Technologist, businessman and mentor, Shakeeb Niazi FBCS CITP FIOEE FIET, has actively mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs through start-ups and scale-ups. He also promotes the benefits of IT to the socially disadvantaged through his charity SEED (The Society for Entrepreneurial Education and Development).

How did you arrive at becoming a mentor?

I started out as a contract analyst programmer, but very quickly worked my way up to becoming a Solutions Delivery Lead (Business Analyst, Solutions Architect, Project Manager and Programme Manager). I was a contractor for around 30 years designing and building technology as well as implementing high-impact changes to systems.

I also worked with Alan Charlesworth, co-author of Entrepreneurs Succeed with Us. I wrote a chapter entitled ‘Make technology work for you - avoid costly ICT mistakes’ which we now call 'Growth Hacking' and I also designed the cover of the book and the website. We were heavily involved as partners, but Alan was leading the content of the book.

At the same time of launching the book, the BCS Magic Mentors’ scheme was launched in early 2013. By the end of that year I had taken the post of treasurer for the BCS Entrepreneurs Group. In 2014, I became the author and curator of the BCS Entrepreneurs Mentorship Programme, working my way up to becoming Chairman of BCS Entrepreneurs in March 2017.

Is there a ‘right way’ to begin a start-up?

If you go to the BCS entrepreneurs’ specialist group website, you’ll find we reference a number of events and entrepreneurial tools to help you nurture and discuss the idea. It’s under a heading of: Inspire. Nurture. Launch. Once you’ve got a good idea, then you have to challenge proof of concept and proof of value and proof of market. Proof of value is, ‘would somebody buy it?’ Proof of market is, ‘how many people will buy it?’

The next part of your journey is to develop the pain and gain (using either one of my tools or value proposition canvas) and the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). I’ve got a specific formula for designing an MVP. So, if I’m targeting a market sector, I might approach a client and say, ‘I’m thinking about building this. This is a pain that I perceive you have. These are your possible gains. This is my MVP.’

More importantly with the MVP is you have version 1.0, what I’m going to build now. Then 1.1, which is what I’m going to build next. Then 1.x, that I will build some time in the future. By doing this, you can take the customer on a journey of the technology being developed and then they can see things in columns two and three that they might want not just in the future but right now. So, it’s a way of demonstrating and engaging the customer and finding out what the customer ‘really’ wants. Is it truly his pain and gain? And is my product something he really wants to buy?

So, would your approach iron out problems, pretty early on?

It will certainly highlight the potential of the business. As it’s the way you’re approaching it: ‘I’m not selling you anything, I’m just showing you a concept.’ And the goal is to try and understand what a customer wants. You don’t build and then market it. You build to market - I cannot over emphasise the importance of this. So, you’ve got to do the market research to understand what the market wants first because you need to know if there is a value and a market there. What you don’t do is open the corner shop and wait for people to come in. That’s why over 90% of start-ups fail, because they fail to understand what their customer challenge, their buying journey and their capacity to change existing processes.

So, you’ve grown your idea and tested viability. What if you need to take a new direction?

Iteration is key to the tools - the MVP will need to redevelop several times and then you pivot. Pivoting is changing from one direction to another, either changing your marketing or changing the technology, then review, review, review. The whole thing has to be KPI driven. My background is analytics, specifically designing corporate analytics, business intelligence, that kind of stuff. If the analytics are saying that you’re failing to get the traction, then you’ve got to re-look at all the tools output and see if things are still relevant such as the customer persona or your messaging.

Who is the customer? Will they buy? What will they pay? And then you’ve got to work out what it will cost to get one. Cost of acquisition. And then lifetime value. And if the numbers say that you’re only going to get two new customers a week but you’re spending £10,000, then you’re going nowhere quickly. So, something’s missing the mark. In short, there has to be a review point. So, analytics gives you that early warning system. You’ve got to use that to do your remedial work.

When does a start-up actually become just a normal business?

My view is, if you’re the owner-operator and you’re less than five mil, you’re really a start-up. You’re a small business. A start-up is a phase of a business. My role as chair of BCS Entrepreneurs is to give back to society and the membership, supporting other members to become mentors and support those that need our help including students and the unemployed.  I give my time to BCS on a pro-bono basis to the early stage start-ups as my personal goal is about social impact.

Tell us about your mentoring and charity work?

I get to meet great people. Some people have now become volunteers in SEED, which is the Society for Entrepreneurial Education and Development. At SEED, the four pillars are digital skills, coding / computing, employability and entrepreneurship. While I was developing the BCS Entrepreneurs programme with the accelerators and universities, I noticed a lack of resources for the unemployed, the disenfranchised and students who are in HEs rather than university. There are lots of people out there who are hungry, are very intelligent, entrepreneurial and need a helping hand.

We don’t invest or give money to any of the start-ups. We provide a framework of learning until they either get investment or start earning money as a commercial entity. SEED is based around helping people with no resources to have a good grounding in learning, entrepreneurship and building business.

So how many people do you mentor at one time?

I created a mentor development programme called Alchemy. We’ve also started doing some training for BCS members to become mentors by teaching them speed-mentoring techniques. We use these in our Tech Mentoring Monday events at BCS London.

With regards to mentee development I usually organise a day and run an hour-long ‘pit-stop’ usually consisting of 15 minutes of pitch, 15 minutes of Q&A, 15 minutes of next actions with homework to do. Entrepreneurs have to complete the homework and then come back to me. It’s not like I’m sat there next to them for 50 hours. It’s really an hour each. But some of them get more than that. On an average month I’d say I’ll talk to about 30 start-ups and on occasion 50 when I am involved with other programmes outside the BCS.

How important is it to maintain a culture of a start-up?

The danger is that as a start-up, you grow and then you turn into a corporate and the culture that built it dies. The leadership part of culture and communication has to be filtered down. In short, the leadership team needs to create and maintain a culture that the leaders of each of the departments can filter down to their people. Maintaining the culture is super important.

How do you know when it’s time to exit?

When the price is right. That’s all it is. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘I’ll never sell this business.’ When someone says, ‘I’ll buy it for 20 mil,’ they’ll say, ‘I’ll keep it, I’ll keep it.’ But somebody will come around with 150 mil then you’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m out.’ Everybody has a price. That’s one of the reasons why I created a charity. Because no matter what I do with the charity I can’t exit.