Turning a spark into a flame

Turning a spark into a flame

Lucy-Rose Walker is the new ‘chief entrepreneuring officer’ at Entrepreneurial Spark and she has ambitious plans to extend the reach of its incubation centres throughout the country.

One of the key moments in any start-up’s life is when the founder hands over the reins to the new boss. But with two co-founders heavily involved in the business, Entrepreneurial Spark – the world’s largest free business accelerator programme – doesn’t have to worry about the change-over.

Jim Duffy and Lucy-Rose Walker founded Entrepreneurial Spark in 2011. During the summer, Duffy finished his role as the company’s ‘chief executive optimist’ to take on the new role of ‘head of #GoDo’, while Walker switched from being ‘chief solutions officer’ to ‘chief entrepreneuring officer’, continuing the company’s tradition of coming up with alternative meanings for the job title of ‘CEO’.

“Jim’s new role will involve him training the staff in our hatcheries so that they can give the best advice to our chiclets and he will also work one-to-one with some of the most-promising entrepreneurs,” Walker explains. “It’s about harnessing what we like to call ‘The Jim Duffy Effect’ – being able to assess a situation quickly and ask the entrepreneur the right question that gets to the heart of the problem they’re having.

“Part of my job over the next three to five years is to create a sustainable business model,” she adds. “At the moment, Entrepreneurial Spark is funded by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) on a rolling five-year contract, along with cash from local councils and philanthropists, so I need to look at how we turn that into a sustainable business.

“We need to do that to make sure that we continue to attract and retain talented staff to help our chiclets. Our staff are motivated by the desire to help entrepreneurs, but if we want to retain them then we also need to be able to offer them salary increases and other financial rewards too.

“My aim is to turn this into a £20m social enterprise – and I think we can do it.”

Entrepreneurial Spark has grown from a single hatchery in Glasgow in 2011 to become the biggest free business accelerator programme in the world. It already has 12 sites throughout the UK and its 13th will open in August 2017 in London, while its partnership with Viridian Ventures, the investment arm of the eponymous New Dehli-based property group, has two centres in India.

By the start of this year, a total of 660 businesses had been supported by the scheme, with 88% of them still trading. Between them, they’ve raised £45m of investment, have combined revenues of £85m and employ just over 1,800 people.

Entrepreneurial Spark itself has grown too. The company, which is constituted as a social enterprise, has 45 members of staff, having grown from seven workers just 18 months ago.
Next on the agenda for Walker is the launch of a pilot scheme in September, which involves delivering Entrepreneurial Spark’s support to entrepreneurs in the Highlands and Islands.

The hybrid model – which is being offered in partnership with Highlands & Islands Enterprise and RBS, and funded by the Scottish Government and law firm Harper Macleod – will be delivered through a mix of teleconferencing and face-to-face support.

The new scheme was unveiled in August in Inverness, with RBS chief executive Ross McEwan launching the project in the Highland capital. The pilot is initially aimed at early-stage companies and businesses that haven’t yet started to trade, although it is also open to more mature firms that are looking to kick-start their growth.

Entrepreneurial Spark is also looking to develop an entirely virtual support programme, which could be delivered online throughout the world. Together, the virtual and hybrid models could help Entrepreneurial Spark to reach entrepreneurs who are not based near hatcheries.

Another string to the company’s bow is delivering the Entrepreneurial Development Academy for RBS, which contributes to Entrepreneurial Spark’s work throughout the UK via its RBS and NatWest brands. So far 2,500 members of staff from the group have been given training that will not only help them to provide better advice and services to entrepreneurs but also to be more entrepreneurial in their own roles within the bank. Other companies have now expressed an interest in the company running similar schemes for them.

With all the talk of ‘chiclets’ and ‘hatcheries’, Entrepreneurial Spark can sometimes sound very American. Walker is unapologetic about that fact, as she thinks it’s important to learn lessons from other entrepreneurial societies.

She is also keen to learn from some of the world’s most successful companies, such as Google and Adobe. Staff at Google are encouraged to use 20% of their time to work on projects that they think will benefit the company, with one of the most successful outcomes to date being its Gmail email system.

Walker and her team are harnessing this idea by creating ‘explore’ and ‘exploit’ teams; while the ‘exploit’ team focus on making sure the hatcheries are world-class collaborative working spaces and supporting alumni who have graduated from the programme, the ‘explore’ team is working on new projects, such as the remote training in the Highlands.
Harnessing the expertise contained within the whole of Entrepreneurial Spark means that the executive team can draw on good ideas from anywhere within the company instead of having to tackle all of the development work itself.

“Entrepreneurial Spark is the fastest-growing scale-up that’s come out of a hatchery – we’ve brought in contracts worth tens of millions of pounds,” adds Walker. “It’s important to remind our staff that Entrepreneurial Spark itself is ‘walking the talk’ – we’re putting into practice what we teach our entrepreneurs.”

Entrepreneurial Spark awards £255,000 to chiclets

Entrepreneurial Spark, the world’s largest free business accelerator programme, has awarded £255,000 to its ‘chiclets’, the fledgling businesses based in its ‘hatcheries’ or incubation centres. The cash was presented on the evening of 20 July at nine of the company’s 12 hatcheries during its annual ‘Entrepreneuring Awards’.

Nine chiclets received up to £10,000 each after being crowned as the ‘entrepreneurs of the moment’, while another nine walked away with ‘Acceler-8’ awards of up to £7,000 each.
A total of 26 entrepreneurs received ‘#GoDo’ prizes of up to £3,000 each, with a further 25 entrepreneurs taking home £1,000 each after impressing judges in a 60-second pitching contest. There were also nine ‘chiclet choice’ awards of £1,000 each, with the winners being selected by their fellow chiclets.

“Congratulations to all of our winners,” says Lucy-Rose Walker, the ‘chief entrepreneuring officer’ at Entrepreneurial Spark, who addressed all nine of the hatcheries at the end of the evening via a video.

“We focus on building people who build businesses, and taking home an Entrepreneuring Award shows how hard you’ve worked and progressed in your first months in the hatchery.
“Well done to everyone who was nominated and to all the winners – we’re sure you’ll continue to #GoDo and embrace the programme and all opportunities which come your way.”