On the subject of upscaling your business, every business that wants to grow needs to adapt through a period of growing pains where new challenges and risks need to be navigated. For businesses to survive and grow it's important that the directors are fully prepared when exploring new options to ensure the necessary foundations are in place.
This takes good planning, sufficient funds and a large dollop of courage. Not all businesses want to grow, some are content with their level of business and the time they are prepared to put in, but in the majority of cases, growth is fundamental to their very being. Few can upscale their businesses without help and sound advice and that is why we are here today with a panel of experts to explore the subject of upscaling your business.
This month's guest experts are...
CEO of Sussex Innovation Centre
Nigel Lambe is Chief Executive of Sussex Innovation, a business incubator owned by the University of Sussex. Nigel's role involves advising a community of nearly 200 ambitious start-ups from idea to exit. Nigel specialises in working with SME directors to get the right culture, leadership team and operational processes in place for their business to scale
Regional Director, Commercial Business at Natwest
Supporting a range of commercial businesses and entrepreneurs, providing products and services, connectivity and relevant thought leadership through our professional team of dedicated Relationship Managers. Experienced both in banking and private business as a qualified Accountant and Risk Professional.
Partner, Kreston Reeves
Mark is an audit partner and leads Kreston Reeves’ Growth Advisory Service. With clients across varying sectors throughout the world he has considerable knowledge of the issues they face.
This insight together with his expertise in market trends allows Mark to support businesses looking to build, refresh or renovate their growth plans.
Partner, Mayo Wynne Baxter
James is a Brighton-based commercial lawyer, with experience of working in the City and in Hong Kong. He has created and sold several businesses of his own, and regularly works with companies looking to scale up. James has a diverse case-load: from advising companies on the use of non-fungible tokens to monetise their digital assets, through to working with foreign companies setting up in the UK to, more locally, assisting the fast growing Sussex wine industry.
CEO, Man Bites Dog
Claire is an entrepreneur, NED and founder of award-winning global thought leadership consultancy Man Bites Dog. Claire and her team deliver strategic content, campaigns and communications to help business brands shape the next economy. With a passion for entrepreneurship and sustainable development, Claire holds Board Directorships at economic development organisations including Coast to Capital LEP and is Entrepreneur in Residence at The British Library Business & IP Centre, supporting its mission to democratise entrepreneurship.
Senior Information expert, Business & IP Centre, British Library
Jeremy O’Hare is a Senior Information Expert at the British Library’s Business & IP Centre with many years’ experience of supporting SMEs to scale. Currently, he presents the Centre’s series of intellectual property workshops and one to one clinics. Previously he worked as a Relationship Manager for Innovating for Growth Scale-ups, a business support programme for established and growing businesses delivered by the British Library.
Q: Nigel, as the CEO of SINC, you must have had more than your fair share of experience of companies trying to grow, I suppose the uneasy question is: How do you go from artisan to CEO?
NL: It’s a great place to start. What I would say is that we see an awful lot of CEO’s and MD’s coming to us each year and I’m cautious of the conversations that start “I want to grow my business: I need more money.” They always focus on the idea that if they had more resources they could grow the business, when you get into it, that may be one of the factors, but it is only ever one of the factors.
It’s much more likely to be the management team not having a broad enough depth, it’s probably that the CEO hasn’t evolved their role in the last 10 years and doesn’t understand why they are operating the same scale of business or a host of other reasons. Everybody thinks that innovation is the new product, the new widget, but actually, very often the value in innovation is in internal processes, how you go to market, how you develop your brand. It can be very much behind the scenes - the process, the positioning of your product - much more than just trying to find a new product that nobody has thought of before.
Q: Jeremy, the same question to you, at the BIPC your remit is the growth and upscale of businesses, how do you go from artisan to CEO?
JOH: The first, most important thing is to get out of your own room and go somewhere else to get talking to other people: take a step outside the business. It’s an old mantra that a lot of people know but you have to start ‘working on the business rather than working in the business’, and take that time out to do just that, which is a great first step in terms of being able to take the ambitions wherever you want them to go.
Q: Melanie, from the bank’s point of view, I assume you are very often inundated with companies coming to you with the next great idea and a loan request – how do you
work out the wheat from the chaff?
MH: Working with customers on a relationship basis is a key part of that, so Nigel has just talked about the management team, and I think that is a very important aspect, but there is a stage even before that which is the individual really understanding where they want to go with the business. When they say that they want to grow it, what do they mean? Do they mean to grow it and have a lifestyle business, do they really mean grow it and scale it and potentially look to sell or grow and become a large corporate. I think that makes a big difference if they can understand that early on, they need to surround themselves with the right people that will support and share their own experiences of growing.
Also, that will cause hard decisions around potentially removing someone that they recruited who they know because as you scale your business, you want to professionalise and start to change a dynamic of that outside-in thinking. At NatWest we look at what we can do to support you; what do you come to tell us about your business, are you thinking about the risks involved as well as the opportunities, are you mitigating those and in what ways? If we see all of that and like all of that, then we will try to support the business, potentially even if they are not ready today, so what can we do to offer you support through our other channels.
Q: Mark, being a large regional accountancy firm, I imagine Kreston Reeves has many business approaching them to say ‘look we’ve got this funding from the bank and we are going to make 10 million in a week, help us get there!'
MA: Yes, in business these days, whereas they used to solely focus on profit and loss, and what money would be generated through it, there has been this huge shift in the mindset of not just focussing on P&L. What I mean by that is you look at the likes of Facebook, huge amounts of value have been generated through their balance sheet, so although their P&L look quite weak, there are people falling over themselves to invest. However, if you look at it under typical financial statistics the accounts don’t tend to show that true value. There is this shift in focus in not only looking at P&L but looking at the underlying IP, the assets, the group of assets and what income they can generate because it’s not always shown on the balance sheet.
Q: James, from a legal point of view, you are a Partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, a large law firm, is your take much the same?
JOC: I agree with everything that has been said so far, but from our particular perspective one of the things we will be asking is “what do you mean by growth and in what timescale?” similar to Melanie’s comment. Are you saying “I’ve got this and want to turn it into this”, or are you saying “I’ve got this and want to begin a journey to that”, and that might be a journey taking quite a few years.
Often what we are doing is putting a structure in place that will help with new staff, that will help with investors even though you don’t need it yet, think about practical things, like the number of shares a company has got. The main thing we encounter is what is it you want, if you want to become the Ferrari after being a bicycle it’s not going to be your company anymore and that’s a real dynamic tension that a lot of people have to face. How do I get this business to be a Ferrari but actually run as if it is my corner shop: the answer is that you can’t.
CM: I’d love to pick up on what a number of people have raised about the importance of this growth mindset, and I think there are a couple of areas where for SMEs this is particularly important. The first pivot point is when you start, make sure you start right, and the second one is when should you look to make that leap to scale. What we find is that if people start a business that is inherently local, and then it becomes regional and later national to global, you have to remake the business every time you jump one of those hurdles.
However, if your original vision is on a growth mindset, and you decide to be born global, your business will be much more successful and scale much faster. Similarly, if you start a business with the view to make it scalable from day one, so you harness digital technologies and so forth, again you’re going to have much faster journeys. Starting your business right is incredibly important, we are obviously in the Business and IP Centre today and taking advice from these kinds of people is really important.
NL: I agree, but also if you have a homogenous team with a lot of people that look like you it is much less effective than bringing in a diverse team in terms of background, age and gender. Building out a really diverse management team is now definitely proven to be more successful than building one where everyone looks very similar.
MA: To bring that point into a real-life example, I have met a company recently that suffered during Covid, their turnover fell by 70%. Rather than panic, they delved down into their internal process, what they did was re-organise their senior structure. They have bounced back, and their internal performance is so much better that they are going to turnover somewhere in the region of 7-8 million when they were in the region of 5 million, and their headcount is down by 20 because their processes are that much better.
Q: Jeremy, would you say that there are still holes for businesses to jump into?
JOH: Absolutely. I’m so glad you came to me at this point because I think we have a need for good data and good information, especially in the climate we are in right now. All the industries are in flux and people just need good research and good professional insight from different providers and consultancy experts as well, but good data is really important.
Having a place like the BIPC here and around the country is really important, getting people enough information to see where the next trends are, for example, we have micro reports on the back of Covid on all sorts of different sectors. From that point people can start getting a sense of where the next trends are. There are absolutely new niches, I think it’s a combination of real-world experience backed up by a bit of desk research. After that, you can really ascertain where your position is in relation to everyone else amongst all the challenges that we are facing.
Q: How do you prepare for a challenge like Covid when trying to scale your business?
MH: Thinking about a lot of the conversations we’ve had with busi-nesses through the pandemic what has become apparent is that those who have a plan B or maybe even a plan C, so those that have really done that strategy piece and thought about the scenarios of the what-if. Obviously, the what-if of Covid was never one of those scenarios quite to that extent, but what if tomorrow someone comes along and takes this bit of a market away, how do you intend to respond to that?
JOC: I’ve seen so many business plans that have a plan A and a plan B, and the truth is that even the production of a document like that is a serious undertaking, so you tend to say what if the lights go out and there is a fire in your building. People simply don’t have the money or the time to plan for something that wasn’t expected to happen.
What I do come across is people’s businesses which exist because of regulation, a compliance officer, most of the HR industry, the list continues. I’ve been in this game a while, the law changes all the time and it’s changing ever quicker. What happens if that regulation changes, what happens if your business ceases to exist? There’s no natural demand for it, so what then? That’s where it becomes very pertinent in our world.
MA: One of the sets of people that I saw to be particularly successful through Covid were those who understood their business model to a whole new level. There was one particular person who was in a highly regulated market. Actually, their market just fell away, and rather than just sitting there and worrying about it, they took the product out and asked what they were good at.
They were good at risk assessment and process, so they then looked at the opportunity and need within the Covid sphere and realised that there will be something in the entire market that needs those qualities that they excel in. They went into a whole new sector, created a business, and their turnover for last year was 4,000% higher than before. Actually, what I have seen is that you can’t plan for the likes of Covid, but what you can do is understand your skill sets and deliver them into different sectors which helps diversify your business and risk balance across various sectors.
JOH: I agree, but more than that, picking up on all of these previous points, doing this early on is far more a guarantee of long term success when you are hit by a crisis. By that I mean, all of these are growth issues, but they are also foundation issues. Build your model early on to think in this sort of way, we encourage this at BIPC.
I think it is fair to say that gone are the days of a 500-page business plan, they just don’t work, particularly for our world today. Having a model on a smaller canvas working with that and working with a value proposition, being agile and adapting to the world and challenges that come up. This is all baked into the business from a very early found-ation level so when they grow with scale the mistakes can be ironed out rather than having to create the whole area when your business is under threat. Having a network of people who have been there and done things, and are able to advise on what you should do is inval-uable, this is where the business centres across the country can really help.
CM: What we are seeing is an increasing balance between planning and agility, so on a planning side having a really flexible but strong structure is really important, and if you can involve your whole management team in your business plan canvas then you’ve got many perspectives to build a more fully rounded and agile business strategy.
It’s not just about the centre and databases, it’s almost like the human library as well. Why make mistakes when you can learn from other people? There’s a network of peers and entrepreneurs who have done it before who can make sure you don’t hit those same hurdles. Then on the other side, once you have done your plan, agility is absolutely critical. What we have seen in our clients recently, globally, is that they are having to get used to being professional advisors and experts that don’t have all the answers, as you said everyone was surprised by Covid.
Q: James wrote a really good piece last month for this magazine on dangerous mentors. James – what’s your view on mentors?
JOC: When they are right, they’re indispensable, but there are a lot of sharks out there. Even if they offer good advice, what they want in return is out of all proportion to the advice. They also tend to be people who have done their thing, and are now throttling back and coast for a time; these are the worst people to look ahead at the coming changes.
Mentors, I find, for the most part, unless they are very good, come in at a few hours a week and support the vision of the CEO or artisan. Only the good ones tend to challenge what is going on because they don’t want to lose the easy gig. Saying no sometimes puts them at a risk, but it is what needs to be done. I’m slightly cynical, but when they are good they are fantastic.
NL: Having been a mentor for 10 years, I feel that there are a couple of things to note. One is that it is a profession and it shouldn’t be a retirement gig, which tends not to work out. Also, it’s an awful lot about chemistry, so whenever I was a non-exec or mentor of a business I would never have a contract. If anybody ever wanted to stop working with me they just stopped. There was no tie in, or deal, it’s about mutual value.
If you keep delivering value and they appreciate it, it works. I’ve walked away from probably half of my assignments because I actually thought they wanted to change but wouldn’t. What you need is someone who is willing to challenge, who is willing to look at the long game and figure out how to create value and have a CEO and management team who are willing to change in order to deliver that.
Q: Where do I find a genuine mentor then?
JOH: You can apply, if you are London based, to the British Library Mentoring Programme that we run here. We work particularly with mentees that are at startup or even at pre-startup revenue, and we match them with businesses and founders that have been through our scale-up programme. The mentee makes the decisions, with the mentor challenging and providing a perspective based on their experience. It is very hard, I think it comes back to that idea of finding that relationship and finding that trust, we can do that through the British Library, we can look at doing that by matching people through the mentoring scheme.
Q: Should a mentor take shares in the company?
CM: My perspective would be that you should have a mentor for your own leadership and management, you should not have a mentor for the business. I think that there is a very clear line. I’ve benefited hugely over the years from some fantastic mentors but they have helped me with management and leadership challenges that I have been having, they didn’t tell me what to do.
As an entrepreneur, you have to have some very strong core values, when you are younger and you are starting out you can often be made to think that you should do things, even though it might be against what you think is right and your values. You need to learn not to listen to this and instead do what you think is right for you and your business. I think it is unhelpful to have a mentor that is focused on the business, instead have a mentor that is focused on you.
NL: I think that is right. Another thing that is extremely important is that a mentor should take you on a part of the journey, that’s probably a two to three year timeframe. You will probably need a different mentor for the next stage, and then the next stage going on. You don’t want anybody locked in with equity at any point in the journey, actually what you want is different mentors for different points in your journey.
Moving onto IP, how important is IP to you and how difficult is it to protect?
JOH: I think it is very important, especially to know what it is and why to protect it. There is a lot of confusion around intellectual property in general about whether something is able to be realistically patented at all. It’s crucial because it is an asset that grows with the business, it’s more than a trademark, it represents the brand of the business.
IP also includes the know-how that sits within the business, you could also include the contacts, confidential and sensitive information the business has, and it’s good to name them and see how to protect them, how to defend your position within the market, and what is the most economical way of doing that and where growth can be built-in. It is extremely important to nail this as early on as possible so that it doesn’t come back to bite you later on.
JOC: I would agree. However, I would say that patents are a rip-off, don’t go anywhere near those unless you have very deep pockets. Other than that, if you don’t own the right to your brand then what do you have? Nothing. Who your business is is often your trademark along with your reputation. If you nail that down at the start as Jeremy says, then you will be in good stead. As startups, it’s easy to not take this seriously when you begin with close friends, but in four years time when you start to make money there is something to fight over, it becomes difficult to pick out who owns what. The truly valuable IP is the trademark and the things you can’t register. If you are a small business person make sure that you own the IP and not the company, so that later on when investors come in they can’t take everything and you have a few tricks up your sleeve to bargain with.
MA: I feel that IP is extremely important to the value of an entity. The downside is that the accounting doesn’t take it into account very well. If you can identify certain things, like pieces of software, that are sitting within your entity, and you can demonstrate that that particular piece of IP will create cashflows off the back of it, that is going to maximise the value of the entity should you sell it. Don’t just focus on P&L, but focus on the balance sheet as I said earlier.
NL: Just a counterpoint to what has been said. Whilst I entirely agree with everything that has been said about it being crystal clear with documentation around who owns what, I think for some startups, the biggest asset a company has is speed. People spend far too much time worrying about patents and trademarks, but what I would say is that you need to get to market and test whether that’s what people want. Uber is not dominant because they protected their IP, they are dominant because they raised billions and went on a land grab, they got out there first.
CM: Going back to what I was saying earlier about establishing to how you want to continue, if you do go to trademark, make sure you register your name globally as far as it’s possible to do so if that’s how far you want to go with your business. We see a lot of bad actors who realise your name is doing well in one sector and then take it in another.
Q: How do I learn to work on my business and not in my business?
JOH: The first thing you must do is set out a time to do this. A lot of people have a certain day where they will state that they are not available at a certain time, you have to get into that habit of carving out time where you are bobbing your head above the parapet to see what is going on in the battlefield of the market. That allows you to be more up to date and understand the trends that are going on.
NL: Firstly I don’t think anybody should run a business that doesn’t have someone that they can go and talk to ‘offline’, I think that it is invaluable to find the right person to do that. It’s also about creating the time as Jeremy said, Bill Gates famously creates two weeks a year to just read and thinks about his business, whilst not a lot of people have the luxury to take that long, taking out a significant block is important.
JOC: First of all, don’t take the adage as a given. If you are in the startup stage, working in your business is actually how you understand your market, opportunities and clients, and you can get too divorced from that. One other point I have is to seek feedback from your staff members throughout your business, they have a wealth of perspectives and diverse thoughts that you can use.
Unfortunately, that’s all we have time for today. Does anyone have any final words of advice to any reader who is thinking about starting or scaling a business?
JOH: One is to be encouraged to feel that you are not alone and that this is not a solo endeavour. Get the advice and info you need as early as possible, where possible become a sponge, talk and meet with as many people as possible, whether it be through our network or others. I think it is important to realise that as a founder, you won’t have all the skills, you might be good at one thing or a couple of things, but nobody can be good at everything, so we need to rely on others and buy in expertise. Finally, don’t lose sight of your vision, you can take different paths to get there, but don’t let it go.
NL: Crisis breeds innovation, this decade will have more innovation when it comes to business than any other part of our lives, if you think of something, be brave, go and do it - what’s the worst that could happen?
MA: Lots of people start off with a plan, but the worst thing they can do is stick it in a bottom drawer and forget about it until they are asked. We have mentioned vision, focus, and long-term thinking and all of these combine to mean we need to refresh our plan as we go along, it can’t become stale.
JOC: From a lawyer’s perspective, most businesses are about people, and will succeed or fail based on those people in the business. Make sure your house is in order, that those foundations are strong before you try to go further. We have spoken a lot about directors, but what about your shareholders?
CM: Think about what will make your business scalable from day one, have you set it up to be international or national from the start? Also, get all the help you can get, we spoke about the BIPC and all the programmes that exist, use them. Challenge your own assumptions as well, do you need to borrow that money? Could you bootstrap and start on nothing?
MH: There have been some great comments here already, but I’d just say have an idea of what you want to achieve, do you want to be a growth business or one for your lifestyle? Those are two different things and require different action plans. Also, don’t assume you know everything about it, take all the advice you can get and use it to your advantage to put you one step ahead.