The managing of mentoring


What is wrong with our mentoring? Mentoring is not making the contribution of which it is capable. It is time for new initiatives. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service is a managed process, which has been adopted widely, and now by Imperial.

Nearly 60% of startup failures are because they do not meet a real customer need, says recent research by CBInsights; and a third of all startup failures blame team problems. Yet research on mentoring (reported in ‘Accelerators’ 2018, by Wright and Drori) asserts that marketing opportunities and lack of managerial experience are two of the top fields in which mentors help startups. So what is going wrong with mentoring?

From 2011 a UK government scheme enabled hi-growth small businesses to work with a mentor; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s 2012 Growth Builder programme, but alas, despite its record of success, for some strange reason it was withdrawn in 2016.

Seedcamp, Y Combinator, Techstars, Wayra Lab and Startupbootcamp – leaders in the field of Accelerators, all hold tenaciously to the importance of mentors and mentoring. With their regular re-evaluation of progress, problems and plans (‘Office Hours’), and with their many connections, they aim to link startups to people with specialised expertise or experience, often using variants of speed-dating.

Where mentoring has been made available in Incubators in the UK, it often amounts to no more than an introduction to someone with vaguely related experience, and the process left to find its own way.

MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) has taken a more systematic approach. It is not simply a service of introductions: it is a managed programme.

“ * First establish a local cohort of volunteer mentors (carefully interviewed and screened) who warrant that they will have no financial interest in this work, whose ethos is one of giving back and who confirm their commitment to giving one to two days equivalent in a month and will come to a monthly meeting of mentors (they will value its prestige, its networking and its sociability).

* Mentors always work and meet together in teams of 3-5, one of whom is the lead mentor.  They are from different business backgrounds and will share their different business experiences.

* The entrepreneur they are serving determines the agenda for each meeting and MIT makes all the meeting arrangements.”

MIT VMS has applications from 20-30 new ventures a month (from students, faculty, staff and importantly from Alumni).

For the last 13 years, MIT VMS has also run an intensive Outreach Training Program (for details, see 1 below) which has trained 91 sister programs from 23 countries (in universities, economic development organizations, accelerators, incubators and in hybrid organizations) to help them establish their own formal mentoring program based on the MIT VMS Model.

MIT VMS has been in discussions with a number of other parties in the UK, but the only adopter has been Imperial College. [To-morrow, yes, to-morrow I review Imperial’s approach and progress with mentoring.]

John Whatmore, March 2019


(1) In the Outreach Program, under an agreement with MIT, an organisation sends a team of up to 5 people to MIT for the Immersion Training Program of 2 1/2 days which includes:

-comprehensive curriculum with sessions on the concept of team mentoring,  who makes a good mentor, where to find such people and criteria for entrepreneurs for successful mentoring.

-observing an actual team mentoring session being conducted

-attending a MIT VMS Monthly Mentor Meeting

-meeting mentors, entrepreneurs and management informally.

MIT VMS staff will mentor the visiting organisation as though they were a start up and will hold a strategy mentoring session with them as mentees.  As an additional and optional program, MIT VMS will send an instructor/mentor to their location to train their first group of new mentors.


John Whatmore, March 2019


Learning from fellow startups


Learning from fellow startups I have regularly asked participants what they have found of greatest value in their incubator or accelerator. By far the most common response is what you learn from your fellow startups.

Most of to-day’s communications are by the internet, where every e-mail is tersely headed ‘Subject’ and labeled ‘data’. But you never know where a good conversation might go: it might prompt a connection, a revelation, or even an inspiration, and then lead you who knows where. So how do Startup communities harvest the benefits of being together?

Proximity. Bethnal Green Ventures (and many others) make use of pint-sized rooms in which their small teams work intimately with one another. Desks are often butted up to each other or in clusters (also Watershed, Bristol; and IdeaLondon.)

Regular meetings of groups whose members have issues in common, such as workshops, discussion groups etc. They encourage participants to articulate and wrestle with their issues (Plato Belgium, Cockpit Arts, Learning Marathons RCA.)

Regular meetings of whole cohorts – Y Combinator brings its participants together regularly for a meal, at which they are required to report on their progress, their problems and their plans (as does Bethnal Green Ventures and many others). At Watershed Bristol, the programme leader then circulated notes to everyone so that anyone could pick up and pursue another’s lead.(See also the UCL/RBS hi-growth programme for Scaleups.)

Breaks – café areas can be arranged to encourage conversations (Costa’s Chatty Café scheme proposes a long communal table); the Tramperies have coffee Fridays, IdeaLondon drinks evenings; and Loughborough University has an incubator kitchen where you can both cook and eat. The Ping pong table is emblematic of the games area – common to many accelerators and incubators.

Outings – trips to suppliers, customers, conferences, related experts etc provide opportunities for all sorts of conversations (Central Research Laboratory’s visit to China; ‘Entrepreneurial Scotland’s’ visits to Silicon Valley; I-Corp’s extensive programmes of enquiry.)

Online groups – some cohorts have also established their own internet groups (a London South Bank University group uses Slack.)

John Whatmore, March 2019










An ‘Innovation Hub’ in top sport


An Innovation Hub in the world of top sport Barcelona, the greatest football club in the world, quietly launched its ‘Innovation Hub’ in 2017, which Maria Bartomeu, its president, now regards as its most important project. What can we learn from it?

A few people have extraordinary skills (such as reading the game, facilitating others) suggests a piece in the FT, skills that can be identified, nurtured, sustained and put to good use, but are difficult to emulate (but not impossible – see footnote).

The Hub’s 16 staff are about spreading the best innovations around the club, but also more than an internal tool: ‘helping to invent the football of the future’. They search for incremental gains both on and off the field.

The club’s reputation has been made on the field – with its outstanding record of success. The team’s basic playing style and match tactics are ‘only a crutch’, though derived from intense analysis of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and their likely tactics for this game. But football belongs to the players – ‘they take their own decisions’ says Valverde, the Head Coach. ‘The great players analyse the game better than I do’.

The great Lionel Messi ‘reserves the first minutes of each match for interpretation’…’ignoring the ball and taking a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defense, fixing each man’s position in his head. Then as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly well where the rival’s weaknesses are.’

Barcelona’s data analysts spend their lives looking for an edge for their team; and players like advice that is specific. The analysts’ focus used to be on passes, tackles, shots etc, but the question may now be how a player positions himself: is he controlling crucial spaces and creating space for teammates?

The club now uses a new tracking system, developed with Spanish startup RealTrackSystems, which relies on wearable sensors to track players’ positions, speeds, accelerations, recovery distance, heartbeat, force of collisions etc. The club hopes that this information will help players to create ‘superiorities’ – that are numerical (two players against one), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against an inferior opponent).

But, says Velverde, ‘for now, the club’s analysts can barely help the players do that. On the contrary, the analysts learn about football by observing the club’s most intelligent players.’ (‘Midfielder Sergio Basquets, knows just how to draw an opponent towards him and then release a team mate into the space the man has left.’)

So how do you identify the most intelligent players? One long-standing theory is that they are those who almost always face the right way on the field. Some would say that Barcelona simply attracts great players (it pays them each more than £10mn pa), but Valverde say ‘nobody comes here for the money; they come here because they like playing football’; and grumbles that the club cannot attract all of those whom it would like to. When we are buying a player, says Valverde, ‘we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted, but above all the club asks people around the player about his psychology…he may come with amazing data, but is he ‘[psychologically]’ a satellite….?’

Those words suggest another (perhaps vital) touchstone: that Barcelona may now be focusing on how its players help each other to make use of their special talents – as much as their own (like Basquets).

And then there are issues about fitness. All players now wear a chip that monitors the training sessions, with the aim of trying to predict stress or injury. ‘But the club will need to build up a knowledge base largely by themselves [as] medicine has little to say about football injuries.’ So the club is now partnering about 40 studies of such injuries. It is also focusing on a player’s external load: how many games of what intensity has he played recently; and how is he reacting internally – with the overall aim of individualising each player’s care, (although as much as the club may want to ensure that they have the very best that is available, players have their own regimes and lives.)

The Board member who oversees the Hub talks about Barcelona as becoming the Silicon Valley of sport. The club plans to launch investment funds to invest in tech and sports projects worldwide; and it exchanges ideas less with their football rivals than with American sports franchises – from San Francisco’s 49ers of gridiron football to basketballs Golden State Warriors.

And Barcelona also has plans to build ‘the best sporting complex in the world in the centre of a great city’ – that will set the tone in global sport. Social impact is part of the Club’s mission, and it informs the work of the Innovation Hub as it does everything else – as a society, to perform at your very best.

Footnote: My book ‘Releasing Creativity’ has eighteen stories of leaders (in a variety of fields) who have this talent. One is of an Olympic Athletics coach; another was an Olympic Kayak coach – out of a total of 40 in a research project for the then Department of Trade and Industry. (Available from Amazon.)

From ‘How FC Barcelona are preparing for the future of football’, Simon Kuper; FT Weekend Magazine, March 2/3, 2019

 John Whatmore, March 2019

Whither the Startup Factories?


Whither the Startup Factories? Bethnal Green Ventures, an early social enterprise accelerator, sees plenty of opportunities (- more than it can handle at present); it draws more widely, it is constantly refining its programme, it offers more support, and over a longer period, and now has follow-on funding available.

Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV), the first Startup Factory specialising in environmental and social problems in the UK, now runs two 12-week full-time programmes a year, each cohort of approximately ten ‘tech for good’ startups.

It helps run what it calls a ‘meetup group’ – of over 8,000 people – in London and other locations, through whom it gets around 200 applicants for every new cohort. 40 of these go through to interview before the final 10 are chosen. Key selection criteria include the potential for a positive impact and the motivation of founders. Those selected are offered £20k and make 6% of their equity over to BGV.

In their three months, they will come up with a plan to exploit their idea (many are about the NHS; and now energy too), a plan that can withstand scrutiny and will achieve the numbers they envisage (BGV is often able to help them find their potential customers; as it is to help them find impact investors, though the sector does not yet have enough potential investors who understand the sector. (BGV is looking to start a fund for individual investors; and another for institutional funds)).

It has funded 113 startups since it opened its doors in 2012 (its founding partners were Nesta and the Nominet Trust now called the Social Tech Trust), of which around 60 are still active but Paul Miller, its architect, reckons that perhaps 1 in 20 might achieve an exit value in excess of £50mn, and that a cohort will lose 50% of its remaining businesses every two years. [No doubt many of those involved will have gone on to play roles in other social enterprises.]

Many accelerators have been drawn, by virtue of the focus of VC funders onto exits, to prefer small businesses that are near to market, and to focus increasingly on after-care (leaving space for new pre-accelerator programmes and part-time ‘injection’ programmes.) Where Techstars now offers ‘graduates’ a substantial sum in the form of a convertible loan, BGV is now able to offer up to £50k of investment (alongside angels).

Of its 8 staff, 2 deal with sourcing startups and communications, 4 support the growth of the startups in each cohort and are responsible for investment and helping teams to find the funding they need for their continued growth and 2 look after the operations of the organisation.

BGV sees its model as working well; its investments as rising in value; but also that it is missing opportunities because of a shortage of capital to invest. And it is seeking a new home – probably in a co-working space in east London.

John Whatmore, March 2019





A new design-led Incubator cum Accelerator


A new design-led Incubator cum Accelerator in a partnership with a specialist property company In a local partnership, with significant external funding, and a great deal of support, the participants in CRL’s programmes are all developing physical products – with great success.

CRL is an incubator community whose 75 young businesses, all developing physical products, have now built more than 4,000 prototypes (‘you have to make it before you can tell whether it might meet realistic customer needs.’). Twenty-six of those businesses have passed through its accelerator. The community is now working with over 50 manufacturers and 30 delivery partners and counts more than 20 investors.

CRL runs a fully funded mentoring programme (called ‘Boost’) offering support in manufacturing, marketing and investment for companies that are taking products to market and looking to scale.

The programme consists of group workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions. Facilitators include entrepreneurs and founders of hardware companies that have traded on a global scale and secured significant investment, consultants experienced in navigating manufacturing ecosystems in Asia and beyond, investors and investment experts, and sessions led by marketing consultants.

CRL’s 6-month Accelerator programme claims to be the first purpose-built hardware accelerator in the UK – its aim being to maximise the scaleability of startups developing physical products. It has a tightly proscribed and intensive programme, with two days a week of one-to-ones or group meetings with specialists, and the focus on business models, finding the right solution, and the route to market, investor resonance, pitching practice and a trip to meet manufacturers in China. Participants grant to CRL an option on 3% of their equity. It claims an outstanding 80% survival rate.

Misleadingly named Central Research Laboratory (‘CRL’), it sits in a refurbished old factory on an industrial estate being redeveloped in Hayes and Harlington; but it is in fact an Incubator cum Accelerator that opened its doors in 2015.

U+I is a property developer whose strategy is to regenerate areas through careful design of mixed-use developments and wholehearted community engagement. They are also starting to include an Incubator cum accelerator (not unlike Canary Wharf’s Level39) in key developments to attract high growth businesses.

CRL occupies a small part of one of the big industrial buildings planned for the estate, of which only a small number have been built so far. It is to be one of five Incubator/Accelerators being built on similar estates across the UK – the next one at Brighton, already building, all to be focused on creativity and innovation, for which a man with an unrivalled pedigree in design has been recruited to be their mastermind.

From Central St.Martins and the Royal College of Art, Mat Hunter started in San Francisco with IDEO before heading its London office, and then Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, where he led government innovation projects before creating the Spark accelerator programme. Mat, uniquely, brings to CRL an enormous number of connections from his past with which to build his crucial network of supporters (and investors).

As a design-led incubator it tends to draw its participants from diverse design-based universities like Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art, Imperial, Kingston and Central St. Martins, and at this moment it is about 60% full.

It boasts two small labs (one includes two milling machines and the other focused on 3D printing, electrics and electronics, managed by a technician.) There are seven studio offices – for the more advanced businesses; there is the usual assortment of hot desks and team desks, and a small kitchen (and the inevitable ping pong table); and a big desk area for the Accelerator, which is now pitching for its sixth cohort. (The entire fifth cohort was away in China when I visited – looking for sources of supply; though one member was at Y Combinator looking for future funding.)

This (and each of the four other incubators to be built) must have a theme in relation to its locality – here in Hayes related to the heritage of EMI Record’s now-forgotten research and development labs.

It is handsomely staffed: in addition to a technician, two people run the Accelerator and the Boost programme, three support product development, one supports marketing, one manages the co-working spaces and services, and there are two administrators – in total, ten. In addition, there is a changing cohort of 20-30 mentors, and there is a mentor-in-residence and an investor-in-residence.

Initial funding came as to one third from property developer U+I, and two thirds from HEFCE and ERDF – all eager to generate high quality jobs in this area of London.

CRL’s progress puts it well on the road to validating its business model, and establishing its sources of funding in order to consolidate its future.

John Whatmore, February, 2019



A Pathfinder’s pathway


A Pathfinder’s pathway Jack is a creater of Accelerators. With a seemingly endless appetite for more, how many can he handle? With about 130 new business support programmes started in the last three years, where do leaders like him come from?

His very first startup was a social enterprise selling slow cooked pork for a charity in Camden Market!

He was instrumental in founding Citrus Saturday with Tim Barnes, an experiential learning programme developed by UCL, aimed at teaching entrepreneurship and enterprise skills to young people around the world, now in use in 16 countries across Europe and Africa. Participants create a lemonade product, brand it and sell it to the public, then keep the profits from their work.

When he realised that some of the joiners to his current incubator had come from Accelerator Entrepreneur First, Jack experimented in 2017 with an 8-week Accelerator (called Bloom Accelerate) for 8 startups, whose focus was on finding customers. Based on 1-1s for 3-5 days a week, he describes it as ‘pragmatic’. And this has formed the basis of his incubator’s offering ever since.

At the same time, he ran a food business incubator in shared kitchens, which he describes as an almost impossible situation. Over 6 months it helped 4 food businesses (2 Street Food, 1 catering, 1 coffee shop offering) to get off the ground and test their ideas in a very low-risk setting. The catering for the Bloom Accelerate events (above) came from the catering company; the events were held in the coffee shop and the chefs from the street food stalls came to the workshops, and learned more about running their businesses.

Jack is now setting up another such incubator – in Malvern, where he has acquired a lease on a building which he is refurbishing at low cost – to house 6 businesses (12 people), with an eventual maximum of 20 businesses – enabling them to feed off one another, and opening them to local links as well as to London links. It will focus on Proof of Concept, and is for people with ERDF grants. And he has his eye on another site in Ledbury, and then yet another in Plymouth.

Jack has connections with some seven incubators in EU countries, which enable him to draw on their experience as well as offering to members of his own incubator the opportunity to spend time there free of charge.

He also works with a Japanese group which connects large industry sponsors and investors in Asia with startups. It has an annual prize called Tech Planter – for identifying engineering and tech issues and pre-seeding them in startups.

Who will join me in nominating Jack ‘Startup Supporter of the Year’?

John Whatmore, February, 2019


A Pathfinder in Incubation


A Pathfinder in Incubation Academic turned entrepreneur starts another boutique incubator that is more like a permanent accelerator; and plans another, and another.      To-morrow: The Pathfinder’s pathway: with about 130 new business support programmes started in the last three years, where do leaders like him come from?

Currently founding his fourth latter-day incubator (and planning his fifth), Jack Wratten is an outcome of the inspirational academic enterprise run by Tim Barnes that was UCL Advances, where he set up and launched its Incubator in 2015.

Jack took his small redundancy pot, augmented it with funds from ERDF via Capital Enterprise to take a lease on a small basement area close beside UCL. There he has created an attractive, intimate mini-incubator – of 30 hot desks (some 14 small businesses), where he and Lillian Shapiro keep in intimate touch with the businesses and provide them with the training, mentoring, links to experts and close support that enables them to develop – probably as fast as any Accelerator.

They make a perfect pair: Jack’s experience and connections combine with his restless spirit of innovation, friendly smiles, nosey character and ‘connectivitis’. Lillian’s experience of her own business, her understanding of startups progress and needs in terms of training and mentoring is offered with endless patience and understanding.

What have they created? Connections to former colleagues at UCL, and to lawyers, accountants and specialists, (he has about a dozen mentors on hand) enable them to wheel up help of every imaginable kind: knowledge, expertise, advice, and even recruiting new team members. And their closeness to everyone in the incubator and the mutual support for one another in the incubator enables them to wheel up help just when it is needed.

The basis of all Jack’s incubators is that they take no equity and are run for young businesses that have the funds (whether from revenue, grants or investors) to pay for their places and for the close and expert support that he can offer them.

Word of mouth has spoken for the benefits of the support they provide; for it has been continually full since opening, though with inevitable spikes in occupancy.


John Whatmore, February, 2019