A selection of entrepreneurs and business leaders from across the North East gathered at Baltic: Centre for Contemporary Art for the If We Can You Can exclusive dinner and debate, where they discussed entrepreneurship in the North East ahead of the Great Exhibition of the North.
Overlooking Newcastle’s famous quayside as it prepared for the opening night of the Great Exhibition of the North, the group of representatives settled in for an evening of lively debate and discussion about entrepreneurship, facilitated and lead by Caroline Theobald.
The first topic Caroline introduced was the theme of loneliness in entrepreneurship, asking whether the delegates felt less lonely in business as their companies started to grow.
Max Haydon of Storage Shepherd, who won the If We Can You Can Challenge last year, acknowledged that while starting a business on your own can be lonely, this can sometimes worsen as the business grows. He explained: “I think it’s worse now that we’re growing. Things are changing, and it was me who pushed the change, so the difficulty is trying to get everyone else on board with that.
“In terms of loneliness though, it isn’t too lonely. Most people will have someone to support them, but I think as you start to scale up you find there is less help available because a lot of that support is for start-ups.”
Chris Ford from Ford Engineering agreed that start-up support can only help a business for so long, saying: “If you get the right people to work for you it helps, but businesses go through growing pains at different stages, and you need different people at different stages of business.”
Charlotte Windebank from FIRST agreed that a good support network is key to combatting loneliness in the early stages. “I set up a little business club, we have a group message going and we meet up and we just talk about business,” she explained. “Sometimes when you talk about business with your friends and family they don’t understand, or they worry things might be going wrong for you. But if you talk to other entrepreneurs they don’t think it’s boring and you can support each other.”
While the business leaders present at the event agreed that a good support network is a valuable way to combat loneliness while setting up your business, they acknowledged that there can be a lot of uncertainty for new entrepreneurs.
The next question Caroline put to the group was “What question do entrepreneurs want answered to help them with their personal and business ambitions?”
Failure was quickly established as a taboo subject for start-ups, with “Is it okay to fail?” cited as a common unanswered question in business. Max Haydon from Storage Shepherd said: “One question I wondered is, at what point do you decide an idea isn’t going to work? I think people generally try to avoid that topic because they fall in love with their own idea, but at what point do you realise that it’s not working and just stop?”
Yvonne Gale from NEL Fund Managers explained that many of the young entrepreneurs and start-up businesses she meets are afraid of talking about the possibility of failure. “They always want to talk about what happens if it goes wrong,” She said. “It usually takes a while before they ask this question, because they don’t want to talk about it going wrong, and they don’t want you to think that they think their business will fail. But it is a natural fact of business that over the course of three to five years, the path won’t always run in a straight line.
“But nobody wants to talk about the fact that it might not always go according to plan.”
Kari Owers, founder and managing director of O Communications, said: “I think we’re afraid to ask for introductions, but the question lots of entrepreneurs want to ask is ‘who do I need to know?’
“We’re afraid to ask. We’re scared to go up to someone who has been really successful in business, and has a great network, and try to speak to them. I think it would be great if all of us, next time we meet someone who is just starting out, if we could ask them who they would like to be introduced to. It’s such a generous thing to do, just to share a contact.”
This idea of established business owners helping start-ups to find their feet was a common theme of the night, and Caroline was keen to hear ideas about how more business leaders could share their expertise. She asked the room: “how can we all help to mobilise a truly successful region?”
Gillian Marshall from the Entrepreneur’s forum said: “Business is booming here in the North East but lots more can happen, and its our job to make it happen.”
James Rainbow from Brewin Dolphin said: “Many businesses of all shapes and sizes have this corporate responsibility tag that encourages their employees to go and do something charitable for a day, and rightly so, but there isn’t the same backing behind encouraging someone who has become an expert in a certain field to go along to an entrepreneurial event and offer their support to new businesses.”
Caroline Theobald supported the idea, suggesting that business events usually attract the same crowd, meaning new businesses only have access to the same group of established entrepreneurs. “When you go to these sorts of events you tend to see the same people,” She said. “Where are all the people who have made an enormous amount of money? How do we get to them? Do we even need them?
“If we keep seeing the same ‘usual suspects’ at these events, how do we reach beyond these usual suspects?”
“I don’t think it should be about the money,” replied James Rainbow. “I think it should be about the experience.
“Someone who has run multiple businesses may have failed several times, but their knowledge is just as valuable as knowledge from someone who has been a huge success. I don’t just think it’s a wealth thing.”
Education in schools was another common answer to the question of how to mobilise a successful region, with many of the entrepreneurs suggesting that teaching business skills in schools would help to create a more entrepreneurial North East.
Helena Hill, founder of 49 Digital, said: “There’s an assumption that young people will start their entrepreneurial journey at the end of education, they’re encouraged into university and then they will get help from their university, and that’s great, but the problem is that not everybody wants to go to university.
“This means that entrepreneurship as a career just isn’t being encouraged.”
Kari Owers agreed, saying: “Getting kids involved in entrepreneurship is so important. I would love to bring more kids into our office to see what we do, but it’s easier to go into a school and speak to 500 children for an hour. I’m amazed how many entrepreneurs don’t do that.
“We hear people saying we don’t have the right people coming out of schools and we don’t have an entrepreneurial young generation, but entrepreneurs can go into schools and show young kids what it looks like.”
Bryan Hoare, founder of BQ, agreed. He said: “We need to encourage young children to start their own businesses. If there was a national programme that inspired children to go into business it would make such a difference.”
The If We Can You Can Challenge aims to inspire entrepreneurship in the North East, celebrating businesses with high growth potential and social impact.
The challenge also supports people with business ideas as part of the ideas prize.
To be a part of If We Can You Can’s 10th anniversary celebrations visit www.ifwecanyoucan.co.uk or contact Owen on 07715547148
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