Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK

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Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK

A new report identifies the challenges that the UK must meet if our SMEs are to underpin economic growth to the substantial extent that they can.

Seldom has a piece of business research been designed to be so authoritative. Inspired by arch Angel Sherry Coutu, sponsored by Barclays and executed by the Business Schools of Oxford and Cambridge, its findings hit hard.

The research addresses a problem that has been relatively hidden – by the vibrancy of Tech City and the startup scene. While hi-growth SMEs generate 20% of all jobs growth in the UK, recent evidence from OECD shows that the UK has the highest number of start-ups compared to the OECD average, but we also have the lowest proportion of hi-growth SMEs. The biggest problem for the UK is not in starting companies, but in growing them.

 The report focuses on two closely linked obstacles to their successful growth. It seeks to identify the things that characterise successful hi-growth SMEs – with a view to stimulating them. And it seeks to make recommendations that would improve their financability.

It portrays their problems in terms of a series of challenges that they need to recognise and handle at the right moment, in particular:

  • aiming high – ambition
  • building a strong team
  • establishing partnerships
  • putting effective management systems into place
  • identifying core competences, and
  • articulating competitive strengths and new market opportunities.

While there may seem little new in these challenges, several of the recommendations emphasise the role of stakeholders in supporting scale-ups; and the research illustrates the importance of two factors: the timeliness and firmness with which the relevant issues are tackled; and the value of support in doing so.

In the financial capital of Europe, it is surprising to read of as many recommendations to tackle the financial support of these SMEs as there are about the management of the business – which seem to have caught the City unawares. These recommendations are about:

  • increasing the number and quality of VC funds
  • growing the number of experienced investors with sector and market experience
  • developing a UK venture debt market
  • establishing the UK Stock Exchange as the European leader in this field
  • enhancing the liquidity of private company equity
  • collecting better data on VC financing.

The report says little about how these objectives might be achieved, but the researchers participated in a new programme for such hi-growth companies at the Cambridge Judge Institute, which brought together the CEOs of all the participating companies at a series of six bi-monthly workshops, each of which addresses one of the classic challenges that early-stages ventures progressively face (eg shaping the value strategy/marketing and competition/developing the team/future finance).

These were structured so as to help each participant work with all the others: to assess progress, gain insights into and articulate their problems and opportunities, problem-solve collaboratively, set objectives and develop plans and ways to implement them. And a dedicated member of staff makes regular visits and contacts with each participant.

I have come across several programmes in the UK structured in this way (which I will discuss shortly in my blog). Innovate UK is ideally suited to enabling well-established and located incubators to set up targeted programmes of this kind, and this report should help ensure that it does so. For the full report, see home.barclays/scaleup

John Whatmore, May 2016

 

 

 

SMEs need someone to act as ‘chair’

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SMEs need someone to play the chairman role even more than do bigger businesses Lead mentors have the ability to ask the right questions and to turn up with someone who has just the expertise you are about to need.

Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and Techstars all attach mentors to their young businesses so as to provide feed-back and advice at the moment it is needed – on a proactive basis, not just when it is sought. This is in sharp contrast to Incubators such as those at Sussex Innovation Centre, Imperial College and UCL’s IdeaLondon and others, where advice or help is provided when it is sought – on a reactive basis.

There are topics that early-stage businesses know little about (eg development grants, intellectual property); there are things they don’t know how to do (eg 3D printing, ‘chatbot’ publicity); there are tasks of which they have little experience (eg strategy and management), where someone who has ‘done it before’ is invaluable. And in a world of disruptive advantage, time is not their ally.

Jim Milby who mentors several small businesses, recently retired as a Director of Barclays Bank, where he has ‘seen a few businesses’ and ‘knows a lot of people’. It is his extensive experience, his connections and importantly his independent voice that make him highly valued by the SMEs he works with. He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because you don’t want to go pitching for funding before you’ve got some customers.’ While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, the strategy for getting there, or even the team itself.

John Whatmore, April 2016

A long-established university incubator

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A long-established university-based incubator that is just now spawning off-spring

With a small residential staff, and access as needed to specialist experts locally, it offers flexible office space and provides services on the premises to small businesses with clearly viable ideas, with readily available support especially on marketing and fundability. Can it deliver support in the future to its new locations?

Upcoming:

  • A brilliant commercialiser of research: a concept developer like no other.
  • A programe for groups of executives in SMEs who meet regularly to help one another with their major issues.

Then the spotlight is on Oxford Innovations.

Sussex Innovation Centre aims to be a centre of support for the growth of its businesses (eg. getting turn-over up from £200k to £2.5mn pa) by means of learning about their needs for support and then being able to provide what is required – or find within the area one or two people with appropriate experience.

Some businesses fail to last more than a year; others will remain for two or three years or more depending on growth potential and the scope of support required (about 20% of them go on to achieve hi-growth, with the largest of the current tenants worth some £150mn). The turn-over of occupants is about 30% pa – and there are around 15-20 new applicants for places every month. (An idea and ambition are sought, and the business needs to be something to which the Centre can add value and help it grow.)

Owned by the University of Sussex, it supports about 120 young businesses of which it is also home to around fifty, for which (together with one or two corporates) it provides: office space – of varying sizes, a small hot-desking room, a boardroom, seminar room and a café, plus advisory support and accounting services, and offices (for the almost 30 staff).

                             Its philosophy: a ‘training ground for management’

Mike Herd, its Executive Director since it was founded nineteen years ago, came from a career at Schlumberger where he was a globe-trotting leader of field development programmes; and was recruited, as he quips, on the then topical basis of  ‘getting some money out of science’. He sees the Centre’s role as that of training up management, and his philosophy was from the outset about discovering what support the businesses need and then finding it for them, which he describes as a more gentle and broad form of support than providing or attaching mentors to teams, who might then meet with them regularly. A model he quotes as having been successful is when an investor with experience in that field plays an active role in the company in which he has invested, especially so in its commercial dealings. (Many are those who offer to act as mentors, but he derides the use of ‘coaches’ because their contributions can be insufficiently closely related to the needs of the  business; and even if the entrepreneurs get good advice, he feels that they often do not have the practical [business] skills to make good use of it.)

                          A trusted adviser – with a support team and a network of experts

He sits in the café for an hour each morning for anyone who wants to come and see him – the morning I met him, he had met people from four of his businesses. “He is always interested in my challenges and opportunities”, “a trusted adviser”. “He opened and shared his network of well-connected experts”; and “he runs a cracking team with whom you can always talk” “…very good when you need help; but there are times when I don’t know what questions I ought to be asking – maybe I would like to be able to talk to someone who had faced the same dilemma as I currently do.”

He has a network of some 30 senior experts – from companies in the area, with which he has developed relationships over the years, whose most common contributions are about selling; but also filling gaps in teams’ expertise; and about turning points, such as hirings, new markets, mergers etc, and whose contributions are more casual, various and occasional.

He is supported by a small Business Support Team – of seven senior members of staff, all with practical experience in business, with expertise including investment readiness, market research, marketing and sales. They maintain close relationships with the businesses and are readily available (and highly valued) for acting as sounding boards as well as providing help; and organise events (including a number of days of intensive analysis – like reporting to the board). And there is of course ready access to the entire university research community.

‘Customer Dens’ attract a lot of interest. In these, several young businesses pitch their products or services to a panel of three or four people from their field, (eg in education: a teacher, a lecturer, someone from the education department of a local authority or from such as the Institute of Education) looking for feed-back about applications, potential users, and purchasers; and the Centre houses several businesses with expertise in applied psychology, whose work is often relevant in this context.

One member of staff, a former bank manager, leads a small Business Angels group a which includes some people who have ‘done it before’, and runs quarterly investment meetings, which help the businesses to focus on cash and to learn about funding, investor expectations and requirements, and about the various ways in which they might be funded. (The businesses in the incubator raise around £4mn of capital a year.)

And there is a finance department, which serves the accounting needs of the Centre, but also provides not only accountancy services to those of the businesses that choose to make use of them, but also helps businesses use financial information, and provides financial consultancy.

From time to time, workshops are run, about such topics as

  • aspirations and what makes a good idea
  • how to raise funds
  • employment law – with a specialist lawyer.

There is a much valued team of about ten students and recent graduates (the one to whom I spoke had a Masters in Management and Entrepreneurship) who help both resident and non-resident businesses – on a similar basis ie ascertaining what their needs are for help and then providing it, or marshalling it from elsewhere, and who are trained and mentored to deliver projects by the senior Support team. The intention is to provide businesses with a more flexible and cost-effective resource than traditional internships, while giving these ‘Catalyst’ team members the opportunity to develop a range of practical and entrepreneurial skills that will help make them more employable. Several have moved on to full-time roles at the businesses they have worked with, or are even launching their own ventures.

                                                    Expansion into new locations

Significantly in the UK’s current entrepreneurial climate, as with comparable organisations there are plans for setting up similar incubators in three different locations, one of which just opened in Croydon – where the University has established links with the nearby Croydon College. Sussex Innovation – Croydon will provide premises for around 30 local businesses, with its own dedicated Director and a team of support rotated from the Centre, together with some services provided locally. Another centre in Brighton itself is due to open in spring 2016, with three floors of accommodation, but many more of the businesses served are expected to have their own local premises; and a third – in Biotech – when rebuilding takes place on the Falmer Campus in 2017.

These plans will make for new contact points, and will mean that the Centre’s team will have to concentrate its work into a short period in each location; it will have to establish contact with local entrepreneurs to provide support – a major task; and it will bring in businesses that have no understanding of support nor of the Centre’s credibility, and will take time to establish.

John Whatmore, October 2015

Other programmes include:

Birmingham’s Science Park without walls

The essence of the burgeoning Innovation Birmingham Campus consists in the physical and virtual proximity which it offers – co-working in new dimensions, providing opportunities for co-learning and collaboration. Nov 2014 http://wp.me/p3beJt-9q

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect. March 2015 http://wp.me/p3beJt-ax

 A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator

Public support for a major programme of development for a relatively large number of early-stage ventures, designed to identify and accelerate some world-class companies for to-morrow – from the Middle East. Why doesn’t InnovateUK do this sort of thing? July 2015. http://wp.me/p3beJt-bh

Link

Accelerators or Incubators – or combinations?

Flexible and adaptive development, challenge and support are what is required for hi-growth young businesses.

 IT is revolutionizing or disrupting many sectors of the economy and providing opportunities for endless innovations. And as it does so, first-mover advantage has been an important asset, and speed of development has become an increasingly vital element. While Incubators provide valuable spaces and an umbrella for SMEs, Accelerators (12-week managed programmes of intensive development for a small number of early-stage businesses, all working beside one another, and with fulsome support) aim to provide injections of development.

 Incubators provide flexible accommodation and basic services for SMEs, while Accelerators aim to provide 18 months of development for dynamic young businesses in the 3 months or so of their programmes; and they differ in two main respects: pressure and support.

While Incubators have no time limits on their occupants, Accelerators calibrate their progress and provide at the end of the period an opportunity to present their case to investors – for further funding. And while Incubators are reactive – they may have access to a range of advisers, available on request, Accelerators are proactive – they work with their young businesses to help them identify the advice or support they need, and then find it for them.

The reality is that different things are important at different moments and for different stages of growth. Most valuable is to have access (and not just the one-shot injection that the Business Growth Service provides to its adherents) to people with a depth of experience in the long-term growth of young businesses – a changing quorum of experts in a non-executive role. The big new co-working spaces like the 3,000-seater new WeWork building in Moorgate London (or for that matter the new Crick Institute at Kings Cross, and even the Harwell Campus), would benefit from having a number of such experts on tap, and ready to take up that role.

They can also mediate access to specialist mentors and advisers, and they are also in a position to bring together from time to time those businesses with similar growth issues and in similar sectors – to learn from each other’s progress and experience (like the Belgian Plato programme, http://wp.me/p3beJt-H) and like Wayra Lab – the Telefonica Accelerator http://wp.me/p3beJt-s). And they can run sessions of intensive assessment (like those run by the Sussex Innovation Centre) and short periods of intensive development (like Hackathons http://wp.me/p3beJt-aU).

The other crucial difference between Accelerators and Incubators is that you pay for the former in equity, and for the latter in rent.

For an analysis of the several roles that supporters play, see “Managing Creative Groups – how leaders develop creative potential in their teams”, Chapter 9, How leaders provide support. John Whatmore, Kogan Page, 1999.

 John Whatmore

December 2015

Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need: No 2

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Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in Technologies.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds.

 No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootamp

 No 2 Regular reviews of strategy and management – from an independent viewpoint

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him.

He would ensure that there was a regular review system; he encouraged ‘plan B’ thinking; he was always a ready sounding board; as he was a difficult tank to stop when he thought change was needed.

He picked four turning points to which he had (or in one case had not) recently contributed.

  • I eventually persuaded a team of 30-year old young Turks based in Shoreditch whose finance man aged 50 lived miles away and had other interests, to let him go. Though he had some special assets, cash was becoming an issue, and other needs were being met only tardily. I gained the support of other Directors, and the separation was done elegantly.
  • Missed key milestones was the signal for me to try and persuade one company that they needed to woo not just one major customer, but several others. I had to hammer away at the issue, and I had no emotional attachment to the first strategy.
  • It took me four months and the occurrence of a sharply relevant Court case in Japan for me to persuade ‘African Exchanges’ (not its real name) to change its name as the company found itself increasingly drawn into trading in other currencies.
  • At a first meeting with one company, none of my thoughts and ideas went deeper than to get a mild brush-off. Both parties are looking for an instant link – that will suggest a fertile union. Like many young companies, they seemed dead-set on their plans; and perhaps they did not understand what they might get out of a mentor.

‘As a Startup, this is the biggest thing they have ever done, and they are of course passionate and determined about it. So to lose clarity is unsurprising. Moreover, consensus in the team is a vital factor, so there is also a danger of Groupthink. When passion becomes rigidity, it is time for a dose of adaptability. ‘

‘At least two qualities are important for a good mentor: that ‘he/she has seen it before’, and therefore the more he/she has seen, the better the mentor. And secondly, he/she needs to be (and in status is) dispassionate.’

Confessions of an talented mentor

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him. (http://wp.me/p3beJt/9P)

 

FIVE ACE MENTORS – ALL OF WHOM YOU MAY NEED

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Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need: No 1

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No 2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in IT.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds.

 

No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootamp

 

No 1. A Concept Developer like no other

A Lab head who encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific appeal, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science.

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic; and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

(Abstracted from ‘Science’, June 12, 2015)

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators

How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bf)

Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world?

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Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns)

 Next: the Business Growth Service’s coaches, mentors and advisers are having a real impact for SMEs; it must be exploited.

Following: Five Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea – for which they search keenly; yet many of those ideas are often limited, ephemeral and even trivial, and many of their protoganists far from suited to the heavy sweat of growing a business. Few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Among those that have done so are:

Village Capital in New York – which seeks to identify large scale needs in any country throughout the world, and then to match them with experts and funds designed to find and implement solutions.

Syncona Partners, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, which identifies potential solutions to major healthcare issues that are of technical or strategic importance and matches experts (or sets up the necessary management) and funds for delivering their benefits.

BioCity Nottingham which runs a programme whose starting point is identifying major issues of organisations in its area, and then finds experts who may be able to help solve those issues; and goes on to provide them with intensive support for the development of solutions.

The provision by Innovate UK’s for its grant winners of free access to The Business Growth Service is a welcome focus on technological opportunities that have been identified in competition, and thus a well-directed initiative for supporting young businesses that have the potential for high growth.

Innovate UK’s Business Growth Workshops bring these grant holders together and illustrate the analysis that the service’s Growth Development Managers put together, and which they use to offer a choice of three coaches, mentors or advisers to the business involved.

The success of this service must be exploited by making sure that it is adopted for example in clusters and in innovation centres everywhere.

John Whatmore

October 2015

Accelerators attacking bigger issues?

If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields? (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators: BT’s Hothouses

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Shorter, not longer, Accelerators
How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems.

Next week: A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator – so why doesn’t UKTI do the same for the UK?

The problem: one of the dangers in the conceptualisation stage of a new business is that what meets a need may not be marketable; and what is marketable may not be fundable; and the process of meeting all three requirements may go backwards and forwards interminably.

BT recognised long ago that the danger of the waterfall approach exemplified in the three phases of the Accelerator (the project handed on down the line to its next stage – to the product managers or the marketers and thence to the accountants before eventually being signed off) is that unforeseen problems may arise late in the development process and can involve expensive iterations and missed opportunities. BT’s solution (‘tangible outcomes are essential’) was to bring together into the early stage of the process authoritative representatives of all the parties concerned.

BT’s solution – the Hothouse is perhaps better described as a small problem-solving conference (or even as a Hackathon) rather than a workshop. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people – they can involve lots of people during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after) compete for small but significant prizes in the presence of the problem owner, his boss (and often his boss) and other stakeholders.

Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have had previous experience of Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; the facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and a carefully chosen panel of judges is on hand throughout the proceedings.

Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development.

Some 70 Hothouses a year are now run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT, for which suites of rooms have been built in two locations. The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and customers will often form part of the process); and the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.

The main uses are currently for bringing new products and services to market, many of which are opportunities offered by new technology, where the objective is to overcome obstacles in the development process. Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven.

The lesson: BT’s method suggests that a more comprehensive problem-solving approach might have a useful place in developing new businesses – intensive, shorter, but with more supporting resources.

See also: US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next Oct 2013, http://wp.e/p3beJt-6K

John Whatmore
July 2015

Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game

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Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game
Sharing process is frequently and willingly done – especially in fast-developing fields, (this column is predicated on it); but sharing technology is a new phenomenon. Propelled by the need for speed, and by the ease with which sharing is now possible, strategies for sharing now have to be determined.

Next weeks: by exploiting collaborations, the new Digital Catapult Centre in London aims to tackle ‘obstructive problems’ whose solutions will unlock digital futures. And the Space Catapult is exploiting developments in space technology to chart new applications and facilitate path-finding initiatives.

‘To the new generation of technologists, moving projects and data fast is worth more than making everything in secret.’ ‘Technology for big computers, electric cars and micro-controllers to operate things like power tools and engines is now given away.’ The extensive sharing of once proprietary information would bring a traditional patent lawyer to tears.

‘The swapping of ideas has been commonplace for decades in software engineering. Open source projects like the Linux operating system revolutionised the Internet and tripped up companies like Sun Microsystems. Hardware was considered a tougher, more expensive business to enter until a few years ago. But now you don’t need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype. PCH International, an Irish company with a development lab in San Francisco, has in the last 18 months made more than 1,000 prototypes for both big companies and small startups, producing 20-40 objects by 3D printer a day and over 50 working prototypes a week.’ And the global production of vast quantities of microchips has contributed to this facility.

Why do companies make software and hardware free? It can create competition for your opponent without spending money on a new product (as did IBM with its open source software); it can support your business by enabling suppliers to lower your costs or speed innovation (as has Facebook); it can help to develop the market for your own products, (as Tesla sought to do by giving away all the electric car company’s patents). But as Elon Musk of Tesla wrote, “Technology leadership is not defined by patents but rather by the ability to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers”.

The New York Times concludes that this does not herald a new world where everything is free and all ideas are open. “You have to figure out”, says one commentator, “where you are in business and what you want to own”. And you need to do so in a world in which collaboration is increasingly significant, as specialisation and interdependency increase.

‘Innovation without all the secrecy’, New York Times, 30 March 2015.

June 2015

What it takes to be a good mentee

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What It Takes To Be A Good Mentee and what makes a successful relationship We hear a lot about the value of a mentor, but a less appreciated insight is that some people are easier to mentor than others. If you want to attract and keep great mentors, here’s how to stand out.

Next week: Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game

The search You may well need more than one mentor – as your business develops and your needs change. There is always the need to be able to talk things through, but there are also more specific and more ephemeral needs as your enterprise evolves (1). Look for people inside and outside your workplace – peers are an underutilised source of mentoring support, says one expert. The best way to catch a mentor is to show you know what you need.

Take the lead Good protégés take the lead in the relationship because it’s about their development. If you can be clear about your expectations – what you want and why you want it, and the time commitment, and if you can have an agenda in advance of every meeting, with a specific objective, you make it easy on people. [But: you don’t know what you don’t know, and there are times when the insights and experience of others may be just what you need: make room for them too.]

Follow through on advice If a mentor gives you a suggestion of something to try, try it [or at least test it]. If you disagree, “have a dialogue about it.” Failure to follow through can quickly sour the relationship. “If you say you’re going to do these four things and they don’t happen, the next time we talk it gets uncomfortable.” Not only will your mentor think you’re wasting their time, he or she might also think that you are not worth it.

Meet on your mentor’s terms Go to his or her office or home. Join them to fit in with their agenda. Not only will this make life easier for your mentor, but it also means he or she may be willing to meet more often. “Interaction frequency is one of the highest predictors of feeling close to someone.”

Make it a two-way street Both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship learn something from it. So be on the lookout for articles or people your mentor might find interesting. If your mentor works inside your organisation, talk him or her up in your networks. And finally, say thank you. “It’s the littlest thing, but conveying appreciation is really important.” Lots of people don’t send thank-you notes: people who do make an impression.

A bowdlerised version of a great article that appeared in Fast Company magazine by writer on management Laura Vanderkam (I just hope she doesn’t sue me!)

(1) A US Professor on the five types of mentors you need
You can’t expect one person to be able to give you all the career guidance you need. Here are the people you need on your team. By Art Markman (http://wp.me/p3beJt-am)