Spinouts – Scaling Up

26/01/2015

This blog was written for Spinouts UK Quarterly Journal 2015. You can join their distribution list by emailing research@ycf.co.uk

Most spinout companies from universities have the ambition to be companies of scale. If they are to win significant investment at an early stage, they will need to demonstrate that they have a ‘road map’ to enable them to establish a strong position in their chosen market.

However, this ‘road map’ passes through different stages, each of which places different demands on the company founders. Initially, the spinout founders will be immensely relieved to have completed the spinout process itself, with the knotty issues of IP ownership, and the relationship of the academic founders with the university. The next stage is generally one of spending (on prototypes, clinical trials, and other proofs of technology) rather than selling. As a very broad generalisation, academics in spinout companies are more comfortable with the ongoing research and development (which is in many ways similar to their academic work) than in market analysis, recruitment and team building, or the management of premises, financial records, and all the other administrative tasks which are essential to get a startup company on its feet.

The next stage is growth. For all young companies, whether spinouts or not, there are natural barriers to growth. Winning Pitch identifies the most important of these as the emotional cost and the financial cost.

The emotional cost to the individuals involved is usually manifested in self imposed pressure, and in the uncertainty that demands resilience and mental toughness to keep going when the inevitable road blocks are presented.

A scale up company is defined as one that grows its employee or turnover at a rate of 20 per cent per annum over a three-year period, and the financial costs of doing this can rack up very quickly – the cost of recruiting new talent, and of raising finance, professional fees, new premises, IT infrastructure and administrative costs can shoot through the roof. Costs must be controlled and the execution of a growth plan needs to be effectively choreographed – clear roles need to be defined, people need to be accountable for delivering on their tasks. Very rarely can growth be achieved without impacting on profitability.

This is why the majority of the 500,000 of last year’s new startups will never go on to employ one person never mind 10, and also why over 99% of UK firms employ fewer than 50 people. Very often it’s the financial cost of growth that holds individuals back.

What does this mean for academics spinning out a new company from a university?

The main point to recognise is that no one entrepreneur can build a business alone – it takes a team, combining the different skills needed to grow the business. The second point to recognise is that as the team grows, different leadership challenges emerge as the culture of the business evolves. At Winning Pitch we refer to the ‘growth staircase’, with different challenges as the number of staff increases. When the company reaches 7-12 people, the entrepreneur has become an ‘entrepreneurial social worker’. At 25 or more people, the business culture becomes ‘the team vs. the mob’. With 50 or more staff, the business needs to evolve towards a corporate culture, where processes need to be standardised and continually improved, with less scope for individual innovation. Individuals who can take a company through all these stages are rare indeed, and academic entrepreneurs do well to realise that at some stage in the company’s development, the business will be best served if the reins are handed over to others with practical experience of running a large and growing company.

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The importance of mindset change in personal and business growth

07/01/2015

The start of the year brings for many of us the desire to set new goals and ambitions, make resolutions and take on new challenges. Going to the gym, losing weight, less alcohol and for many a clear intention to accelerate our careers and do better. It is common for entrepreneurs to set a new vision and aim higher and achieve bigger and better things for their business.

What happens in most cases, whether it’s a personal or business goal, the fizz and excitement tends to die away and by the end of February, it’s back to business as usual – wading through the treacle of another year! Despondency sets in and many just accept their lot. Why does this happen? I believe that it’s down to the failure of hard wiring and embracing a mindset change. Change is one of the hardest things to accomplish and the reality is personal, lifestyle and business change does not happen if you can’t ‘proactively change your mental state’ period.

Change is both painful and challenging. A study in the US showed just how challenging establishing new habits can be, even in life or death situations. Here’s an extreme example – a study of patients who had undergone coronary heart surgery concluded that only one in nine on average adopted healthier day to day lifestyles following their medical treatment. The remainder saw the benefit of healthier living habits but they did not follow through to make it happen.

Change in mindset requires us to create new mental maps and clearly visualise just what a better future looks like. This clarity of expectation emerges only when obsessive focus is brought to new things we want to achieve, this concentrated thinking starts to shape reality. Change in my experience needs three things to happen – find and define the trigger – why do you need to change? Focus on the Things That Matter (TTM), then most important of all take small nudges towards your new destination. Execution is vital.

To support this process you must regularly ‘check in’ with yourself to ensure that you are awake and not dreaming. Only in a state of self-awareness can you decide whether you are moving forward or living in a daylight trance.


10 Ways to prepare your mind for high performance

18/12/2014

“So how do leaders shift from lower states of mind to higher states of mind and improve their effectiveness and performance?” This was a question posed on Harvard Business Review forum I contribute to; here were my thoughts and contributions to the debate

Its simple. It all starts with what you think about. We must listen very carefully to the internal conversations we have with ourselves. The key to moving from ‘downbeat’ to ‘upbeat’ is:

1. Be aware of the internal negative conversation – address it

2. Create space to think ‘fresh positive thoughts’

3. Speak to positive people who lift your spirits

4. Tune in to the things that lift your soul – sport, music, hobbies, personal passions

5. Write down your thoughts and combat negativity with a ‘+ve to do list’

6. Keep away from negative people at all costs

7. Connect with nature – walk the dog, go for a run

8. Remember most of the things we worry about don’t actually happen

9. Think in the present and get on with it, keep experimenting!

10. Die a happy death. Morbid thought, but a powerful motivator to take action now!

The way you think governs the way you behave and act. Beware of what you are thinking about.

The ability to master the mind is what differentiates ‘winners’ from ‘runners up’. The real entrepreneurial stars are the ones who manage to consistently switch into their higher state when needed – I would describe this state as being one were individuals view both opportunity and challenge within a positive and courageous mental framework.


Hard wired ambition is the key to growth

13/11/2014

People often ask what are the essential ingredients to growing a successful business. Cliché’s such as ‘Think Big’, ‘Anything is Possible’ and ‘Dare to Dream’ often roll off the tongue of young entrepreneurs and aspiring new business start up’s. Regularly found in self-help and motivational books, these terms offer a great source of encouragement to the next generation of business men and women – they have a critical place in the growth journey. As a great believer that mindset is critical to success, what underpins real growth of both a business and individuals is deep-rooted ambition.

Successful businesses, communities and ultimately – economies are built on individuals who have this hard-wired ambition. One of my frustrations is that I visit many truly outstanding businesses with growth potential, but what’s holding them back is very often the lack of ambition. In equal amounts I hear the rhetoric of entrepreneurs who talk a good game about what they are going to achieve but consistently fail to deliver on any of the things they commit to do. They talk about what they are going to do rather than what they have done. Ambition needs an engine, it needs action, it requires mental toughness and when failure presents itself – successful ambitious individuals get back on their bike and pedal that bit harder.

When I coach entrepreneurs, I am constantly looking for ambition evidence. Have they done what they said they would do? Did they achieve that target they set themselves? Was that investment made? Did they hit the financial targets they said they would? A consistent stream of excuses of why things have not been done or failure to execute the actions agreed are tell tale signs that the ambition is not for real. What comes along with hard wired ambition is courage and an ability to extend comfort zones and manage risk.

One of the best definitions of ambition came from Elvis Presley – “ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”. Having a business dream is fantastic, however, without hard graft, long shifts and small nudges forward, the dream becomes a hallucination.


Interview with Avensure HR

30/10/2014

I recently did an interview with Avensure HR for their new website HR24. I thought I would share it, so you can either follow this link or read the Q and A below: http://avensure.com/hr24/industry-news/john-leach-interview/

1. Tell us about a usual working day?

The day starts at 6am with a 3 mile walk over the Lancashire Moors with my black Labrador Buddy. This gives me time to think about the day and what I am going to do. Work is based on the ethos of 20% thinking and reviewing, 80% just doing. I am usually at my desk for 7.30am following up on emails and arranging appointments with customers, partners, associates and individuals/organisations who can add value to the WP offer. I am constantly in search of the next big idea and that involves quite a bit of experimentation. The day usually ends at around 7.00pm with a 45min walk with the dog, which gives me time to reflect and think about tomorrow. After dinner (8.30pm ish), I will then spend at least another hour or two researching and following up emails from the day. I don’t differentiate between work and play as work is my life, my hobby and I just love the buzz of moving things forward. Bed at around mid night!

2. What’s Winning Pitch’s proudest achievement?

Winning a £10M contract when we where only 2 years old as a business. A great motivator for me is when people tell me something can’t be done. I usually respond with the comment – “ I will show and prove to you that it can”

3. How many employees work for Winning Pitch?

We currently employ 120 people. I guess within the next 12 months we will be moving towards 200

4. Are the majority home or office-based?

We operate through offices in Salford Quays, Liverpool, Gateshead, Leeds, Cardiff and soon London. All staff are office based but the nature of the work means that they spend a large proportion of their time on the road.

5. How do you keep employees engaged?

This involves a mix of things ranging from monthly internal bulletins with updates on what’s going on through to staff communication days twice a year, a big Christmas Party, team leader dissemination sessions and a policy of ‘the door is open and the phone always switched on’. Staff are encouraged to live by the ethos of ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ – this drives innovation and new thinking.

6. I think Robert Kiyosaki assessment that ‘when times are bad is when the real entrepreneurs emerge’ seems very true to what is happening here in Manchester. What are your thoughts?

Totally agree – been there myself. An ability to ride the tough times and maintain infrastructure and capability is vital. This means having something put away for a rainy day – sticking true to your purpose and vision is critical. Those entrepreneurs who come through the bad times emerge from the other end with lots of wisdom and in better shape. You learn how to run a tight ship and more importantly the lessons learnt create food for thought for the future. As Winston Churchill said “when you are going through hell, keep going”

7. In your experience, do entrepreneurs make good managers?

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes – what is vital for an entrepreneur is self awareness and knowing what you are good and bad at. What makes a great business is a good mix of “doers”, “sellers”, “thinkers” and “controllers”. I personally view myself as a thinker – I am certainly not a controller, but I know someone needs to do it.

Successful entrepreneurs in my experience are the ones who can build a multidisciplinary team. I would define that as good housekeeping without losing entrepreneurial flair.

So I guess the answer is some do and some don’t.

8. You’re an expert in helping businesses design growth solutions. How much emphasis do new companies put on HR strategies and people as key elements in their prospective growth?

Building a business is all about people. Staff first customers second. Many companies stall because the founder has failed to get the people systems and structures in place and as an organisation grows the HR strategy needs to get more and more sophisticated. Trying to build a business without the right HR foundations in place is like trying to build a tower block on sand.

9.  What are the common mistakes made by entrepreneurs?

There are so many where do you start? What is critical to success is having a clear vision, passion, innovative proposition, solid team, strong leadership, good governance, tight control on finances and cash, commitment to delivering great customer experiences backed up by a flawless reputation. The common mistakes I suppose are doing the opposite of the very things needed for success.

10. What makes you optimistic? 

Having a clear sense of purpose supported by clarity of personal and business intentions.


8 Essential ingredients of a high growth mindset

23/10/2014

The issue of what constitutes a high growth entrepreneurial mindset is one that has fascinated me for years. We saw in yesterday’s press that 50% of new start ups fail within five years, a recent report from leading accountants MazarsHow to be a stand out SME – showed that very few SMEs grow beyond the micro stage (10 staff). Across Europe, 92% of companies have fewer than 10 employees. Surely not all of these entrepreneurs fail to have a business model that lacks the potential to scale – there must be other issues that lead to what is almost a shopkeeper mentality. My frustration is that I see day in day out companies with massive potential, however the founders often fail to recognise that, with more motivation, much greater value could be created for themselves stakeholders and their family’s. So what holds them back? It’s their pedestrian mindset – If they only had more fire in their belly!

Whilst I would never encourage a business owner to go for growth, if they genuinely did not want it, my experience is that many do want to achieve more – I would say its more than 70% do. My conclusion is the wrong state of mind holds too many entrepreneurs back from greater thingstheir mindset is not tuned into the reality of what it takes to grow. Having a great business idea and tight control over key functions and processes is only part of the success equation. It’s also about having a high performing mental attitude. Mindset is a hugely complex area with many constituent parts. Here is my simple view on the top 8 ingredients that deliver a high growth, high performance mindset:

Desire and intention – every action flows from genuine desire and personal intention. I want to grow my business is easy to say but hard to do. Desire is observed when entrepreneurs practice the 20% thinking and 80% doing rule. Growth entrepreneurs talk about what they have done not what they are going to do. Strong personal intentions create a performance culture mindset and go the extra mile mentality.

Sell, Sell, Sell – every successful entrepreneur knows that without a sale, there is no business, period. Thomas Edison, said I don’t invent anything I can’t sell, how true. I am constantly amazed at how many businesses are started on the basis of an idea with no attention paid to customers or does anyone want to buy this? Selling is not a dirty word; great entrepreneurs are great sales people – get comfortable with it!

Mental resilience – an ability to cope with the random nature of business supported by an ability to get back up when the chips are down is one of the most defining traits of a winner’s mindset.

Self-awareness –there is no way one person can do it all, winners create an effective team and call on the support of others. The inability of a founder/entrepreneur to recognise their own failings will inevitably lead to slow growth. Better decisions are made when entrepreneurs actively encourage trusted team members to contribute and to input to debate. Accelerated growth only happens when the founder starts to let go of parts of the business.

Creativity – the invisible force that drives innovation and ultimately creates a fantastic culture – it also underpins a positive memorable customer experience. Great entrepreneurs have an ability to embrace ambiguity, they are curious, they experiment with new ideas, and they take action. New sales ultimately result.

Self- belief – If you believe you can, you can, if you believe you cant then you’re correct. A belief in ones ability is a good starting point for any growth entrepreneur. Growing a business can be very tough, along the ways critics emerge who drain enthusiasm and energy. Successful entrepreneurs have an ability to close off to negative energy. Very often in a growth business such negativity emerges from the market place and scarily from staff. BYC – Believe You Can.

Clarity – don’t be surprised if you don’t end up at your destination if you don’t know where you are going. Successful entrepreneurs have a vision of what they want to achieve in the marketplace – revenue, profit, market and customers and business model.

Higher purpose – a desire to change a market place, solve a burning issue or address an unfulfilled need is a massive motivator for many entrepreneurs. Higher purpose provides a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Without a reason, business becomes mundane, passion disappears and people disengage. Personal and business performance suffers. A clearly defined higher purpose and reason instills a desire to serve.

There are many other components but being aware of the above is a great starting point. Create foundations for growth by getting your head.


We need more mid sized businesses (MSB’s) – 10 ways to build one

16/10/2014

The need to help and support medium sized businesses (MSB) is very much at the heart of economic policy making at the moment. The missing component of the great work research institutes, accountants and think tanks have come up with is, just how difficult it is to set up and build one? Having done it with Winning Pitch (and working with a handful of others to do the same) there are so many lessons I would like to share. Here are 10 platforms critical to anyone on a MSB journey:

  1. Think big – genuine ambition is vital – be clear on your higher purpose.
  2. Be clear on the business model – a detailed plan to execute and operationalize the strategy to scale is crucial.
  3. Understand the different funding routes and instruments to fuel growth.
  4. A high quality senior team is vital, combine this with a great culture and you have the magic dust – values become more important the more staff you recruit.
  5. Consider the role of NEDs – having someone who has already done it sat round the boardroom table offers many advantages.
  6. Don’t be too precious about hanging on to your equity – smart people want a share of the value they bring.
  7. Embed tight operational control and strong performance management – remember it comes down to always having enough cash.
  8. Establish a clear brand and communicate this with passion – celebrate with fervor what makes you different and why you are the “go to organisation” for what you do.
  9. Strong internal (in the office) and external (in the market place) leadership is vital.
  10. Stay one step ahead of your competitors by living in the customer’s world – deliver innovative propositions with an edge.

From a UK business base of 4.8M companies, 99% employ less than 49 staff. So the current stock of mid sized businesses is less than 50,000. We must not only look at helping existing mid sized companies we also need to address how we fill the pipeline – the next generation.

Sustaining growth beyond 50 staff is a massive task – this is why so many entrepreneurs sell out before they burn out. Beyond 50 staff, business help and guidance becomes more sophisticated – PE/VC, NEDs, headhunters, governance, IPO’s, expensive lawyers and financial engineers, corporate finance… trusted support is pivotal to sustained growth. A community of trusted help is vital to the entrepreneurs who are aiming to do something special with their business.