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It’s 2016 and I’m standing outside Estée Lauder’s dazzling New York headquarters. To my left, protesters demonstrate in front of Trump Tower. To my right, pure midtown, Big Apple buzz. But nothing can distract me from the task ahead: I’ve been given the opportunity to pitch my business idea to a room of stakeholders from the world’s most recognisable and prestigious beauty brands.

I’ve got one hour to discover if — when scrutinised by my target market — my start-up idea has potential. One hour that will clarify whether my dream of developing a product is genius or if it would be cleverer to take a six-figure salary waiting for me in London.

This was just one of the things I did to stress-test my plan to develop an influencer intelligence and digital trends platform called CORQ before taking investment in 2017. While no one would go down this path if they didn’t feel certain their product was needed, gut is not enough. Instinct won’t comfort you in the first ego-crushing 12 months, nor will it impress investors.

By the time I walked into that New York meeting, I’d already spent two years consulting for my target customers — brands and agencies — on digital projects and influencer marketing. I’d worked with influencers as an editor since 2012 at companies such as Condé Nast and WGSN. I’d seen the remarkable impact influencer partnerships could have on audience growth and brand recognition.

Yet, my clients were openly anxious about this new desire for influencer content. They’d been disappointed by past experiences of unprofessionalism, overcharged by cowboy managers and caught out by influencers who hadn’t volunteered information that would make them unsuitable for campaigns.

They also felt like the digital landscape was moving too quickly for them to keep up. As a consultant, I was booked out solidly, and had reached the point where I couldn’t scale my earnings any further, but I knew my insight was valuable. The only option? Build a product, replicating what I did through consultancy. I prototyped on Adobe Experience and user-tested for weeks before taking a penny of investment.

Responding to a problem in your target market by creating a solution is the bread and butter of any good entrepreneur. For example, as co-founder of legal firm Marlborough House Partners, Patrick Tolhurst — also founder of legal software start-up Kudocs — knew how unprofit­able maintaining company registers, director approvals and shareholder ­consents was for his industry. He says: “We came up with Kudocs as a way to ­automate these processes, reducing costs and saving time for clients.”

Similarly, Sarah Akwisombe, founder of the No Bull Business School, had a thriving interior design blog and as a result was continually asked by her peers for advice. How had she done it and how could they replicate this? “I saw an opportunity to solve a problem by providing a course about how to start a commercially successful blog,” she says. “Since then, I have always followed the pain points I could see my audience had, which led to courses on Instagram, branding, general business skills, money and more.”

For investors, a proposition that ­capitalises on an opportunity within an existing market can be attractive. Not every venture capitalist is searching for the next Uber. Anu Shah, CEO of venture capital firm ZAG, says: “I’ll always look at entrepreneurs who are pitching a business that already exists in some form but through investment and development they could do what they’re already doing at a bigger scale and a higher margin.”

However, not every entrepreneur is born in a market they know well. Rohan Silva worked at the Treasury and was an adviser to David Cameron before co-founding workspace property developer Second Home, but he could see there was an emerging opportunity to serve a new wave of ­companies.

He describes his decision to start up as a combination of “gut and noggin”. “We had a view about how the economy was changing along with data on the explosion of small businesses but the city — the actual built environment — wasn’t evolving to keep up.” This, combined with entrepreneur friends who vouched that there was nowhere creative and interesting to rent office space, propelled him to move forward with Second Home.

That’s not to say a strong, accurate gut reaction won’t deliver significant success. After all, not everything can be explained through data. Alex Myers, founder of marketing agency Manifest, launched the business from his living room in 2009 and describes the move as “a heady mix of naivety and bravado”.

Having spent his career working with brands, he was frustrated by the lack of passion their agencies seemed to have for their clients.

He wanted to build things and focus on the work, not just the bottom line. “That demanded a different mindset to the agencies I had experienced, who were all set up to establish a clear ‘us and them’ approach.”

For Shah, solving a problem which is not necessarily going to appear via data analysis is also interesting. “I’m looking for entrepreneurs who can weave their way to the opportunity,” he says.

“You do need data but you don’t want entrepreneurs who are too analytical — they need to be able to see what is happening in a changing landscape and respond to it. So much of this is about supply and demand.”

This has certainly worked out for Myers. A decade on, Manifest has offices in London, Stockholm, New York and Manchester. The latter location is ­newly opened and follows the current mood that there’s more to the UK than its capital. “It’s important for us to live outside the London bubble and find the talent and ideas that exist elsewhere,” he says.

Regardless of their business or how they developed it, all these business leaders note that having digital skills and understanding how to use social media as a tool is part of the reason for their success. While Akwisombe admits she has always been “techy”, she is also committed to learning new skills to keep her ahead of the market.

Meanwhile, Myers — a self-confessed “nerd” — was offering social media and digital services in 2009 when the majority of agencies in his industry were focused on traditional communications.

Learning and listening are important, but so too is sharing. Once you have the idea for a business, you have to broadcast your plans. Repeatedly, even if the reception is poor. Silva, who pitched to 150 investors, says: “Your first 10 pitches might not be brilliant, but you’ll rework your position. In the end you’ll have a better business for it.”

I personally can vouch for this. That incredible New York meeting? It happened because one night at dinner in Venice I told the woman sitting next me about CORQ. She turned out to be incredibly influential and opened that first door for me.

Regardless of how you stress-test the idea, it’s crucial that you have what it takes, and qualifying this can be the hardest thing of all. “You need to be someone who won’t give up, and that’s a very specific quality,” says Shah.

This is the ultimate stress test — can you be one of the 40 per cent that doesn’t fold in the first three years of business? Do you have the grit to swallow rejection and emerge from financial dire straits?

That day in New York, I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. But almost three years on — and on the brink of profit­ability — I can see CORQ stood a chance because of the one instruction I was given in that meeting.

My initial idea was bigger than what I built. Too big. Too difficult to explain. In the middle of my presentation, a terrifyingly powerful woman stood up and told me to stop. Go back three slides, she said. Then she pointed at the monitor. “Build that,” she said. “Just that. That’s the bit I want.” And that’s what I did.


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