I’ve recently had an enlightening and yet humbling experience. I have been working with a young tech entrepreneur and was looking forward to sharing my wisdom. What I never expected was that I would learn as much, if not more, from him.
I’ll give a bit of background to this and then highlight a few things to think about if you are mentoring a tech entrepreneur (and you will gather, I would thoroughly recommend it!).
I run YPO, a local authority-owned business which supplies resources and services to schools. Earlier this year, we realised that while our current product range is very comprehensive, it doesn’t cover the emerging use of on-line or app-based learning, collectively known as EdTech. We saw this as a competitive threat and decided that the quickest way to remedy the situation was to invest in an existing technology start-up, as we recognised that we didn’t have the skills or experience internally.
The process of finding a partner to invest in was, in itself, both fascinating and challenging as I found myself carrying out a two-way Dragon’s Den process. I spent some time investigating the market, taking advice from experts and reviewing potential start-ups who then pitched their business plans to our leadership team. Having decided on our preferred partner, we then faced the challenge that this was not our money we were planning to invest as we are owned by 13 local councils across the North of England. I therefore had to then reverse my role and pitch the business plan to my shareholders in order to get agreement to invest. Persuading 13 councils to take a commercial risk was not easy, but we got there and became a shareholder in the new business.
As a result, I am now a Non-executive Director of the new business and both attend Board Meetings and act in a mentoring capacity to the Chief Executive. It has been revealing to say the least! You would think that I could bring a lot of experience to the table from running a £700m business with 550 employees and a well established governance structure. Maybe not, actually… I very often find myself thinking, “hang on – we wouldn’t do it like that” and then biting my lip because, of course, there’s a reason why the 2 businesses operate very differently. The new business is young, dynamic, entrepreneurial, at times chaotic, focussed, unpredictable – all the things we’re not. As a result, I’ve more often found myself thinking “why don’t we do it like that?” than suggesting ways of working to the new team. To be honest, I think I’m learning more about how I want to run my business in the future than guiding and influencing how the new business is run right now. I would like us to be faster-moving, take more risks, try new things and fail, constantly ensure we have the right people on board, not be held back by existing business processes and care a bit less about what other people think!
Of course, I still believe that I can add value as a Non-Exec. Most of the time, this is just by being there and providing support and encouragement to a young, inexperienced team. Them knowing that I’ve been through a lot of business challenges and can act as a sounding board, whether or not it’s a directly comparable situation, is still helpful. Being objective and less involved in the day-to-day operation enables me to stand back and properly evaluate the decisions they are making, but again, this is down to objective critical thinking rather than direct input and guidance.
So – at the moment, this feels like a situation which is at least 50/50 balanced in both party’s favour and very often, I feel that I’m gaining more than my fair share. However, for the reasons I’ve explained, I do feel that I’m adding value – just not in the way I’d anticipated. This has been a real personal learning opportunity I didn’t expect to have.
Here are 5 suggested learning points from this experience:
· Years of structured corporate experience is not necessarily what young start-up businesses either want or need;
· Start-up businesses are fast-moving, a little chaotic, change direction frequently and can have high levels of staff turnover – this is to be encouraged and supported within limits;
· Formal governance structures are less important than frequent consultation and knowledge exchange. This can be through a phone call at 10.00 in the evening rather than through a board meeting;
· The short term chaos is fine as long as the Chief Executive has a clear long term vision and sticks to this and to continually challenge against this test can be helpful input;
· Just being there and offering support, whether directly business-related or not can add significant value to a lonely start-up entrepreneur.