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Observations from Level 39 office hours

One of the pleasures of what we do is being invited into accelerators like Level 39, Barclays Fintech and TravelTech to give time to the next generation of young startups.

Every time we wrap up one of these sessions, it strikes me how the themes progress between the different conversations and how I think it says something about the current state of the startup ecosystem.

I’m sharing some simple notes here, in the hope that they may be of interest and use to some of you.

Messaging is a new plateau, not winner takes all

Messaging is the new big trend. As a result many founders are turning their design principles toward this, just as the move to apps became very common in the last few years.

One reaction to this is to think: “won’t your messaging platform just get stomped by Apple, FB, Google and co?” But the interesting thing about messaging is that you don’t have to own the platform to design something valuable that speaks the language of that format.

Quartz new app shows how a messaging dynamic and design language can inform a useful new way of presenting things, whether you are literally running on a messaging platform or not. You get a head start working to this trend, you are immediately compatible with anyone that may think to acquire you and the language of successful messaging apps like Line and WeChat is to integrate a whole variety of third party services into the platform.

Messaging is an opportunity to join the new normal, not just a looming ecosystem war in the hands of a few giants.

Persuading institutions

Often, innovations must play into and function within the realm of more traditional markets or communities. As a result, it can be hard to get the buy in of established key figures and influencers.

One way to tackle this challenge is to think about how you create prestige and opportunity for a core few, that incentivises them to be part of the trend. How do you make disruption aspirational in the eyes of those wed to the old way of doing things?

You may start small — but gathering these first few advocates is like bringing together the first flakes of a snowball, a snowman, then an avalanche.

The entrepreneur is changing

If nothing else, the “Tech City” initiative has made one thing clear: if you want to found a business, London is ready for you.

The variety of founders I have me in the last year is far broader and more diverse than those present five or six years ago. For example, it feels like people who may have been more conservative in the past, who already have existing and growing businesses, are more eager to take the path less trod and disrupt themselves.

This previous experience can be an enormous asset. But, especially if disrupting an existing established biz, you don’t have to have watched every episode of Dragon’s Den to know that investors will quickly push for the old business to die and the focus to shift entirely to where their interests are.

I love indirect network builders

Some businesses produce a product, sell it to an audience and reap the rewards. Others provide a service, often nearly for free, that fulfils a need and disrupts an industry — but crucially, builds a valuable network of connections at the same time.

Tradeshift was such a business. Facebook did this with photos to establish social connections. Whenever I hear a similar mission, my eyes light up. It’s hard. But it’s valuable.