Tag Archives: NatWest Accelerator Hub

Investing in business success

In my work with young people wanting to set up their own enterprises, I take a particular interest in the insights of others similarly placed to provide support to business start-ups. In Milton Keynes, my meetings with young would-be entrepreneurs are held at the NatWest Accelerator Hub. Below I chat with two women who manage the Hub – Sharon Rai and Debbie Lewis – to find out more about them, their support roles, and their vision for the Accelerator Hub itself.

Sharon and Debbie are both steeped in business with combined experience in running a chain of hair and beauty salons, training, coaching, and other business development roles. Sharon grew up with family businesses around her – she describes her grandmother as a “serial hustler entrepreneur” so business is in her blood.

The role of ‘critical friend’ to entrepreneurs excited both women and it was the diversity and number of businesses being supported by the Accelerator Hub that attracted them – the scope for making a practical difference to the business development of over 120 would-be entrepreneurs each year.

“It’s about everyone in the Hub pulling in the same direction to achieve more than simply working 9 – 5 and getting an income; they want to make a difference and have a positive impact on the world around them.” Both also appreciate the freedom the backing of a major high street bank gives them to work out what’s best for the clients – without an agenda, hidden or otherwise.

I wonder how far Sharon and Debbie can stand back and put the emphasis on clients ‘doing it for themselves’? Both are clear about their role… “At the interview stage [for admission to the Hub] self-motivation is an important assessment criterion. It’s not our role to enthuse them; we’re there to pick them up when they are down, slow them down when their heads are in the clouds, and reflect back their comments when they need a dose of reality.”    

Support for Hub clients

There are two programmes on offer to would-be business owners; Debbie and Sharon makes the distinction between the two…

“The Pre-Accelerator Programme is for early-stage, or what may simply be ideas-stage businesses” explains Debbie “It’s an eight week predominantly digital [so arm’s length] offer to help with client discovery, validation of the business idea, and basic steps to assess whether the business has legs. After further reflection and work on the business idea (which might result in big changes to the original concept), entrepreneurs may then be able to apply for the Accelerator Programme.”

Sharon explains the sort of entrepreneurs coming on to the Accelerator Programme. “We may have people who are not yet trading, but may have secured investment, may have built a prototype or MVP [Minimum Viable Product], and have enough early interest to warrant the support the Hub can give them. In contrast, we may have businesses that have been trading for a number of years but want to make a step change. The critical element on the Accelerator Programme is that we’re looking at scaleable businesses. They have access to up to 18 months of support (reviewed every 6 months) but it may not be best for businesses stay for the full 18 months in one go. For some it’s a matter of getting out into the business world, or fixing a part of the business that’s not going well, and then coming back for the next step.”   

What’s in it for the bank?

The Hub in Milton Keynes occupies the second floor or a large building occupied on the ground and first floors by staff involved in commercial banking activities. It offers free facilities and programme support to Hub clients with a team led by Debbie and Sharon. I wonder about the commercial rationale behind this philanthropy and both are quick to answer…

While we’d obviously like clients to bank with NatWest there’s no obligation to do so. Indeed, if you looked at the cost per acquisition it would look like a very expensive way to get business customers! Ways in which the bank benefits from the Hub include an Entrepreneurial Development Academy where the Hub team are training ‘entrepreneurial thinking and doing’ in banking staff. Intrapreneurship is how they describe it. Fintech [technology specifically relevant to financial services] businesses and entrepreneurs may also be able to help the bank – through a healthy two-way exchange of ideas and insights.

A third potential benefit for NatWest is innovation, as Sharon explains “Being at the forefront of innovative technologies and solutions, we can feed that thinking and behaviour back into the bank.” And Debbie believes that the inter-change of ideas does effect change…

In the relatively short time I’ve been in post I’ve seen continual review and feedback and I haven’t found the frustrations of slow progress that other organisations experience. What we’ve reported gets considered, though obviously, it’s not always acted on.”

I learn that NatWest wants to be seen as the number one bank for entrepreneurs, so anything the Hub can do to turn clients into advocates must be good for business and brand. This also fits neatly with the vision for the Hub, which is to be a household name and first-choice provider when it comes to talk about ‘tools for entrepreneurs’ in and around Milton Keynes.

Defining success

I find it hard to believe that a business support facility backed by a major bank wouldn’t want some hard facts and figures to show the return on their investment. Sharon confirms that they’re working to certain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the productivity of the Accelerator Hub. “For me, the really important measurement is the percentage success rate, and our 87% success rate compares very favourably with the 50% success [or 50% failure rate] of unsupported businesses. We also measure investment attracted, jobs created, and number of entrepreneurs supported.”

Alongside these ‘hard outputs’ are the ‘soft outcomes’ that result from bringing entrepreneurs together under one roof. These include the connections being made – between entrepreneur and mentor, or at a peer-to-peer mutual support level – to create a local community and support ecosystem that is invaluable. “The stories behind the figures are what drives the magic – creating something that is sustainable, long lasting, and with a significant local impact.” 

Sharon also identifies what she describes as a ‘fluffier element’ when defining what success looks like. “At the Hub we talk a lot about having a growth mindset – this is about supporting and enabling people to take ownership of their decisions. Success is when those same entrepreneurs hire their team and use those same principles.

Another measure of success is our ability to get entrepreneurs out into schools to inspire the next generation, to give them a sense of purpose and the heightened sense of self-worth that comes from surviving the highs and lows of starting and running a business.”

Debbie continues… “For young people, having someone coming in to school as a non-parent and non-teacher, and showing interest in them can give them a real buzz and a sense of importance. And it can be particularly powerful when the entrepreneurs are of a similar age to the students.

Having a vision for the next generation seems appropriately forward-looking for a sector like banking and financial services that has been transformed in less than a generation, let alone between generations. As we finish, I reflect that ‘banking on the future’ summarises our conversation quite neatly.

For further information about the Milton Keynes Accelerator Hub, e-mail miltonkeynesaccelerator@natwest.com, go online at www.natwest.com/accelerator and you can book onto one of the Natwest Entrepreneur Milton Keynes events via www.eventbrite.co.uk

With business in mind

When people are motivated to set up a business because of something very personal to them, the impact on the development of that business can be good and bad. It’s about balancing head and heart issues – how to harness that lived experience to drive business success while remaining objective enough to make hard commercial decisions.

For Jon Manning, founder of Arthur Ellis Mental Health Support (AEMHS), the motivation behind his business start-up could not be more personal and powerful; diagnosis of bi-polar disorder two years ago, aged 27, after first being hospitalised when six years old. The creation of the business is, Jon admits, as much about his own route to better health as helping others with their mental ill-health.

I’d been through all the NHS services but couldn’t get a lot of support. Different diagnoses at different stages meant different places to go and new waiting lists to join – I was getting fed up.  After the bi-polar diagnosis, I went to talks to learn about my disorder, but it didn’t help and I felt others in the room wouldn’t be able to help me either. So I thought I’d come up with new training; sharing clinical techniques for ‘normal people’ to learn how to help their unwell colleagues quickly, without having to wait.”

Jon is clearly frustrated about the time it takes to get through the mental health system – up to two years from initial GP referral to diagnosis. Average diagnosis of bipolar disorder, due to its complexities, he says, is 13 years; one explanation of a rise in suicide rates.  Which is why Jon set up Arthur Ellis Mental Health Support – named after his two grandfathers one of whom, Ellis, had bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, spending 30 years in hospital.

Luckily the development of Jon’s business has been spectacularly fast compared with the workings of the NHS. “Our first year’s income was achieved in the first four months, meaning I could bring in a team of ten clinicians – psychologists and health practitioners – to do the training.”

After the first year, 8 Award Nominations and 2 business awards followed bringing support from major companies and the ability to increase his professional fees from £200 a session to £1,000 a day. A new annual package for businesses means turnover is expected to be £300,000 in just the second year.

As if that isn’t likely to keep Jon busy enough, he has set up a schools service alongside the business – a not-for-profit arm to develop a programme of support for the 75% of children who are rejected for mental health support. Schools can refer students directly to AEMHS for a course of treatment (involving their parents) to try to keep them out of the health service system.

Keep it simple

Of course the development of the business has been nowhere near as smooth as the story this far may sound; like most entrepreneurs, Jon has to learn some hard lessons. Keep it simple is his top tip…

If you do just one thing but do it really well, you can profit from that. You don’t necessarily have to start with a huge range of products or services. Focus on one thing at a time, once you’ve aced one, you can add another. I started out with 16 services – all the things I wanted to do. I took advice and reduced the list to 11, but was then advised even that was too much. Now I’m focusing on two – training workshops and an online coaching platform.”

Getting started with the workshops wasn’t all plain sailing either. “No one wanted to do them at first” admits Jon. “I thought about what medical conditions had most impact on people – treatment for anxiety and depression are top of the list – so I developed exercises and imagery to simulate those conditions.”

Feedback – good and bad – on those re-focused workshops was important for adapting and improving the offer. Invitations to a free event won some paid business, which meant Jon could afford to recruit mental health practitioners to develop new workshops. The annual package of quarterly workshops – on anxiety, depression, trauma and enduring illnesses – was born, including clinicians proactively reporting on issues each month to help tackle anything before is has a business impact.

Know your purpose

Jon’s stresses the importance of understanding the purpose of any new business – not just what you’re doing but, why you want to do it. For him it’s about doing a good job and working on something that’s worthwhile. Communicating this is also important. “If your purpose is clear to everyone you work with, that will pay off. People need to buy into you – what you’re doing and why – that’s the way to get clients.”

Letting go

As well as balancing head and heart, another issue for people with a deeply personal motivation for starting a business is being able to let go – trusting others to help run the business when it becomes too much for one person. Jon agrees…

“It’s hard, but if you have specific strengths in one area, you need to see the specific strengths in other people. If you bring in people who are better than you [trained and with more relevant experience – for example, clinical staff] delegation is easier because they’ll do a much better job.”

Because ‘people buy people’ – which is certainly the case at the start-up stage – bringing in other staff can be an issue, but Jon believes this is about being open and managing client expectations. This relates to another of Jon’s guiding principles – honestly – particularly if things go wrong…

 “I’ve told clients exactly what’s happened when things didn’t go as planned. I’d rather put work back a month than rush it. I’m sometimes guilty of over-sharing, but I believe honesty can really help build your reputation, as can asking your clients for advice – they appreciate being consulted; they like to help.”

Thinking long term

“The big question is… do you want to do something for now, or create a business? For a business to succeed, you need a long term view – a vision – and you need long term agreements, long term clients, and long term goals. Solving a minor problem is probably not the basis for a sustainable business. If you’re tackling a bigger problem [like mental health and wellbeing at work] it’s about chipping away and coming up with long term solutions.”

Which brings us back to the ‘why’ of the business you’re starting. For Jon Manning, that purpose became increasingly clear through dissatisfaction with his previous employment. “I realised the work I was doing was good money and quite flexible, but it was menial and without purpose – I needed to help myself.” A year later, Jon is sure he made the right move. “I haven’t had a salary for the past 12 months so I’ve left all that life behind, but I feel a lot better now than I’ve ever been.”

Further information about Arthur Ellis Mental Health Servicehttps://arthurellismhs.com

Jon is based at the NatWest Accelerator Hub in Milton Keynes, https://www.business.natwest.com/business/business-banking/services/entrepreneur-accelerator.html#hubs

The customer is usually right

Quite often on Dragon’s Den, you hear them say ‘you’ve designed a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. In the wider world, if that disqualified any business that offers something we don’t need or want, we wouldn’t be surrounded by gadgets we never use, and services we thought would be useful when we first signed up for them.

The best business ideas are both needed and wanted and, unless you’ve got money to burn, this needs to be confirmed through market research. Or ‘customer validation’ as Davina Pancholi-Ifould describes it in relation to her start-up journey (we’re all on a journey these days) as founder and CEO of Rightgig Ltd.

To be fair, customer validation is not just any old market research, it’s about testing real products with real customers in real environments. For Davina, customer validation is also… “developing something because you know someone is going to pay you for it because they want and/ or need it. It’s about getting out there with a clipboard and talking to people you don’t know – so not your mum!”  That ‘something’ is Rightgig – an online marketplace to, in Davina’s words “Help companies decide who they should hire.” The online platform helps people looking for work or hiring, to match skills, motivation and personality to fit with different business cultures. As Davina observes “Some things, like skills, can be taught, but motivation and personality is also key to finding the right people.”

We’ve all probably seen the problems that can arise when people don’t fit in with the rest of the team. For Davina, the spark that ignited the flame that has become Rightgig was harnessing her love of technology to solve a problem that she and others had experienced when trying to hire. The ‘data matching’ idea was born and four weeks later, Davina was working fulltime on the business.

Lesson one – don’t hand in your notice too soon! Davina advises you do as much customer validation as you can before you leave the security of your paid job.

Lesson two – get outside support from people with a shared vision as early as possible. A lot of business success is about networking – about who you know. Gather your advisors and tribe!

I was intrigued to know what was behind the name – Rightgig – and the company’s logo. It was obvious I wasn’t the first person to ask Davina about this.

“Business names are emotive, often the embodiment of the business values, so it’s important you’re attached to the name. That said, our process for developing the name and logo was pretty random. I’m very visual so it was a matter of putting things up on the wall at home. We wanted a name that was one word and was easy to say and spell. We put ‘right’ and ‘gig’ (thinking of the gig economy, and gig as in ‘job’) on the wall and Rightgig had a resonance with the property website.”

I’m sure the process wasn’t that painless, but… I was also interested to learn that the logo started out as a doodle with a coffee mug stain on top of it!

“We aspire to become the Google of job search” jokes Davina (or maybe she isn’t joking?)

That ambition is reflected in the care with which the customer verification goes on. The technological base will only be built once a focus group has approved it – unusual in the world of technology. A broader focus group of users are testing early versions of the platform and saying which features they’d like to see first. Those features will then be tested further “Each release is an opportunity to build awareness and do further testing on the basis of real data” explains Davina.

I wonder what other lessons can be passed on to would-be entrepreneurs, and not just those of the techy variety? The fluency of Davina’s answer implies she’s also been asked that before.

“Don’t give up your day job too early. [Try to] keep your home and work life separate – turn off your phone and laptop, shut the door. Most creative solutions come when you’re not working on them – my 60 second pitch came to me in the shower! Know your strengths and weaknesses. To me finance is dull, but I know it’s important – I’ve learned to love it. Social media is my biggest challenge and my time is probably best spent on other things – I’ll outsource it as soon as I can.”

Returning to the subject of customer validation, Davina has a last bit of advice to share. “You can’t talk to enough people – you can always do more. We know our recruitment solution isn’t for everyone but we had to learn this. I have no regrets.”

More information: https://rightgig.co.uk