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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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