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Navigating Scale – Smart Cookie Insights

Author: Dotty Baker
Navigating Scale – Smart Cookie Insights

Navigating Scale: The challenges & opportunities of growing a business

What a fantastic kickoff to our Smart Cookies event series in 2024! Hosted by our founder Harry, we were joined by 4 brilliant panellists who shared some of their advice and experience around navigating scale: the challenges and opportunities of growing a business.

Meet the expert panel

  • Rosie Bennett – Startup founder and previous entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Bath. Rosie co-founded Neighbuddy, who created peer to peer and hyperlocal digital platforms including Storenextdoor and The Savvy Earner. Rosie was also the Investment Manager at SETsquared Partnership up until 2022 when she became COO of Mystic AI, a venture backed scale up making AI deployment fast, simple, scalable, and secure.
  • Nick Sturge MBE – Nick co-founded and IPO’d Motion Media Technology, co-founded Engine Shed in 2013, and grew the SETsquared Bristol Centre to be ranked the world’s top university incubator. Nick now has a strong portfolio of non-executive director and chair roles to several companies in the city of Bristol.
  • Caroline Clark – Co-Founder, Entrepreneurship & Innovation Facilitator of Streams Learning Hub – creating a community space for flexible online & in-person learning for teens in Bristol. Caroline is also the COO Advisor in residence at SETsquared Bristol and Director of Zebera – engaging young innovators through design thinking and idea generation workshops, product development and planning.
  • Nick Hounsfield – Founder & Chief Vision Officer of The Wave, a High Performance Surf Centre to help coach future surfing stars and a safe environment for beginners to learn, whatever age or ability. Following a long career in healthcare, Nick’s vision is to revolutionise surfing, and bring the health and lifestyle benefits to millions of people across the world.

Key takeaways from the evening

  • Confidence in your vision is key
  • Listening is a key skill for founders
  • The founder may not always be the best person to lead the scale up
  • Founders needs to be like an Octopus without becoming a Knotweed
  • Growing a team is a key challenge but also crucial to success
  • Look after people & the environment, not just profit
“Be prepared to hire people better than you.” – Nick Sturge

Key takeaways from the panel discussion

Confidence in your vision is key

Throughout the evening’s discussions, the importance of confidently sticking to your business vision was emphasised. Nick Sturge explained “Having the confidence to hold your vision is so important and really difficult when you get investors coming forward. Sometimes it’s one of these scenarios where you’ve hired somebody with years of experience so you think they need to tell you what to do but they don’t always need to, you need to find the happy medium. So having the confidence to hold your vision is vital. Make sure that you find the investor who is going to respect you and your vision.”

Nick Hounsfield, founder of The Wave, highlighted how investors are more likely to buy into your vision when you have confidence in it. Once he secured investment, his confidence only strengthened “I had probably found the amount of confidence that somebody had put their money where their mouth is”.

Listening is a key skill for founders

The panel explained the balance between having confidence in your vision and the skill of listening. Self awareness was highlighted as an important asset to have to ensure investment in your business.

Nick Sturge explained how important it is to listen and decipher what resonates with you as a founder and what you can build on, he said that sometimes entrepreneurs that fail to listen, often miss opportunities to adapt and learn. “The best skill is listening, even if you then assimilate the information and make the same decision and the right decision”.

Rosie emphasised the value of genuine listening, noting that it’s not a skill typically ingrained in us. She explained that even if you have mentors and advisors, it’s really useful to listen to other people around you for diverse perspectives.

The founder may not always be the best person to lead the scale up

During the conversation about the role of a founder in scaling up a business, Rosie provided a thought-provoking perspective: “I don’t think the startup founder necessarily should lead the scale up. And I think very often it’s taken that way, but I think that actually is sometimes the detriment of business”. She suggested that sticking solely to founders for scaling can sometimes hinder progress. Caroline added her insights, highlighting the challenges of multi-founder dynamics and the importance of humility and confidence in leadership decisions, “Humility is an important concept. You do have to have the humility to accept that you might not be right in something.”

Founders needs to be like an Octopus without becoming a Knotweed

Nick Sturge gave a very insightful analogy explaining how founders need to balance being an Octopus, without becoming the Knotweed

“When you start, you don’t have armies of people to do everything. So you end up doing everything.  The founder starts picking up everything and you start getting a really great understanding of the business.

Which means your decision making about when somebody says ‘should we do A or B, with you, you know it’s A, because you’ve got all that information in your head. And that’s quite efficient. And you become this Octopus in the business that is managing lots of things. And that’s very efficient because it saves money.

But there’s a dangerous transition for two reasons. One is becoming the Japanese knotweed, which has an uncontrollable suppression of things.

So decisions can’t get made without your involvement. So you become the bottleneck in a business. And then it becomes humanly impossible to be able to make good decisions. And the other problem, if you let that go too far is when the founder is doing all these things and realising that they can’t do everything because it’s making them unwell.

Then you think, I’ll just hire half a person’s do half my job, but it doesn’t work like that. You need a full person to do perhaps half their job and of even a quarter of their job because they have become so efficient. So cash becomes a barrier to breaking that slide of the founder into the knotweed, which is why as Rosie says you need to think about them, the sooner you think about your role as a founder has not been that scale up CEO, the better, and you plan for it, because you’ve probably got skills to add in a very different way and you can easily get sucked into this quicksand.”

Growing a team is a key challenge but also crucial to success

The panel discussed how crucial people are in scaling up a business. They emphasised the importance of taking care of your team and shared some of the challenges that come with growing a scaling team.

Caroline gave us insight into her experience of hiring people and how she would “always go for potential for growth over experience”.

“I would always go for potential for growth over experience” – Caroline Clark

Rosie highlighted how everyone gets really interested in HR during a scale up! She advised “When you are small, everybody is important, hire slow, fire fast”.

Nick Sturge talked through some of the challenges around deploying investor cash, and that sometimes you do hire faster than you should, and that can result in having to let people go. His advice around this was to “let people go with the same care that you hired them in the first place”.

He went on to give some golden advice, that you need to be prepared to hire people better than you. He also advised to take caution when looking at CV’s, saying that even if someone’s CV looks amazing, and they have lots of experience, it doesn’t necessarily give you any indication of their capability or mean they are able to apply that experience to your business.

Look after people & the environment, not just profit

Something that shone through the evening was the triple bottom line, to look after your profit of course, but also to look after your people and the environment. It was highlighted that this is good for not only your scale up but also the sustainability of your business. Nick Hounsfield explained many investors “truly believe that the future of a sustainable business or a sustainable business future is around that triple bottom line, making sure you do no harm to the planet and also looking after the people.

He went on to explain that “there is a duty of care to employees to make sure that they get inspired everyday that they want to come to work with, safe and secure and that they go home. The ones to absolutely blossom and do really well because they feel inspired to get up every day”.

“The future of business is the triple bottom line, absolutely make money. But by looking after people and looking after the planet you actually make more money. You’re more investable, the value is being created in the long term.” – Nick Hounsfield

This was echoed by the rest of the panel, but also how this can be a challenge, especially with environmental aspects, however the agreement was to be striving for all three to build a sustainable scale up.

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