Supporting early-stage ventures

Aside

Do Alcoholics Anonymous and the Samaritans have something to tell us – about support for early-stage ventures?
Early-stage ventures have fast-evolving needs for support – in the form of advice, knowledge, expertise, information and contacts – help often found in fellow travellers (as in Alcoholics Anonymous), but also and more widely in mentors. But their help, highly valuable as it is, is difficult to manage if just the right help is to be successfully brought to bear at just the right moment. Various approaches to their management are used but none have been as assiduous as, for example, those of the Samaritans. A new programme, just launching, is experimenting with a higher level of prior briefing, co-ordination, and review.

If learning the right questions and finding good answers are key aspects of new ventures, the mere availability of almost limitless information that is the case to-day is not enough.
Participants in innovation communities often cite the (incidental) help of others with whom they are located, who may be a bit further forward with their project than they are, and can speak from their experience; as they also cite people with all sorts of knowledge, expertise and experience, especially those who have ‘done it before’. Managing comings-together is an important role, and the kitchen is an important location for them. Level39 in Canary Wharf, London sounds the Cookie Bell every day at 3pm, upon which everyone has to come out of their office and say hello to someone they have never met before!
YCombinator’s approach is regular dinners – at which all participants have to talk about their progress. Watershed Bristol requires its participants to meet for lunch on Fridays and report similarly about their progress etc; and their comments are edited and later circulated to everyone on the intranet.
The Alcoholics Anonymous programme has some similarities: in essence it consists in the provision of a sponsor, a more experienced person on the road to recovery, and meetings that ensure regular contact with those who are in similar circumstances, at which an open discussion of your success (or failure) is required – together with a re-commitment to your objectives, and a discussion about how those objectives can be achieved both now and to-morrow.
While entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know (nor often what they need to know), mentors play crucial roles, not least in forging links, including with those who do know. Although mentoring is accepted as a collection of different things, the adoption of mentoring varies widely. Mentoring is widely used in life-changing organisations like The Prince’s Trust and the Probation Service; and a Government report claims that the survival rate for new businesses is five times greater when they have the support of mentors.
However some hatcheries do not offer mentors, and many have few mentors; yet virtually all Accelerator programmes provide mentors, some of them in quantity. (The Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator did not offer mentoring in its earliest programme, but has always done so since.) One new Accelerator programme is doing without mentors – on the grounds that they give conflicting advice. A University-based public mentoring programme has bemoaned the fact that its mentees all too often fail to renew their first contact with a mentor. Participants in the early stages of programmes often find their contact with mentors quite bruising. And the ethos of mentoring is rooted in the one-to-one form of relationship – where other forms might also have their moments.
But even with the greatest care, mentors are not easy to select, nor to match up; they seem sometimes not to understand how best to help, and their contributions can be unco-ordinated. And, unpaid as they are, their help is difficult to organise and to manage effectively. Moreover the particular help that is needed is not always available.
Mentors are usually identified and invited to participate by leaders; and the relationship is usually launched with some form of speed-dating with mentors; following which both participants and mentors identify those whom they would like to meet again.
Arrangements are also made for participants to make appointments with those mentors who will be visiting at certain times; and they can also make arrangements with the same mentors for subsequent meetings. Telefonica’s Wayra Lab encourages teams to establish informal boards.
The Samaritans (surely the ultimate mentors) are highly selective about those whom they recruit, have a substantial induction programme for them, provide mentors during their initial period, pro-active supervisors for each shift, regular refreshers, and social events. And they provide careful supervision of mentors for longer term clients.
Startupbootcamp’s Fintech. just launching, an Accelerator for SMEs, has taken pains to ensure that the mentors know one another and that they understand their roles – running a Mentor Fest, a full Mentor Day and regular Monday meetings for mentors.

(1) See ‘What do participants in Accelerators value most?’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-7H
(2) See also the Belgian Plato programme for SMEs (http://wp.me/p3beJt-H)

John Whatmore
July 2014
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
http://johnwhatmore.com

Is Level39 at Canary Wharf the future of Innovation

Aside

Eric van der Kleij suggests that innovation centres are a valuable way of providing comprehensive support for new hi-growth businesses – in their best markets; and every city should have one.

 

Who better to ask about the future of innovation, than Eric van der Kleij, formerly Head of Tech City at Shoreditch, and now Head of Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation space. Accelerators, he responded will specialise; they will spawn natural pre-cursors and after-care, they will proliferate and they will be more about revenue than about investment – more about growth than about funding. And innovation spaces will be a natural feature of cities and clusters.

He believes that Accelerators will become more thematic, citing The Bakery in London, with its Adtech focus, and the Tramperies, whose progenitor Charles Armstrong, has just opened the ‘Fashion Pub’ – a workspace for fashion designers and startups in Hackney. Other new specialist programmes include Ravensbourne College of Art’s incubator programme in Media Technology and Design, and UCL’s IDEALondon space with its focus on future media, healthcare and mobile.

And Eric sees a future for the Technology Strategy Board funded Catapults, designed to propel forward specific areas where technologies promise innovation. Hack Days, of which Level39 has run many in the past year, can help to identify commercialisable IP, and the Catapults need good leaders who can manage the tech transfer process, and help them to get allied with authentic startups.

He sees innovation spaces not only running Accelerators, but also running Hackathons, whose prize winners will enter Accelerators; and as at Level39, innovation spaces will offer tailored accommodation in co-working areas to hi-growth companies coming out of Accelerators (some of which can grow at twice the rate of their less curated entrepreneurs.) The future that he sees is of thriving, self-sustaining and independent clusters, consisting of startups/young businesses, users and funders.

And he thinks that every city will have an innovation centre; and he reels off the names of innumerable cities the world over that have beaten a path to his door to learn about how Level39 does what it does – cities with whom he has made Friendship Agreements.

He is quick to add that every such innovation space has to work with its own context; and he cites one city in a country with few roads, where the prize for winners of a competition to enter the Accelerator included an SUV – inscribed with banner details of that person’s new business – which would enable the participants all to reach the Accelerator daily.

So what is Level39? At first it was one complete floor of One Canada Square, the tallest building at Canary Wharf, which provided desk spaces for early-stage businesses (in retail and financial technology) because of its unique ‘connectious’ environment (with mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs), most of them already post-revenue – some desks in communal rows, some in small glass-fronted offices, some in larger spaces, with an attractive central area (with its 3pm Cookie Bell for getting people to meet up, and its infamous electronically controlled coffee machine!) In addition there are three Sandboxes – areas which organisations take in order to wrestle with particular issues, each of slightly different proportions and lay-outs; and there are Board Rooms, and a handsome auditorium and beside it a large restaurant area. (For a fuller description, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-65)

Now a second floor of One Canada Square has been added. Two successful Accelerator programmes have prompted the equipping of a tailor-made space for such programmes. Last year’s Fintech Lab London, a 12-week Accelerator programme designed to help up to a dozen small businesses introduce new products to the big banks located at Canary Wharf is about to be repeated (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-3); and Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, invited startups to come and develop customer solutions in one special area of its expertise – both these programmes run by teams separate to the incubator space. The new space has rows of bench-type desking, all with essential IT, and a couple of small meeting rooms. In addition, this new floor has a number of rooms set aside for hi-growth companies emerging from Accelerators, along with a kitchen/rest room (with its Subbuteo table.) And more space on this floor is about to be equipped similarly.

Established with the imaginative support of Canary Wharf’s landlord  (who was concerned about the future of the area), Level39 has proved that Incubators and Accelerators have closely complementary roles and that a comprehensive innovation space is a viable concept. But insiders cannot turn the taps on; it needs influential outsiders to help nudge into being the policies that can bring them into existence. And any city can adapt the concept to its advantage.

 

John Whatmore                                                                  January 2014

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London