London: For Matchchat founder James Routledge taking advice from those with more experience and knowledge than himself has always been key to the way he does business. Along with three university friends, he set up his football discussion platform business aged just 20. Putting his studies on hold to enter the fast-moving world of tech startups, he sought all the advice and mentoring he could.
“Mentoring has been a constant really. We always knew we were by no means expert, so straightaway we reached out to anyone with more experience than us and talked through our problems and we have kept on doing that.”
He began by using LinkedIn to find entrepreneurs with experience whom he could talk to. This led him to the Ignite100 accelerator programme, where young tech entrepreneurs take part in a 12-week programme and emerge investment ready. This was a crucial period for Matchchat and it restructured its business model as a result.
Initially, it envisaged users downloading its app and using it to chat with other users during a game. However, the mentors on the programme advised going to where users already were football news site publishers and embedding into their platforms.
“If you meet five people who you really respect and they tell you to change your product then you start to take that on board. We started with a second stream app where consumers would download the app and use it while watching sport. But a lot of the feedback questioned how we were going to get our users to make the download to begin with and that might prove to be difficult.”
Routledge urges other entrepreneurs follow his example and shamelessly seek out those who can help them. “You’ve got to hustle at the end of the day. Nobody knows everything and there are people out there who have more experience than you and who have been through challenges before. It’s a lot easier to find someone on LinkedIn than spending three months trying to work it out.”
As a result of the Ignite programme, Matchchat brought experienced sports entrepreneur Gerry Boon onto its board. Routledge says the impact of working with experienced advisers has transformed the business and helped them rework their entire business model.
“If we face a business challenge the first thing we say is who can we talk to. Often, this is through informal advisers and also through our non-executive chairman. I can safely say we wouldn’t be where we are today without constant mentoring.”
But mentoring isn’t just for youngsters running startups, it is increasingly being recognised as a way to succeed by experienced business people. Steve Lindsey is the CEO and founder of Lontra, which has created a new form of air compression technology and has ambitious plans for its roll-out. He believes Lontra’s technology has many applications and the potential for numerous licensing deals with major companies.
The Midlands-based business has signed deals with water company Severn Trent and Swiss-manufacturing giant Sulzer. It now plans to rapidly scale-up its activities and create many more agreements with big business. Early on Lindsey realised that, despite having a significant amount of business experience himself, he needed help to guide him through the complex world of IP, licensing and international expansion.
“Our ambition from the beginning was always to grow the company into a big company, not necessarily in terms of people, but in terms of revenue,” Lindsey says. “So right from the beginning we had a plan to recruit people who had experience of big businesses. Our board was top-heavy. We were a startup but we had a board which could run a big business.”
Since founding in 2004, Lontra has been through a considerable amount of development; taking on institutional funding, patenting technology and forging licensing deals with major businesses. Lindsey’s chief mentor through this development was Peter Watson, the former CEO of the Atomic Energy Authority, who is now the company’s executive chairman. Lontra employed a headhunter to find board members and the ‘stand-out person’ was Watson.
“Having someone as heavyweight and experienced as that was very useful. For a licensing deal we really needed someone who understood the pitfalls and so Peter really was invaluable. From the commercial side he’s done it all before. Also he has a large network and that’s one of the things with mentors, you also get the people they know too. It’s great to have someone with both experience and who also knows who to ask.”
Entrepreneurs often reach a point in their business development when they have to step out of their comfort zones. This is often when they are expanding the business and hiring new talent or moving into new markets where they lack experience. This is when mentors such as David Carter get involved with them and as he puts it “takes them to, through and out the other side.”
He has been working as a professional mentor for nearly 20 years. Prior to that, he had worked at corporate businesses, private equity and then established and sold businesses in his own right. “There isn’t much that a CEO wants to talk about that I haven’t had direct experience of,” he says.
Carter believes that the most successful companies are those with the best leaders. He says this is what drew him into working as a mentor.
“I was fascinated why one company was outperforming another and the answer was leadership and culture,” he says.
Leaders need a degree of humility, he suggests, so they can take advice and allow those with more talent than themselves to have a say. “They are all hardworking and ambitious people but who are humble enough to know that they might need to talk to someone about strategy or technology or how to organise their senior management team. They realise that they need to hire great people into their team, some of whom will have bigger and better ideas than they do,” Carter says.
For many entrepreneurs working with a mentor is as much about personal development, as it is the business development. As the business changes as does the person running it.
“Entrepreneurs launch businesses, then as the business grows they become managers, but they need to become leaders,” adds Carter.