What is it that makes for effective mentoring in young ventures?



Mentoring is regarded as an ongoing relationship between the mentor and the mentee – the mentor offering help and advice on the mentee’s issues. But intensive development programmes have introduced the need for a variety of specialist mentors, whose help may be needed at different moments. To meet these needs, ‘Lead mentors’ will increasingly become managers of mentoring teams.


Einstein, Ghandi and Martha Graham are among the many great people whose vital supporters were in effect their mentors. But is having a great mentor little more than a matter of chance?

Recently there has been a great deal of activity aimed at encouraging mentoring. BIS is aiming to improve the mentoring offer in order to drive up demand: it has created a tool-kit of best practice; and is working to articulate the benefits of mentoring. So what makes a good mentor; how do you play this role effectively; and how should mentoring be managed?

There is of course an important role for mentors in working with aspiring entrepreneurs, encouraging the best of them, helping them to latch onto issues or technologies that could have a big impact, and to launch a venture (‘the family doctor of enterprise’) – though these are all roles that have their effect prior to commitment – prior to someone taking their decision to attempt to become an entrepreneur, so that mentoring relationship will be a personal and longer term one.

Mentoring schemes and most development programmes – programmes for people who already have a business concept – seek to pair someone whose role it is to meet the mentee one-to-one on a regular basis, to discuss progress and problems (including how best to use mentors). Sometimes there is an ‘entrepreneur-in-residence’ (at Lancaster University, a number of them). Everyone emphasises that it is the relationship between the individuals that is of the essence.

Many development programmes have worked very successfully with a large numbers of mentors, where speed-dating is certainly a way of discovering who among mentors might help whom, but the needs of those who are struggling to develop young ventures change rapidly (at one moment they may have a problem with their product, at the next moment with customers and marketing, and then with financing, or with themselves!). However they are not always aware of their evolving needs, and even less of who may best be able to help them.

On one development programme (Springboard) first of all it is twenty minutes with each of ten mentors per day, three to four days a week (there is a large number of mentors involved.) What they offered was a mix of (1) feed-back – on ideas, concepts, proposals, (2) advice – about ways forward, and (3) contacts – with people who are likely to help (most notably with potential customers). Many of the mentors working with early stage ventures are people who have ‘done it before’, and some are there for their special expertise eg in IP, finance or marketing. From the entrepreneur’s point of view, Mentor Days seemed like a relentless grilling, with often brutal feed-back!

After a period for absorbing what you have learned and adapting your business concept appropriately, mentees then choose to meet those mentors whom they would like to meet again; and mentors choose to meet those mentees whom they think they could help (eg with advice and contacts).

But in all of this there is no way in which mentors who are not regularly in close contact with a mentee can identify the critical moments for any subsequent contributions. The University of the West of England has however built a form of bridge over this gap – by adopting the concept of ‘the Board you could not afford’, where the entrepreneur meets three or four times a year with a carefully chosen group of 3 or 4 specialists.

It seems likely that ‘Lead’ mentors will have more of a role in heading up groups of mentors, each with their own specialism, (including for example someone who can help the mentees to find precisely relevant material on the net). Like UWE’s Board, they will know about each other’s background, experience and particular expertise, and will meet together from time to time to discuss their contributions and how they can best help individual mentees. Lead mentors may be able to introduce someone with a new perspective just when it is appropriate, and enhance the potential contribution of the often numerous mentors.


If you run mentoring networks, are interested in networking for mentors, or if you have some unusual mentoring needs, I would be interested to hear from you (at john.whatmore@btinternet.com).


John Whatmore

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity


Copyright 2013





Accelerators – a new tool to help incubate innovations for economic growth



Incubators have been growing fast in the UK since the 90s and Accelerators are providing them with a new tool to support the growth of young businesses, a tool which looks like having a comparable period of rapid growth (1). Their aim is to help those who take part in all kinds of incubator to develop their ideas into viable businesses or marketable propositions. While incubators provide space for young businesses, Accelerators offer a process which helps both to generate new businesses and to give young businesses a helping hand on the escalator of growth.

They are distinct are in four ways:

1. Accelerators exist for a pre-defined time: all the teams start

at the same moment, develop together, and finish together –

on Demo Day;

2. The teams (usually about a dozen at a time) are selected on

a competitive basis; and if they are aiming to start a new

venture they are often paid a small amount for the duration

of the programme and in return they give up a small percentage

of their equity;

3. Often, the teams work alongside one another, enabling them to

benefit from each other’s expertise, ideas and progress;

4. They are provided with more intensive support – of mentors,

advisers and contacts.

In the one of the most recent of Accelerators, six out of six teams at Bethnal Green Ventures managed to develop their novel concepts for social enterprises to the point where they had either positive cash-flows, or ongoing contracts, or an offer of investment.

YCombinator in Mountain View, California, opening its doors in 2005, then with 30 companies per class, now as many as 60, and Techstars,  founded in 2007 with ten companies per class, and now operating in a number of locations, are perhaps the best known Accelerators in the States – among a number of others in a fast-growing scene. Techstars ‘probably created more funded companies last year than all six of the best universities [in the UK] created in their best year’, writes one leading entrepreneur.

The BBC’s Watering Holes were among the first Accelerators in the UK: one week programmes, the concept drawn from Stanford, designed to work with people who brought to the BBC ideas for new programmes, and intended to turn them into propositions that were marketable to commissioning managers. Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio followed – a year-long programme designed to enable people in the arts to explore ways in which pervasive media might be of use in that field. Seedcamp was the next, started in 2007, a week-long programme designed to help people with ideas for new businesses to develop them to the point where they could be pitched to potential investors, a programme that was itself turned into an enterprise and sold the world over.

The Difference Engine, started in 2009, was the first classic Accelerator in the UK – a 13-week programme for a dozen people, with the same objectives as Seedcamp; followed by the similar ‘Springboard’ in 2010, run first in Cambridge, then in London, and again recently – as Springboard Mobile. Alongside these, there have been perhaps half-a-dozen others in the UK. Many of them have had funding from Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

In March last year, Telefonica, the first corporate to set up a ‘lab’ in which to run a continuous programme of Accelerators, opened its London lab – the tenth such Accelerator it has opened worldwide – where it will run two six-month cohorts a year. IBM’s venture capital arm is just starting one for businesses in Healthcare IT, one of some twenty IBM has run over the last two years – in various cities all over the world; and the Cabinet Office has just closed its invitation for bids for a £10mn fund for three incubators/ accelerators in social enterprise, to be run over the next three years.

These Accelerators are becoming increasingly specialised, and tailored in duration to their purposes – both to different points along the escalator of growth, and in terms of sector or technology. They are able to pick off people with the best opportunities; they flood them with support; and they manage to attract a range of potential investors for the successful teams. However they certainly entail risk, and they tend to generate small businesses whose prospects of scaling are uncertain.

One model is suggested by Biocity, a Life Sciences incubator in Nottingham, which aims to support young businesses at several stages along the escalator of growth. A number of their new businesses enter the incubator from the 3-day Bootcamp that they hold regularly; and those that emerge from this and into the incubator are then able to pitch to enter a 6-9 month accelerator-type regime in which they are provided with intensive support for developing a business plan, whose end-point is a marketable proposition – a vertically-integrated approach.

Several Accelerators have focused on helping more mature SMEs to grow by working with them eg on strategy (eg Qi3 see http://goo.gl/Od6F1), on  business model (eg The Young Foundation see http://goo.gl/ET1zQ), on new concepts (eg Watershed, Bristol see http://goo.gl/XCTxK), new products (eg Plato, Belgium see http://goo.gl/hzBJ5), and new customer segments and marketing (eg Fintech Lab see http://goo.gl/a5c9A).

Another of many possible futures for Accelerators is suggested by the National Theatre’s Studio, which invites writers, directors and other

creatives in theatre for ‘residencies’, often for insightful collaborations that might prove to be the elixir for bringing some theatre piece to fruition – a more flexible approach than that of the common model of the Accelerator.

Common to all these examples is that they are an intensive phase of the development process whose management is carefully curated and adapt-ed to the needs of the particular businesses.


(1) See Nesta’s ‘The Startup Factories’, 2011


John Whatmore, 2013


Copyright John Whatmore 2012


Accelerators merge: Springboard merges with US early bird Techstars



Springboard has just announced that it is merging with TechStars to create TechStars London. Techstars was founded in 2007 in the US, and runs Accelerator programmes for start-ups. It has offices in Boulder, Boston, New York, Seattle, Chicago and San Antonio, and London is its first overseas expansion.

David Cohen, CEO and founder of TechStars said “We’ve had our eye on the burgeoning London tech scene for some time, well aware the US doesn’t have a monopoly on either tech skills or entrepreneurship. The current business climate here means we can work with an incredibly broad spectrum of British and international teams and top talent. Merging with Springboard will allow TechStars to deliver great results both for start-ups and investors.”

The funding offer for TechStars London will mirror that of the US programmes with an investment of €85K, being €15K of seed funding and an optional €70K convertible debt note for each company.

Springboard is on its fourth Accelerator programme here in the UK, the first was in Cambridge, the second and third in London (the latter was for Mobile businesses), and its present programme (with three corporates) is about businesses connected with the Internet of Things.




Ways forward: policy-makers often lack essential experience




Ministers accused of politicising Whitehall”thunders the Times.

It is not that many years ago that Mandarins were fulminating against the idea that each department should have the right to appoint one expert in its field. The problem is that as a policy-maker you don’t have to consult that expert – the expert will only have some influence over those matters about which he or she is consulted; and in this world of specialisms, there are very few experts whose experience covers a wide enough field. Moreover it is all too easy to ignore that advice since the experts will quickly get squeezed out or lose their jobs if they choose to go public about any advice that is not accorded its full weight.

An increasing difficulty in policy making in all fields is the lack of that knowledge of how people think and react, gained by actual experience in the field itself – for too long we were led by accountants and lawyers because it was felt that their minds were such as to be able to deal effectively with any subject, while the engineer and the marketing expert were seldom the bosses – their experience regarded as secondary. It has long been argued that the introverted nature of the Civil Service prevents it from having enough experience of reality; and the appointment of a single adviser to each department was seen as a vital step forward in policy making. But it fails all too often.

Take for example efforts to reverse the huge rise in youth unemployment. There have been a number of programmes to try and reverse this, often premised on political dogma – such as outsourcing to private enterprise, each without taking account of evidence about what actually works (a number of effective proposals have been ignored, shelved or reversed.)

It is hard to persuade policy-makers, boards and committees of management to take time to go out and learn first-hand about the issues they are working on; and easy to suppose that reports are comprehensive. Microsoft’s Labs in Cambridge attacked this problem by bringing world-class experts to its own doors. Advisory boards were appointed for each major strand of its work, drawn from leading experts in that particular field all over the world. They were commissioned to review the work being carried out by Microsoft and to report regularly on how it fitted with and matched up to comparable work being carried out elsewhere in the world – an approach that ensured that expert advice was integrated into the management of the Lab.

Right now, there are three alternatives:

1.    A sharp change of culture in the Civil Service – towards a better understanding of the importance and value of external advice.

2.    Appoint more external advisers.

3.    A more formal use of external advisers by Mandarins – by involving them more intimately in the policy-making process.  The Times concludes that their roles and responsibilities should be made clearer.


My focus and that of my workshops and seminars is on drawing from each other’s experience – you might be amazed at what your next door neighbour has achieved and how he did it!


John Whatmore                                                               February 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity


A cluster-based ‘Accesserator’

A cluster-based Accelerator…here helping to enable SMEs with innovative products to market to the big companies of this sector – all located close to one another; the process energised both by collaboration and competition

This novel application of the Accelerator in a cluster suggests how SMEs with innovative products can be promoted by a period of intensive support to help disseminate their innovations into organisations in the cluster, where the latter are working both collaboratively and competitively.

While most commonly Accelerators have been about helping aspiring entrepreneurs to develop their ideas into commercial ventures, some, like this one, have been about helping SMEs to grow. They have done so by focusing on the development of strategy (see Qi3 at http://goo.gl/Od6F1), business model (see The Young Foundation at http://goo.gl/ET1zQ), new concepts (see Watershed http://goo.gl/XCTxK), new products (see Plato, Belgium at http://goo.gl/hzBJ5), and new customer segments and marketing (Fintech below).

The FinTech Innovation Lab London is a three-month long collaborative Accelerator, in its third week as I write, in which seven young businesses in IT have been brought together, all of them carefully selected by the senior IT officers in the thirteen big companies in this project (twelve of them large banks) because their ‘products’ might be valuable to them.

The FinTech Innovation Lab, provides its seven companies with office space in the heart of Canary Wharf for these three months, and provides mentors to help them through the process. And a ‘chaperone’ was appointed by the senior IT officer in each company, whose job it is to help them talk to people in their bank (The cultures of the banking industry and the IT industry are quite different, and selling by the one into the other is recognised as a complicated and arduous process.)

A similar ‘Accelerator’ has been run for the last two years with a number of banks in New York – with evident success – enabling them to make use of products or services from other fields which have no necessary relationship to the banking industry.

The role of these ‘chaperones’ is to identify which of these young businesses might have something that would be of value to their company, and to help their staff to get in front of the right people in their company, people who could help them to make use of their products. One person who has experienced this process is said to have commented that his company was able to achieve in the three months what would otherwise have taken two years.

The process is energised by the fact that having committed to the project, each company’s senior IT officer and its ‘chaperone’ are simultaneously collaborating and competing with those of the other companies to get the most out of the process and out of the IT companies and what they have to offer. Every week, one of the big companies makes a presentation in the co-working space, for example about security problems, about their purchasing hoops, about their current challenges etc.

The programme finishes with ‘Demo Day’on 20th March; and hopes will focus on whether it has stimulated growth in the SMEs, whether it has brought innovative ideas into the banking industry, whether it has identified interesting investment opportunities to present to investors; and whether in the longer term it seems likely to inspire entrepreneurs to see potential in the financial services industry.

In addition to the thirteen big companies and the carefully selected companies in the IT industry (several of which are from other countries – reflecting the international nature of the banking industry), the parties to this exercise, all of whom can hope to gain from it and therefore have an interest in its success, are the major consultancy organisation that is managing the process (which has clients in the banking industry) and the predominant landlord in the area, which has provided space for new business nurseries in the hope that among them might be some future tenants. The TSB is making contributions to the programme. And it is formally supported by the Mayor of London.


If you are interested to learn more and meet the consultant who is running the process, email me john.whatmore@btinternet.com.


John WhatmoreThe Centre for Leadership in Creativity

Copyright 2013


Accelerators for young businesses and The Young Foundation


Among the few Accelerators in the UK working with more mature businesses is The Young Foundation. Its Accelerators seek to turn social SMEs into burgeoning organisations that change people’s lives for the better. Universities and KTNs might follow suit – in their different fields.


The Young Foundation’s long-standing connections in the not-for-profit field help the businesses in their Accelerators to build lasting relationships and secure sizeable contracts, grants and investments in order to deliver social benefits. With a well-established model and considerable experience in its field, it has carved out its own special niche.

Michael Young, as the founder in his lifetime of a large number of outstanding businesses, was an extraordinary and perhaps unique social entrepreneur. The Young Foundation, which aims to carry on his work, has been developing its concept of the Accelerator probably longer than any organisation in the UK, with the objective of enabling the Foundation to continue its history of creating outstanding new enterprises that meet social needs.

Like other Accelerators, the Young Foundation’s provides:

*               a short period (four months) of intensive support (said to be

worth £50k)

*               for a small group of carefully selected teams working in its

particular field.

What is less common if not unique is that:

  • It is focused, in the tradition of the Young Foundation, on the establishment of enterprises of social value as much as on the processes of incubation;
  • the ventures that it supports must be predominantly about social enterprise;
  • it works with ventures that already have an established model, business and funding (rather than with those who simply have an embryonic idea for a business);
  • it provides no cash (except some expenses); and takes no equity;
  • while it has available a co-working space, it does not require incubatees to house themselves in it;
  • it has a firmly established business-learning regime (2 days every two weeks) and syllabus (round four core topic modules);
  • it has a firmly established mentoring philosophy (each team has one coach, whom they meet once a week – and will be matched to one guru, whom they will meet once a month); and there are a number of supporters with a wealth of experience to offer;
  • it has an investor panel (currently 13 VC organisations);
  • and it has steadily evolved and refined the processes of its Accelerator into its present well-established pattern.

Since 2005, when the Young Foundation was created in its present incarnation through the merger of the Institute of Community Studies with the Mutual Aid Centre, it has run a number of leading venture support and investment programmes including the Learning Launchpad (2007), the Health Launchpad (2008) and the Youth of Today Fund (2009). It is able to call in evidence a considerable number of new social enterprises that it has supported and developed successfully, and that it continues to support.

The Young Foundation is also at the forefront of industry research into the social enterprise field, having published influential papers such as ‘Social Silicon

Valleys’ on the importance of social ventures and why they should be accelerated, ‘Growing Social Ventures’, the first comprehensive study of institutions that support social ventures, and ‘Lighting the Touch Paper’ which outlines the growing market for social investment in the UK.

Anna Smee, Director of Ventures at the Young Foundation feels that incubator programmes for social ventures will focus increasingly on maturing ventures (as does The Young Foundation) because these are the ventures with the capacity to take on the large scale financial investment that will enable them to scale up and increase their impact within a realistic timeframe.

My focus and that of my workshops and seminars is on drawing from each other’s experience; and several other Accelerators have focused on helping more mature SMEs to grow eg by working with them on strategy (see Qi3 at http://goo.gl/Od6F1), on new concepts (see Watershed, Bristol http://goo.gl/XCTxK), new products (see Plato, Belgium at http://goo.gl/hzBJ5), and new customer segments and marketing (see Fintech Lab at http://goo.gl/a5c9A), but few more comprehensively than The Young Foundation.


Copyright John Whatmore 2013



Copyright John Whatmore 2013