Ben Barnett still remembers the many, many extra hours he spent working on strategy presentations and reports to ensure the deliverables were as close as possible to perfect.
Looking back now, the former principal at boutique strategy firm Nous confesses that much of that time was probably “ego-driven” and wasted.
“I think, like most management consultants, I was a perfectionist,” Barnett, 37, says.
“And that perfectionism meant that you spent a lot of discretionary effort on that last little part of the solution. In a start-up environment it is simply not possible to do that.
“So, I think psychologically you get comfort out of the fact that the discretionary effort that you used to spend in that perfectionist sense was probably wasted time.
“It probably didn’t add much value, and was probably more of an ego-driven approach internally to keep pushing something.”
Barnett now runs the education start-up Loop, which spun out of Nous in 2016. Loop offers a smartphone and web application that enables teachers to track how their lessons are being received by students and lets students tell teachers if they are having problems with the material.
Barnett, who declined to detail the company’s revenue, said Loop is used by more than 100 education institutions around the world with local customers including Holmesglen, Swinburne University and Monash University.
He says that running a start-up has been a steep un-learning curve.
“I think when you’re a consultant, you’re paid to deliver a solution, and the interaction that you’ll have with clients from day one is around where is that solution getting to, what it is going to look like,” Barnett says.
“Even the hypothesis-driven, problem-solving model that you will use as a consultant is still very much solution-biased.
“You want to have your best guess at the solution from day one and that means that you’re jumping to the answer and you’re trying to build up an answer as you go.”
Work out the problem first
In a start-up environment, the bias has to be “first work out what the problem is that you’re trying to solve”.
“Is that problem painful enough for individuals? And are there enough individuals or organisations in the world that feel that particular pain?” he says.
“So, for us, it’s really understanding what does student disengagement look like, in an educational context, where students aren’t completing courses or not getting the performance that they want.”
Taking the consulting solution-oriented approach in a start-up is dangerous because you could build something that no one wants.
“I think the fundamental difference is really the notion of working in an established business model, which is where you find yourself 99 per cent of the time as a consultant, versus in a start-up, where the business model is in flux and the products or service is evolving,” he says.
Barnett, a Commerce/Arts graduate with a masters in political theory from Oxford University, says the scope of work is also much more open in a start-up.
“In a consulting environment, because it’s a fixed engagement, you know what the bounds are and you’re very clear what’s in scope and what’s out of scope,” he says.
“But when you’re a start-up, it’s very problematic to say this is in scope or out of scope because you’re making assumptions about what you’re trying to do.”
Dead-ends and surprises
At Loop that meant the company developed a feature to block students that was never needed and a feature that used emojis, that they felt was an “unsophisticated way of providing feedback to the teacher”, proved a hit.
“So, I think psychologically you just have to get used to that level of discomfort and uncertainty, but it’s also much more empowering because I think it then removes constraints.
“It allows you to experiment in different areas and as a consultant you would have to think through a solution and feel like you’ve been able to dot all i’s and cross the t’s before you actually go and implement it.
“Whereas at a start-up I think you can feel more empowered to just give something a crack even if you only think it’s 60 or 70 per cent there and then you’ll get feedback from your users and then actually together you’ll refine it and make a much better solution.”