Digital Skills Academy
Entrepreneurial Insights & Useful Resources: Damien Downes, Curriculum Lead

Entrepreneurial Insights & Useful Resources: Damien Downes, Curriculum Lead

Damien is Curriculum Lead on our "Digital Business Managers & Marketers" Stream. 

What is your background, what led you to be a lecturer at the Digital Skills Academy?

I have twenty years commercial experience, and after working in the Middle East, I wanted to get back into education. Initially, I was interested in accountancy, and strategic accounting in particular. I’m a big advocate of the Balanced Scorecard, and the value it can bring to people’s businesses. Later I began a PhD focusing on business models. I was then keen to share these insights with other people. I also used to do sports coaching, so I was always coaching people in one way or another. It made sense and was a natural progression, combined with my interest in entrepreneurship to support people trying to learn more about business. 

The US business models such as the Lean Startup, and Steve Blank’s ideas, are all very applicable here. In the past, I have lectured in other colleges, but they are not yet all teaching these ideas, so the Digital Skills Academy is a great opportunity to communicate their value to a wider, receptive audience.

Over the last twelve months have you seen any interesting ideas evolved from your classes, any you can mention?

Yes, our graduate teams went onto NDRC launch pad. They did not necessarily continue with same ideas, but they built their team here, learned how to work together, and then went on to work on something else at the NDRC. This was a great success and demonstrated the value of testing the validity of their ideas.

Other groups have had great success too. One group had an idea to disrupt the travel industry, but they then changed their idea. They ended up experimenting with an idea that involved a major food supplier and children doing sporting events. It involved having food ready on route to matches. The food supplier was very much interested in working with the group after they finished WebInnovate, which is a great credit to the team.

We also had another successful project emerge that focussed on selling your house, and all the details that you need to comply with. They created a platform to make all of this happen in one place. It has great potential and has attracted the interest of some good industry partners.

Lots of great ideas emerge. Some have potential and the students do the research to validate whether anyone else is doing it already. We make our students do pitches and film them. Several of them have been of high enough quality that in my humble opinion they would be good enough to enter the International Business Model Competition and to do very well in it too. They had great potential and used all nine of the building blocks very well.  

What tips would you give to someone considering starting a new company?

Build a community around your product. Use your networks to support the idea. One participant successfully built up a group of interested possible clients using their existing network.

It is also important to park the ego. Be open to listening to feedback. Know what you don’t know, and look for answers from other people. Listen to your customers, hear what they have to say, and want it is they are asking for.

What epic fails have you seen? What important things should you try to avoid doing?

Don’t test your product on friends and family. Or rather don’t rely on their feedback as it can give you false confidence. One of our groups literally doorstepped tourists, people they’d never met before. This was a great thing to do, much better for getting honest feedback. If you keep referring to the nine building blocks, it guides you in validating each question. Test each concept and then you will go a long way to ensuring the success of your idea. Something may work in one place due to the local culture and not at all somewhere else. By asking these questions you help reduce the likelihood of being caught out.

Business Models - Definition, Building Blocks, Innovation from Remus Toma

Is Steve Blank’s rallying call of 'get out of the building' still an important thing to do, if so why?

Yes, I’m a big believer in the value of following this principle. You never know what answer you might get to a question when you speak to people face to face. You get unexpected replies, you can see the whites of their eyes. This is worth so much. You may come up with a completely different direction to follow. Also by talking to people, they can suggest other really good people with whom to talk. All of this comes from talking to people in person. It helps you to see if they really understand the question or not and if they are really interested.  

Who are your favourite thought leaders/blogs/sources of information and inspiration?

Inc.com is a great resource with really good stories about companies that made it, that found their niche and nailed it.  Guy Kawasaki writes a lot about startups. Alexander Osterwalder has a new book out, and his website has lots of free resources. Steve Blank, too, has a great site, he puts it all up, and is very big on sharing the knowledge, with lots of great resources.  Eric Ries, Lean Startup conference later this year is also one to watch as they will create lots of useful content.

The Kauffman Foundation is another great resource for information about entrepreneurship. Marcus Lemonis is also very good, with a big emphasis on 3Ps, people, process and profit. Have a look at his US TV show called ‘The Profit’ on CNBC on YouTube.

Gary Vaynerchuk has good insights too if you don’t mind his colourful language he is great and there is a lot of his content on YouTube.

First Round Review VC blog is also very good as they work with a lot of different successful companies. I also recommend reading Techcrunch and Fast Company for good insights as well.

Do you feel UK / Irish / European startups have different strengths and weaknesses compared to US based ones?

Here it may be a generational thing, previously perhaps people were less willing to believe they could succeed. Now though with Stripe and the Collison brothers, and Mark Little among others, there is a good atmosphere of confidence. In US people are happy to talk about failure. Many successful entrepreneurs are onto their second or third startup. They are happy to talk about how terribly their previous startups fared. It would be good to talk more about failures here. To show what was learned from these failures. In Ireland now there are lots of younger founders which is great, with more expectation that they can succeed.

In Ireland, we look more to the States, and now believe we can do it too. We can also take inspiration from the Israeli startup ecosystem, we are doing it much better now, and will hopefully continue to improve.

What tips would you give to people trying to get onto NDRC or another similar incubator after their time with Digital Skills Academy?

When you pitch you must be able to say you have validated your concept. If you can show you have drilled into it, researched it and have the data to support your insights you will make a strong impression. Show you have conducted basic user validations and experimented, set up landing pages to test your concept. All of this will prove you have validated your idea. For example, we had a food based start-up, and rather than write a long business plan we encouraged them to actually go out and sell what they had created. This will teach you much more than writing a business plan. 

What tech do you wish was already invented and available to make your life easier?

I come across so many great resources, but I sometimes struggle to know where they all are at any one point in time, and it takes too long to find them. It would be great, like Minority Report, to be able to instantly access all of those resources.

Life/work, online/offline, what are your strategies for managing it?

I have my Nokia smartphone and Surface all linked up. This is great as it means I can read interesting articles at any time anywhere. It’s also good to be able to respond quickly if I get a question from a student or a start-up. I love what I’m doing so I’m happy to be notified instantly. It might be nice to have a grading detox sometimes, but I don’t feel the need for a digital detox.

How do you create time/space for thinking and more blue sky creativity in your week?

Sometimes I have insights while travelling, I enjoy that time for reading and thinking on things. I’ve also resumed my PhD, and it really helps to be thinking in an academic space. It makes you look at things in a different light, you can see wider links and a bigger picture. It helps you to connect things in a different way. This enables some good cross-pollination of your ideas, the longer you do it the more insights seem to come to you. 

Find out more about our degrees and short courses:

BSc Degree in Digital Technology and Design

BSc (Honours) Degree in Digital Technology, Design and Innovation

Short Courses in Digital Skills