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Can a ‘non-techie’ mentor a tech entrepreneur? Yes, absolutely!

5 November 2019 By Victoria Tomlinson

I am writing this blog to reassure an experienced generation of business leaders that they have a great deal of value to tech entrepreneurs – and younger people in whatever walk of life.

We recently launched our first City MeetUp, bringing these two generations together.

What sparked this blog is that a number of people were hesitant about coming because they ‘aren’t techie’.

As Philippa Mooney said, “I arrived at the event having read the young tech profiles and wondering what I might add when my knowledge of the tech world is so scant.”

So I thought I would share here what the challenges were that the entrepreneurs wanted thoughts on – and then why the older generation was able to help.

As soon as you see some of these challenges, I reckon anyone who is 50+ is going to think, “Oh, I’ve seen this before” and want to dive in to understand more and from there, offer insights.

The challenges essentially fell into four categories

  • People
  • How do I get others to understand/trust this tech?
  • Where do I go next?
  • How do I get funding?

Let’s look at these in more detail and, in these examples, I am also including the challenges that tech entrepreneurs raised last year at our Next-Up conference as well as discussions with six more I am working with in London for a corporate event later this week.

1. People challenges

People issues; this is the area where I reckon anyone who has experience can most help, whether they are or have been in business, public sector, charity or whatever.

A lot of the entrepreneurs are sensibly using pools of freelancers when they start out, often located around the world in different time zones. One entrepreneur said that she felt she was a really good boss when working with people in her office, but it just wasn’t the same with remote teams.

It turned out, because of time differences, she nearly always communicated by email. And when our table probed, she admitted her emails probably didn’t always come over the way she meant.

The solution? To invest more time in face to face, agree workloads in different ways and give feedback differently.

Another entrepreneur was building his team and recruiting full-time employees. He said, “Unfortunately a recent recruit didn’t fit into our culture and we had to part ways – they had a 9-5 mindset that doesn’t work in a start-up.”

He had three questions that he wanted views on

· How can we ensure we recruit the right talent and keep them motivated?

· How should we incentivise key members of the team to retain them?

· What should we look at to build a culture that will attract and retain the right people?

After discussing this with his table, he said, “I have had a lot of ideas around structuring the (recruitment) interview and focusing more on understanding behaviours. It was really helpful.”

Another entrepreneur was also struggling with recruiting the right team – her first recruit had just handed in her notice, wanting more pay and to have more variety of work.

Summarising the discussions on her table, she said, “I realised it’s important to establish what our company values and culture are. I also think I need to look at my leadership style and a few people have offered to mentor me and also send resources that will help me.”

Another entrepreneur is looking at expanding his business – but can’t decide between moving to Silicon Valley where the talent is, or staying in the UK where he has built a market.

I can’t reveal where these discussions went, as they will happen on Thursday!

Well, there isn’t much about tech in any of this so far, is there?!

2. Winning trust in tech products

The second set of themes is about tech – but entirely on home ground for the experienced generation.

A lot of these entrepreneurs are selling to senior people in large corporates who don’t themselves understand/trust or easily relate to the tech products.

It reminds me of a story from the Freeserve team who were selling ‘the internet’ to corporates in its earliest days. Apparently the chief exec of one of the UK’s major banks rang a week after the presentation and said, “Thank you for presenting to our board. It was really interesting but we can’t see our customers ever wanting the internet.”

When a product is so new, how do you explain to a traditional market where the opportunities are?

Another of the challenges for our corporate event on Thursday is, “How do we get potential investors to understand, be interested in and invest in products/markets that are entirely out of their knowledge and comfort zone? For instance, technology and products geared towards women with Afro-textured hair?”

I confess when I heard that people are developing apps to help women (presumably) with their hair, even I thought, “Really?”! But young people download apps for all sorts that we could never have imagined and there is a huge market of people with Afro-textured hair. When you think about it – could be interesting?

This is like that famous Dragon’s Den story when all the Dragons turned down Tangle Teezer – a brush that glides through tangled hair – because it ‘won’t make any money’. Sales had reached £21m by 2017.

So what can the older generation contribute to this discussion? Well, we are the people that these entrepreneurs are trying to persuade – and therefore we know what will or won’t interest or convert us. Evidence, clarity and third party endorsements are what is needed.

One entrepreneur wants to set up lending clubs – he described them as a cross between Ann Summers parties and BNI networking! He saw these events as “educational, fun and financially rewarding, while respecting people’s financial privacy”.

His table was very challenging. They couldn’t see why they would attend these – there was nothing appealing to them. I thought what a fantastic market research focus group for these entrepreneurs! Immediate, honest feedback – if fairly brutal, but in a respectful way. The suggestion from the table was to make the events more social – challenging in financial services – and perhaps look at peer-to-peer lending Bingo! (I felt this suggestion might need a bit more work).

You might say this was a ‘techie’ challenge, but this market could really help in what would appeal to them – or not.

3. Scale-up for entrepreneurs

The question of ‘where do I go next?’ comes in many shapes and forms.

Many of the entrepreneurs can see huge potential for their products in dozens of markets. But where to start, how to focus?

An example was an app for collecting money for groups of friends going to events. It is great for everything from hen and stag parties to festivals and sports events. The opportunities for some of these products are so enormous, how do they decide where to start?

I went round all the tables to listen to discussions and what struck me about these events, is the quality of questions the experienced generation is asking. They may not actually have a clue where you should start, but asking questions such as, “which market do you know best, what have you researched, what does your heart tell you?” can all help the entrepreneur to focus.

As with so much coaching, the individual often knows the answer, they just need help with a process to work it out. And a good result can be, “you need to research this more” as much as coming to a conclusion in the discussion.

4. Where do I start in raising funding?

This last challenge around funding is probably the most ‘technical’ of issues that our entrepreneurs raised. In theory, it will help if the mentor has some experience of where to start.

But this is where this generation’s jewel in the crown comes in. We are all networked and know someone – or someone who will know someone. I have heard of so many entrepreneurs say things on the lines of, “These people are just not on my radar – I go to lots of networking events, but they are with other entrepreneurs or our customers. We just wouldn’t know where to start to meet these experienced people or how to tap into their networks.”

And this experienced generation can be generous with introductions and time. I have seen the evidence of this already from our event two weeks ago.

I hope this blog will remind the generation of people coming up to retirement that they have huge skills and networks to offer to our fantastic entrepreneurial generation. None of the above is really about ‘tech’?

I had a really interesting discussion with Helen Oldham of NorthInvest, because they were launching their tech mentoring scheme with RSM at the same time as ours. I worried if we were duplicating and the view was, “no”. Next-Up is tapping into a pool of people who aren’t being used. These days it is increasingly being recommended that entrepreneurs have not just one but two mentors – and one of these can help on the techie challenges. And alongside this, there is still a huge need to help them on people, financing, marketing and other more general challenges.

The great thing is that you can help others with as much time as you have available and when it works for you both. It’s up to the two of you to say what you want and can do.

If you are hesitating to get involved with entrepreneurs and younger people generally – please just give it a go! The feedback from those who have is that it is energising, rewarding, inspiring – and just fantastic!

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up, which helps people leaving full time work to use their skills in unretirement. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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