (Simon) (0:10) 8:30 – 8:40
  • Portfolio Review (1:20) 8:40 – 10:00
    • Portfolio shape inc. expected follow ons (Damien)
    • Portfolio review (NED leads for each company) inc. discussion of lessons learned (all)
  • Market Review (2:00) 10:00 – 12:00
    • Market trends – Data (Paul)
    • Market trends – anecdotal (Damien, Adrian, Simon, Ash)
    • Benchmarks/Competitive Review (Ash)
    • Win/loss/seen analysis (Martin)

(Working Lunch)

  • Conclusions (1:30) 12:00 – 13:30
    • Do VC’s add value (All)
    • SWOT discussion (All)
    • Conclusions, summary of themes (Paul)

Group Activity – Kayaking

DAY 2

  • Summary of Day 1, review of conclusions (Simon) (0:10) 8:30 – 8:40
  • Strategy Implications (2:20) 8:40 – 11:00
    • Stakeholder Analysis (Simon leads)
    • Scenario Discussions (Paul)
    • Developing Competitive Differentiation (Adrian)
    • Episode One Values (Simon leads)
  • Operational Implications (2:00) 11:00 – 13:00
    • Consequences for approach to operations (hiring, advisors, services, investment themes, investment structures) (All, Paul facilitates)
    • Investor strategy – type of investors, fund approach (Damien)
    • What should we do now for current portfolio (Ash and portfolio board member)
    • Priorities, action items and next steps (Simon)

Team Lunch – Seahorse Restaurant

And finally, here’s a uesful link from Quora with a few more ideas: https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-best-way-to-organize-a-retreat-offsite-for-a-startup

 

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