Startup lessons from a patient archaeologist
The two words, ‘excavation’ and ‘entrepreneur,’ are most likely to conjure up a construction site with giant yellow excavators. But if you were talking about Stuart Wilson you would be wrong.
Lost Medieval City Beneath the Sod
Stuart Wilson, 37, is a graduate archaeologist-and entrepreneur, though he might not classify himself as such. He was a toll collector when he invested in his passion: archaeological excavation. He followed a conviction that he was on the trail of a long lost major medieval city in Trellech, Wales.
Whereas he might have put a deposit on a home, or bought a sports car, he actually bought a 4.6 acre field-for £32,000 (about $40,000 at current exchange rates). He used his life savings and took out a bank loan to cover the cost. His mother, Barbara, said at the time, “Ah well, if you don’t find anything, it’ll make a nice picnic site.” So he had a risk mitigation plan right from the start!
This field was where he was pretty sure part of the lost city lay, buried beneath the farmland. He was sure enough of his passion that he gave up his job in the toll booth and settled in to demonstrate that his passion was about something real-and important, through digging up the site.
Without formal backers for his enterprise, he invested heavily of his time and energy, and precious little else, except an army of probably as many as 1,000 volunteers from across Europe as well as the locality, over the last eleven years.
The volunteers included archaeology students, who paid a small fee ($61 a day) to participate, as well as people from the surrounding areas. He also raised funds by selling T-shirts and other small scale revenue producing efforts. So convinced was Stuart, that he gave up his full-time job and worked shifts at a betting shop to help fund the project.
A Hidden Manor House
One of the major finds has been the remains of a large medieval manor house. But many other buildings, artifacts and whole streets have been unearthed. Stuart believes that there is much more that will see the light of day.
He was amazed to find that walls were fully intact, and floors, a well, drains, road surfaces, cobbled pavements, entrances, and now a fireplace with a chimney and a courtyard have all been found. Though they have unearthed parts of a street, know where many more exist, since they are still used as roads or tracks.
But now, following massive world-wide media attention, he envisions permanent on-site dig structures, an interpretive centre and recreations of Trellech buildings. His persistence is now paying off and he is dreaming much bigger. What in entrepreneurial terms one might call scaling. Part of the scaling might include a takeover-of more land, surrounding his own plot, since it holds but a fraction of the sprawling lost city.
From my own 50 years of living, observing and writing about entrepreneurship, I have come to distill seven characteristics that will almost certainly be present in a person who creates a new venture of any kind. Such a person:
- is predisposed to action-“I could have done that, but… “, you’ve heard many people say something similar, they never do;
- enjoys investigating & innovating– comments on the idea like, “it’ll never be worth it, because… ” incite finding a solution;
- experiences learning as a way of life-rather than shutting up shop and sticking to the known;
- tolerates ambiguity-and allows creativity to resolve it, often coming up with innovative solutions to problems;
- is a (controlled) risk-taker-will always consider how to deal with the downside;
- is able to put vision into practice-the passion has to have an expression in reality;
- while remaining very much in the present-to deal with the unexpected rather than being floored by it.
Stuart manifests most of these characteristics and his venture is now maturing. He comments that, “As a result of buying the field, my parents had many years of servitude.” In the case of almost any new venture, friends and family tend to be its best and most patient backers. In Stuart’s case this has certainly been the case, though he has now moved out of home, to a toilet block he converted to a home in the local town of Chepstow.Stuart also suggested that, “When you are a small fish in a big pond, then bigger fish tend to ignore you, leaving you alone.” However, his time of swimming in a ‘Blue Ocean’ where there are few predators, is now ending-as he is discovering.
He knows that he’s beginning to swim in a ‘Red Ocean,’ where a lot of blood is spilled, as competitors fight for prey. His solution like many entrepreneurs faced with that situation, is to become “a much bigger fish to make them think twice about attempting to take a bite.”
Financial Bootstrapping: The Stuart Wilson Example
Much that is written about entrepreneurship assumes that significant amounts of capital are needed. However, the reverse is true for about 99 per cent of new ventures started on a wing and a prayer. Stuart bootstrapped his venture big time. He cobbled together enough revenue and muscle to persist in his endeavor-a bootstrapper par excellence.
It is a particularly interesting example of bootstrapping, in that he did not set up a business, or even a nonprofit to achieve his ends. His venture is an example of something that is happening ever more frequently-and especially in the hands of creative individuals like Stuart, who don’t find that any conventional kind of organization meets their needs, and may not even think that they need a legal structure to change the world, anyway.
Of course, there are many instances in which it becomes necessary to have a formal legal entity. Stuart is now faced with choices that he did not need to confront at the outset. Two things have happened as a result of his efforts. First, he is beginning to gain traction, as the startup jargon calls it. The venture capitalists might call traction ‘evidence of market demand,’ and in Stuart’s case, it is the sheer numbers of people that have become involved with his dig, as a consequence of its revealed importance.
The second thing that has happened, is the notoriety he has been receiving from the world’s press and television media. That kind of public attention has followed disruptive startups in many sectors. When they can no longer contain their success, predators start showing an interest. There have been numerous instances of that happening. One of the more spectacular recent examples was the behemoth Walmart’s acquisition of jet.com-the online retailer.
In the case of the Lost City of Trellech, it is not buyers who may be circling the site, but government bodies or professional associations who may consider that such an important archaeological site cannot be left to what they may consider a maverick, despite his professional degree.
Potential Predator Poses a Problem
Right now, Cadw, the historic monuments arm of the Welsh Government threaten to ‘schedule’ his site. Stuart refuses to accept that they should take control, just as a business founder might fend off a takeover suitor. He has been assured by current officials that things would stay as they are, with him running the show. But he is savvy enough to know that officials come and go, just like management in an acquiring company.
Wanting to reach an accommodation, Stuart has offered to form a Heritage Partnership Agreement with Cadw, so that they can work together, without him losing control. But he’s not leaving it there. He is about to write an open letter to the Welsh Government to bolster public opinion in his favor.
It is not surprising that he has started this one-man lobbying effort, since he now has plans to turn the site into an public attraction. Stuart has submitted plans for an archaeological research centre and camp site to Monmouthshire County Council, signaling the dig site as “a valuable community asset that supports local tourism, hotels and pubs.” To ram the point home, he adds that it’s also, “an important archaeological site as well as a training and educational facility.”
Now that’s scaling, business or otherwise, and Trellech, the Lost City of Wales would inspire any aspiring entrepreneur who lacks big bucks, but dreams big.
Note: Stuart’s dad, Alan, applied for a job in total quality in our company. At his group interview, he demonstrated the quality process by baking a loaf of bread before our eyes in the office, portable oven and all. He got the job and worked with us for several years. Clearly, creativity runs in the family.
William Keyser, a veteran entrepreneur, is Managing Director of Venture Founders LLC: How To Start a Business. Startup Owl offers a wealth of free information and advice to would-be and early stage entrepreneurs.
Will is a veteran entrepreneur with VC experience and he is committed to help business startups to: clarify their business purpose; sharpen their business model; better their business plan; speed their market entry; offer customer value; finance their business right; grow their business strongly; survive their business challenges-more effectively than they might do on their own.
Will taught strategy and entrepreneurship on an MBA program for 7 years and his book, Founders Are Storytellers is available from his website.