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Building Layers

A while back I posted the image you see above in a Tweet to John V Willshire. We’d been discussing, over coffee, a new idea and we got on to the subject of startups and disruption. As happens when chatting with John, lots of seeds get planted; one of those, for me, was around how to get people to see how difficult it is to demonstrate the effort required to get a business idea off the ground.

I like to run workshops. I find a day spent working through a series of activities to be the best use of a client’s time and money; the ensuing ideas that bubble up are usually of a better quality than if I’d taken a brief and gone away to think about it. And by usually, I mean always. It’s not the way of working that I’ve been used to throughout most of my ‘careering’; however, through wanting to do things differently outside of the organisational boundaries I’d previously experienced I’ve settled on the broad term of workshops.

But startups, they’ve generally got going and don’t always need to understand how to change, to disrupt (ugh, sorry) and to work differently. That said, it pays to be reminded, and so I wanted to something that focused workshop participants on the journey to date.

That’s when I hit upon layers, and building them up.

In the image, which is just an example, there are three layers to the construction. In some organisations there could be more; there shouldn’t be fewer than three. The principles remain the same.

Layer One
These are the founding principles of the business. What it stands for – the thing that lays the foundation of everything that comes next. It’s the founders themselves, of course, as well as the name, the products and services and the ‘ethics’ of everyone involved, from suppliers to employees. This is, essentially, the cultural pieces of an organisation.

Layer Two
This layer features customers – who is it that you’re talking to, or wanting to talk to? What are the additional services or products that might be applicable to your own but you don’t manufacture? What advertising messages are you putting out there?

In short, this is the layer that is the public face of your business. The interfacing pieces, which are inextricably linked to the first layer – or should be.

Layer Three
This, in the example, is the final layer. These are the aspirations and ultimate goals of the business. They should serve as the pinnacle of what you’re seeking to achieve. They may well be ambitious – and why not!

The Process
Once these layers have been created as individual pieces, only then can they be built into a physical thing: a business. If one is missing from that first layer, then it’ll be hard to get off the ground.

Of course, cards fall down. Building something from scratch isn’t easy. It requires work and dedication. And there are things that can make it easier, that can provide a platform on top of each layer.

For example, what can help you get from layer one to layer two? Would it be a bank loan, professional branding and design, or seed money? All these things can strengthen the initial idea. And they enable you to build the next layer on.

From layer two to three? That could be positive customer testimonials, App Store reviews, repeat sales. The things that can help you reach those lofty goals.

In the workshop I might come and take something away. Perhaps a founder leaves; the business is, for a short period, unstable. It may collapse, and require more thought on how to put it back together – what is often called a ‘pivot’.

Doing this goes to show just how much effort it required. How that can be made more difficult by things outside your control. It shines a light on things that, in some instances, founders haven’t considered before, so focused are they on gaining a bigger audience, refining the proposition, or working out what their business model might be (it can’t be advertising, as that’s not adding strength to the business, despite how well some play that game in the short-term – more on that another time).

The Point?
This activity is designed to last an hour, or so. No more. However, what I’ve noticed in the small groups I’ve done this activity with is how resourceful people can be. I’ve built a classic pyramid structure out of cards – which I did next to a 3D printer in the I Can Make HQ at Wayra UK, making it even more of a challenge – but other groups have built sturdier structures, even using glue to give themselves an advantage (which is okay, as long as they can give it a name within the overall process).

I’ve even seen one group change their entire business idea and model based on this single exercise, although I think that’ll be rare.

What Else Can We Learn?
After I posted the Tweet, an observer suggested the concept/model/activity could be used in other ways, such as building a career path, or just life in general.

And it can. It’s a model for learning. Because that’s how it all works: it’s about building layers.