Episode #6 - Nick Sturge

The past, present and future of the Bristol entrepreneurial scene

After a short break we are joined by Nick Sturge. He talks us through his career from founding a company, becoming an entrepreneur in residence at SETsquared, to eventually running the incubator and helping form the Engine Shed in Bristol. Nick Sturge talks about how the incubator has contributed to the tech scene in Bristol and how entrepreneurs can benefit from the programme.

They discuss how businesses have propelled the city of Bristol to become a key national player for new business, and touch upon the future of the city. They talk about how much further the tech cluster can grow, and how Bristol fares compared to other clusters such as London.

Both Nic(k)s talk about The Bristol Tech Festival. After Nick’s entrepreneurial and sometimes risky past, Nic is curious to discover whether Nick Sturge had any failures and whether he would change anything. They finish by talking about businesses looking to create a board, and what the next step in Nick Sturge’s career looks like.

Join the conversation on the CookiesHQ Twitter. If you want to find out more about Nick Sturge, you can find him on Linkedin.

Read the transcript

Nic:
Hi, Nick.

Nick Sturge:
Hi.

Nic:
How are you?

Nick Sturge:
Fine, thank you very much.

Nic:
Yeah, how is life these days?

Nick Sturge:
Yeah, it’s good, yeah, I’m enjoying myself.

Nic:
So for the for the people that, or for the few people in Bristol that do not know you, can you give a quick presentation about you and who you are?

Nick Sturge:
Okay, so I’m Nick. I am in perhaps my kind of third, fourth phase of career. So I trained as an engineer, electronics computing engineer. I got a first from Swansea University but I never really understood electronics. I thought I wanted to work in medical electronics for a while I worked in a couple of startups, then worked for Inmos semiconductor company which is part of a multinational French Italian multinational in Bristol. Group of us was made redundant in ’93 and took the opportunity to start our own business. So six of us co-founded a business called Motion Media making videophones. We grew that, list it on the stock exchange, bought a US company and then merged with an Austrian company. So I’ve kind of been through a roller coaster of growth and declines and we’ve kind of had to downsize a few times but fascinating journey. Made a bit of money out of that but not a huge amount. I was the last of the founders to leave and came out of that realized my network was nowhere near what I thought it would be. I actually didn’t know many people outside of the bubble I’ve been in for the previous 10 years or so. So I started to network like crazy, joined the IoD, got quite involved with the Institute of Directors and then stumbled across this project called SETsquared, an incubator by the university. So this was 2005, the incubator was two or three years old. So I joined that as a mentor, a volunteer mentor then became an entrepreneur in residence on a contract, three-month contract. And then 2006, no, yeah 2006, I took over running the centre and grew that. And then 2013 cause we needed a new home for the SETsquared incubator, we were on the university precinct and created Engine Shed 2013 and moved SETsquared in here and created the Engine Shed project, I’m sure we’ll talk about in a moment. And then the back end of 2019, I decided it was time for me to move on. So now I’m working freelance.

Nic:
Good so I guess a lot of people will know you in Bristol because of the Engine Shed and like the work that you’ve done by creating this space that we are in today, but if we take a step back, and I guess that’s when, I think that’s when we got to know each other is when when you were in SETsquared I believe. So can you present a little bit about SETsquared because that’s still very much an incubator? They exist in driving growth in Bristol so can you present SETsquared a bit and then what is SETsquared’s aim to do?

Nick Sturge:
Yeah, so SETsquared is an incubator for high tech high growth businesses. So the model with SETsquared it’s not like most other incubators, nor like most accelerators, it’s kind of a hybrid. So the model with SETsquared and SETsquared itself is a partnership between five universities Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey but the SETsquared incubator model is whilst hosted by the University, the brief is to support companies that come from anywhere so they might come from the university student base, or research base, but actually most companies come from the community if you like. So the model is SETsquared takes in companies that are typically quite early stage. They’re tech-based with an aspiration for growth and SETsquared role is to help fulfil the potential of those companies through coaching, mentoring, workshops, access to professional services, investor readiness training, investor showcase events, business review panels, mock boards, and base and space if they need it. Basically, anything that the incubator team can do using its network, its knowledge, its leverage to help that company to achieve its potential, that’s the brief. And what’s quite interesting that the incubator doesn’t invest in companies, it doesn’t take a stake. On one bit of the special sauce then is that it can be a real true honest broker for the company and do everything purely in the interest of the company. So and it becomes a bit like parenting. In that you kind of sometimes you need to give some hard truths. Sometimes you need to really push home a point to kind of an entrepreneur but because we build up trust or the incubator team build up trust with the entrepreneur, it allows you to then actually deliver those truths. Like, for example, to a founding CEO, perhaps you’re not the right person to take this business forward. And that’s a really difficult conversation. But because the incubator isn’t on it, you know, they don’t have a financial stake in the business, they can be honest because they built up the trust, it’s trusted advice, and that’s quite powerful, and allows the incubator to develop a long term relationship, which is overtly in the interests of the company, and then works to the benefits of the company, whatever path they take. What that also means is that the incubator is able to take a very high risk if you like or take in high-risk businesses because it’s not investing, it can take that risk. And so even if a company has perhaps a 5% chance of success, which an investor wouldn’t touch with a match pole, SETsquared can take them in.

Because if they can see a role for helping that company get to the right place, and if not, the right place is stopping, coming to a controlled stop in six months, well, fine, that’s a positive outcome. And in fact, certainly when I last looked at the figures, about 30% of the companies that SETsquared took in, in Bristol that is, come to a kind of a safe, controlled stop within 12 months before they start trading or take investment. And that’s positive. At the very least what you’re doing is releasing that entrepreneurial talent back into the talent pool.

Because having a business that goes under doesn’t really help anybody, and we shouldn’t be afraid of failure and stigmatize failure. But if you can avoid it you should. So, I mean, so working for SETsquared and growing it when I took over running it we’re about 25 companies. I believe at the moment, it’s probably now about 65. I stopped running it directly in about 2016 when Monica Radcliffe came in, I hired Monica Radcliffe to take over day to day running and strategic direction of the incubator itself. And it’s been a great success. And I think it’s because we’ve been able to maintain that honest brokerage, we haven’t had to deliver on anybody’s metrics. You know, it delivers value for the university by helping to stimulate the economic environment in Bristol, which makes Bristol a thriving place, which helps the university attract students and attract staff and be part of a thriving economy. SETsquared the university plays its role in stimulating that through the SETsquared incubator rather than specifically short term outputs for the benefit of the university. However, some of the university’s most successful financially as well as profile and impactfully spinouts from the University have come through the SETsquared incubator like XMOS, like Ultrahaptics, Micrima and so on, which have been really good for the university. But have and XYLO is another great example. You know, the founder of XYLO says that he wouldn’t have been and he just sold his company for 800 million up to 800 million dollars as a spin-out from the University. He wouldn’t have got there if it hadn’t been for SETsquared. So you can see now why the university supports the SETsquared activity, even if it’s mostly about supporting companies that haven’t had anything to do with the university. So you can see there is an indirection there.

Nic:
It does make sense, I mean, yes, the aim of universities is to attract the students. The aim for students is to find jobs in cool and upcoming companies. So all that kind of makes sense. But so SETsquared last year I believe got named the best incubator in the world.

Nick Sturge:
Yap.

Nic:
You are obviously part of that story.

Nick Sturge:
Yap.

Nic:
What did it take to get there? It’s not just being truthful and honest. Like it certainly has something that makes it the best image in the world.

Nick Sturge:
So there’s a certain amount about scale. So the world ranking, the world ranking which we won in 2015 and 18, and 19. So we’ve got it three times was for the partnership, the five incubators across the SETsquared partnership. So there’s a certain amount of strength in numbers. But I think it does come down to the model of being part of the university, but also supporting companies from outside because universities don’t, most universities don’t produce enough spin-out activity to justify a whole incubator. So balancing, supporting spin-outs, with supporting companies from the community allows you to support more companies, deliver more impact, give you that kind of critical mass that makes you interesting to investors. So we have a lot of investors who come and knock on the door to see SETsquared companies and so the companies raise a lot of money. So the metrics for that global ranking were about jobs created, about investment raised, as well as the kind of the quality of the incubation process.

Nic:
Okay, so here we’re talking about timeline days, like I think you said between 2012, 2013 to 2016, 2017. Is that not in terms of like your SETsquared timeline of you taking over SETsquared

Nick Sturge:
So I took over in 2006.

Nic:
Oh, 2006!

Nick Sturge:
Yeah 2006, and handed over to Monica in 2016.

Nic:
Oh wow okay.

Nick Sturge:
So from 2013 to 2016, I was running both SETsquared and Engine Shed, which was a bit much.

Nic:
Oh okay.

Nick Sturge:
So, and we needed to recruit somebody else into the fold something like that.

Nic:
And so obviously, everybody today is talking about the growth of Bristol and the southwest region, like as a whole, Bristol being the forefront of it. We all know that this is not like an overnight success. And it’s something that has been up and coming and a lot of work has been done on the back of it, and you’ve probably been at the forefront of it. Now can you pinpoint about a few elements or can you give an idea of like, why is Bristol today what Bristol is? Like what has made that happen probably like 10 or 12 years ago is there any decisions that have happened?

Nick Sturge:
I think it’s not so much about decisions. I mean, I think a lot about this and I keep on getting asked why is Bristol now… Why does it have the reputation now for being such a vibrant tech economy as well as more broadly than that? And when 10 years ago, it wasn’t. So I think a number of things have happened. As an incubator, kind of a couple of approaches that I think we took, that have made a big impact. One is and it’s part of the honest broker bit, but it’s just focusing on doing the right thing, helping create great companies, and often they take longer than you envisage to come to fruition. But focus on creating good quality companies for the sake of creating good quality companies. Means that you, you’re sowing some good quality seeds in the ecosystem. And then those have then flourished or morphed into other things. But if you do a good job at creating sustainable businesses that then attract talent from elsewhere, that talent then stays in the city cause Bristol is a very attractive place to live. So startup, you know, starts it up, grows, recruits people from around the world. They stay, the company folds cause it happens every now and again. And they go and work for another company. But what matters is to fuel growth and fuel the momentum. The second thing that we did was, and I think this is quite important, and I didn’t realize why I was doing it at the time. But we’ve always taken a very generous approach to supporting other things. It will be very easy as an incubator, to just do everything that gives us a short term benefit, only doing stuff for us. I never took that approach. Perhaps it’s because I’m passionate about the city more generally. But I was always generous with time, supporting activities, sharing what we knew, inviting people in to see anything we could do to support the ecosystem more generally, quite informally. And that helped create a trusted environment. So really what that means is that now we’ve got lots of co-working spaces and incubators and so on. And energy is not wasted fighting each other. We share and in a growing market, there’s enough business to go around. But external events, I think, one thing in 2010 that made a big difference to the city was when the leaders’ debates, those general election leaders’ debates, that the candidates for the general election, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Gordon Brown had a husting in the Arnofilni summer’s evening, global media on Bristol, and it looked great. And that kind of put Bristol on the map, I think. What it did is created a tipping point of confidence in the city. So I think from that point on, people felt proud you go somewhere, you’re in London or wherever. And say oh I’m from Bristol. “Oh, Bristol love that’s interesting” when it used to be, “where?” Once you get past that tipping point, and you feel proud about talking about Bristol, you talk about all the things that are going on, and there’s always been really great stuff going on in the city. But if you start to talk about it, and you start to feel proud about it, then people catch that infectiousness if you like, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so there is a tipping point of confidence in the city, now it’s a confident city, mostly. And so it projects itself well, and also you’ve got quality here.

Nic:
Yeah.

Nick Sturge:
It’s interesting you get, you know, we get investors to come down from London and say oh I’ve heard there’s lots going on, introducing me to all these companies. And you say, oh, well, you know, here’s five or six companies, and they kind of look disappointed cause there haven’t been 200 companies wanting to meet them. But when they meet these five or six companies, they’re probably all investable. They’re all good quality propositions whereas what they used to in London, or Manchester is seeing 100 companies and whittling that down to about one or two that are possibly investable. Now I’m being a bit, bit of a generalization, but the point is, Bristol has always been quality over quantity. And the stats back that up. As an economy, we’ve got a lower number of startups per head of population than the other core cities, but the survivability, the failure rate is much better than elsewhere. So my view is that if companies get off the ground, they’re more likely to survive. But you don’t get companies that haven’t got any viability getting off the ground in the first place. So I think that’s a positive environment, it leads to good quality employment growth.

Nic:
One thing that has always, always amazed me with Bristol and as you know, I’ve only came to Bristol, like now 11 years ago. But even from day one, is this desire to just share in Bristol is everywhere, regardless if you’re like a startup founder, if you’re a high-level director, C level kind of person or if you’re just like a developer, designer whatever there’s always people willing to share there’s always events where people are like, willing to share and I hope this will continue. I kind of like see that now being eroded a bit like you kind of feel like the people practising the work the developers, the designers. They’re still doing the meetups. The higher levels, the founders, the C levels, they’re sharing a bit less or they’re less mixing, or that’s what I found.

Nick Sturge:
Okay, yeah.

Nic:
But that leads me to my next question, which is obviously now Bristol is growing. Bristol has reached a certain point which means that it’s on the map for all the successes. But it’s also in the spotlight for like, where are the next challenges for Bristol? And there are certainly a few challenges running cause if you think around like are there access to jobs in certain parts of Bristol? Where do you feel are the next challenges for Bristol as a city and for us as companies in Bristol?

Nick Sturge:
Yeah, so I think, you know, you’re seeing this all over the place that as a cluster grows be it a city level or it’s more than that. Evolves and things change and nothing can stay the same. So, we’ve now got a much higher level of company activity so more mid-stage companies, if you like, some of which that have moved to Bristol relocated to Bristol, others that have grown here like the Graphcore and the Ultraleap and so on. And across the dynamics change if you’ve got a, what we used to have, which was, you know, a lot of small but growing and ambitious companies. The CEOs are probably the founders and they’ve grown with the business. As the economy matures, if you like and what Bristol is, you know, it’s a 1000-year-old economy, but the tech cluster is kind of maturing. You’ve perhaps got people who’ve come in from elsewhere, and they’re, you know, for what the better word, the professional CEO, and they perhaps haven’t got the history and they have to be looking more global than local. So you’ve gotta have that shifted dynamic. I hope we don’t lose the collaborative culture. And I don’t think you know what I’ve just described needs to exclude the collaborative culture. But just like a marriage, you have to continue to work at it. So we have to continually invest in maintaining that those neutral brokers if you like acting in the ecosystem and I hope that continues. You asked about the challenges so that you know, there’s number of growing pains. Bristol is a small city, it’s bursting at the seams, that’s having the effect of house prices going up. So that’s a challenge. But we’ve also got, it’s becoming more acute, the inequality gap if you like and the barriers physical, soft perceived of people in different geographies and different communities of whatever descriptor being able to access the prosperity that is seen on the other side of the fence if you like. And of course, the challenge is that we’ve got companies wanting to grow and needing talent. And you’ve got a lot of people who are potential, you know, occupants of those roles. But there’s a gap in the middle. And some of that is, is the fault of all or that we need to help companies find better ways of recruiting and be open to more ways of recruiting more diverse talent. But our education system needs to adapt to support that the pathways into modern styles and sector of business and technologies and skill sets and so on. But we also need to do some work around making, removing some of the perceived or actual barriers that prevent people thinking they can access those jobs or the training. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of work gets done at Engine Shed and has done for last few years and by others to raise awareness of this is what, these are what jobs look like. And you kids from inner-city, Bristol from whatever background you are, we need you. And you don’t need a degree to get into some of these jobs. So you know, there’s plenty of opportunities. Now, it’s easy to say that for some people it looks like there isn’t an opportunity, and we need to break down some of the barriers. And so there’s work to do, but I think everything’s solvable.

Nic:
There’s an element of like, we’ve seen flourishing boot camps for blind developers, for example, like being trained. Obviously, these boot camps have a cost and they’re now accessible to everybody, but they do help solving one part of the issue of like, people that are not developers or technical engineers, but they want to like participate to that kind of jobs, but do you think we will see in the next two, three years not much more bootcamps but more maybe programs that you did with the SETsquared but more geared towards inclusivity?

Nick Sturge:
Yeah, so definitely, I think there’s a lot of appetite to do more and so I think there’s a place for boot camps and, in fact, I had a conversation this morning with somebody wanting to try and fill that gap to get diverse talent into the jobs that are there with some form of boot camp, but that does specifically make accessible to people who perhaps can’t access other things. So whether that’s about cost, or whether that’s about engagement, or, you know, the fact is, if you’ve got a large demand for talent, there’s a commercial model that says that training doesn’t need to cost the learner there should be a guarantee of a job and that’s we’re starting to see that.

Nic:
So that perception that obviously when you see a picture about the Bootcamp going on or when you see like the promotion of the bootcamp, if the only thing you see are the so-called middle-aged white man you’re already creating that cleavage,

Nick Sturge:
Correct.

Nic:
Between the two so, we need to be better like the perception of it and making sure that everybody is included over there.

Nick Sturge:
Yeah, so we need role models. We need to make sure the narrative is helpful in demonstrating that everyone is welcome. But there’s work to do on the employer side and on the supply side and the demand side, if you like, and the bits in the middle. So there is there is lots of do but there’s plenty to potential to resolve that, and there’s an awful lot of goodwill and some good initiatives coming through that will help that and the combined authority and you know, I’m working, doing a bit of work for the combined authority worker, putting quite a lot of money, making a lot of money available for innovative new ways of solving these kinds of challenges. So I’m excited about the future as challenging as it’s gonna be and I’m still gonna play a part in that as best I can. But I think there’s plenty of opportunity here.

Nic:
So going back to the Engine Shed, what kind of, I wanna say what kind of crazy minds or what kind of crazy person does it take to create Engine Shed I mean because if I remember well, that was nothing like it was a dump that place before and then you came up with that vision you came up with this building is today, the heart of the technical ecosystem of Bristol, what does it take to create something like that?

Nick Sturge:
How is it? That’s a really, really good question it’s difficult because you would describe it as an entrepreneurial approach. There was a need, I had to find a new home for the SETsquared incubator, the SETsquared incubator was thriving on the university precinct. We were given six months notice to leave the space at the university with no you know I was employed at the university. No, here’s a new office for you just you need to find somewhere else to go. So I kind of had to. So you know, they say that necessity is the mother of all invention. So I had the time, a timeline that I had to find a new space. The council had this building, which was a shell, they needed to put it into good use. We needed a home, it was clearly at the basic level an obvious fit. There was an opportunity for us to take the incubator from nice leafy middle class, Clifton, to a much more diverse and, in some respects challenged part of the city. I had an opportunity to actually find better ways of doing what we did and find some ways of better making an impact on the city of the SETsquared incubator. Now that was as much as I thought through the vision. I didn’t have much more than that other than it felt right to have a bigger space where we could do, we could experiment that was as much. And there isn’t in the business plan, there isn’t much more than that. It’s a lot of woolly words and a spreadsheet with some numbers in which was a pure guess. The council bought into that, the university bought into that the Inward Investment Service who are kind of a key partner cause they needed a home as well put some money in the pot, we had enough money just to do the refurbishment. We did business plan to opening in 11 months. So there wasn’t any time to think through any vision. We got it open. And we just operated it and on the way during that time, so we will have meeting rooms, we’ll hire them out or we’ll have this members lounge thing, or we’ll create a model where we take the money we generate surplus we generate and spend that on interesting projects. We were developing this on the fly. So it kind of was an entrepreneurial startup. And what is really fascinating is being able to do that. And I really don’t still don’t understand quite how we did it. Of doing that within the environment of the city council and the university, or on the face of it at the least entrepreneurial institutions in the city. But actually, they’re not, they can’t be because we created this which was quite viable, but it’s part of that relationship between the two organizations that enabled this and some key people within both organizations who made it happen. The, you know, on the university side Guy Orpen, Pro Vice Chancellor was key, on the council, Stephen Hilton, but also the mayor George Ferguson at the time, really bought into it. So it’s about people, business is about people and those people bought into it, and we made it happen. And it’s only over the years that we evolved this model of, okay, actually, our mission is sustainable, inclusive economic growth. It’s kind of what we’d always been doing is what I’ve been trying to do with SETsquared all the way along, I just hadn’t used that label. Then it became obvious to me very early on that being inclusive about what you do is not a compromise. It’s not a tick box. It’s not there to get cued off There’s business benefit in having more people and more diverse people involved, whether it’s a board-level of a business, whether it’s engage in activities, and by no means are we doing as good as Engine Shed doing as good a job. It’s only when I was running it until last year, there’s no way that we were doing as good a job as we should, by a long way. But it was about the narrative as much anything that diversity in a team is a positive, it’s not a compromise. So never treat it as a tick box exercise.
Otherwise, you’re heading to nothing. So hopefully what we did during that time, as much as anything was to change the narrative that there are different ways of doing things. And the beauty of what evolved from the partnership of the council and the university and having this space and having a bit of cash that we were generating out of the building we kind of had the permission to experiment. I mean the credibility of the campus and the university without any, you know, direct, there was kind of an appropriate governance model, but no day to day kind of direction of what we’re doing, allowed us that freedom to operate, and experiment and try things like teacher work experience, like the refugee entrepreneurship project, like the investment activator idea that only just now got to fruition. And that was great fun, for a start, but you know, hopefully it demonstrated to others, that it’s okay to try things at risk. So that, you know, that’s what we encourage. That’s what we teach through our entrepreneurship programs, why not operate that at a economic development level.

Nic:
So I’m gonna come back to the level of experiments in a second. But I think the, I guess your very last experiment last year before you finished off was the Bristol Technology Festival.

Nick Sturge:
That’s right.

Nic:
So they were actually collaborated on. I remember you presenting me that project, the aim was to get tech event to be open to non-tech people basically. How did it go?

Nick Sturge:
Well, so I mean, that was an interesting one. It became obvious to me seeing and we did, you know, we started this conversation, the beginning of 2019, became obvious to me there was some a number of tech-related events in the city, some big ones, some small, but whilst Bristol has all sorts of other festivals like The Kite Festival, the Balloon Fiesta, the Harbor festival, Jazz Festival, etc. And a whole load of festivals in different serving different communities that I’m not couldn’t remember to list. We didn’t have a Tech Festival and that seemed odd given that we had such a cluster, whether the festival was the right word, or it should be Bristol Tech Week, or I don’t know. But anyway, so the idea is, we should do something to try and raise the game to promote what’s great about Bristol and the fact there’s such vibrancy of what’s going on. But not just as a flag waving thing to the rest of the world, or the rest of the country. But to get Bristonians to understand what’s on their doorstep be they, the lay citizen, be they the school kid, or the parent of school kids. If we want to get more people thinking that they have, they’ve got a role to play in the future of the city. The tech community, the tech sector could be a place for them. Well if they don’t know about it, they’re never gonna find it. So for me, what was critical with the technology festival was to make sure there were events for techies for visitors to the city kind of inward investors for the layperson, and for young people. And we did this, you know, we didn’t have much resource. So this was about crowdsourcing the festival. So one approach would have been to write we want an event for this, we want an event for this who’s gonna to do that? But that would have taken too much time. And we probably would have designed it wrong. Whereas what we did is working with CookiesHQ, which is fantastic, create a website and invite applications and the criteria were very simple. Is it in Bristol? Is it tech-related? Does it serve one of these audiences and is it as inclusive as it possibly can be? And if so, it can go on the website. And, you know, no funding involved the company, each event funds itself or has its own funding model. And we had something like, I can’t remember now 40 different events over the week. Which was fantastic covering all different angles. And thanks to everybody who, you know, some events were gonna happen anyway. But we’re, you know, benefited from the overarching brand. Some events were put on, I think, CookiesHQ put on an event on user design, I think.

Nic:
Accessibility actually.

Nick Sturge:
Accessibility that was it! Accessibility. So that was really But you know, you hopefully you were encouraged to put that on because there’s an excuse to put it on. And there was a bit of extra profile. It was an experiment, you know, I think it worked. There was not everything worked perfectly, but we proved that we could do it.

Nic:
So I wanna go back very briefly around this idea of experiments. And as we speak I mean that’s out of this podcast, it seems that your life is just a series of experiments, basically. But somehow, somehow you managed to pull them off and they always seem to work out nicely. Have you had any failures? Have you had anything that you would say, oh, I would do that differently now? Like–

Nick Sturge:
Well those are two different questions, aren’t they?

Nic:
Yes.

Nick Sturge:
So there’s some things which haven’t worked so now I’ll think of… We tried so many, so many Oh it’s a one thing didn’t work was… So the two questions, one is two different things. One is you can do something it doesn’t work. Would you have done it any differently? No, I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently. There are some things that I didn’t do. I didn’t know how to do or I didn’t have the right skill set to do which is part of why I’ve decided to step away and let somebody else take it on. But in terms of things that didn’t go well, the two experiments we tried one was I’ve always been interested in the trying to break down this false barrier between not for profit and for profit enterprises. So the social enterprise or charity versus the for profit business. They’re frequently perceived as chalk and cheese. You know, a business can’t talk about social value, or impact. And a not for profit, can’t talk about business practice, or profit. Both of those are rubbish. Businesses need to think about their social impact because that’s the currency now, not least to recruit younger talent. And if a social enterprise or charity doesn’t think about effective business practice and governance and making a profit, then it’s gonna go out of business and it won’t be able to create an impact. So there’s learning to do, the language might be different. What happens to the profit will be different. But there’s lots to learn. So we tried, we subsidized the rent in one of the containers at the back for three social enterprise organizations to come together to try and see if they could work together to be stronger together. But as part of this kind of more mainstream community, and it didn’t work out for various reasons, but it was worth a try. And those involved the people involved they’re grateful for having had that opportunity. And then the other thing we had a couple of Portuguese people come to Bristol, so they were gonna set up a games a games publishing incubator, so we gave them free rent in one of the rooms downstairs. That never went anywhere, perhaps that was too much of a risk. I didn’t do much due diligence on them or do much to help but my approach as well. If you help somebody too much I mean this is our approach to incubation if you provide too much support and too much prop, then you’re not doing the company any favours just like parenting of teenage kids you know don’t make life too easy for them or they’ll stay and not grow. So that didn’t work but hey, it was worth a try.

Nic:
So I guess your what you just said around too much prob or too much handling in a company kind of like lead me into nicely into my last point, which is so now that you’re out of the Engine Shed, you’re a big advocate for companies having a board having board members and certainly this is so we’ve got a friend in common who joined us as a board member and helped us forming a board like probably two years ago now.

Nick Sturge:
Okay.

Nic:
And I have to be honest, if you would have asked me two years ago, you need a board or you would’ve tell me you need a board, probably I’d laugh. And for me a board was for like big companies. And in fact, the first time we put board member meeting in the calendar, it felt wrong basically. It felt to fraud. And actually now I couldn’t go back without not having it because it’s an extremely valuable tool, whether you have an external party or not just this time, there is a mix of reflection and accountability. And it’s a fantastic so we’re up to when now we talk to other businesses like this is what. So can we, can we talk about that? Can we talk about this and obviously you I guess I have my view on the smaller scale kind of companies, you have a view on like slightly larger scale of company. What kind of tips can you give to people that are looking to create the boards and the people that can afford the boards they will be able to afford people to bring them but the ones that can’t afford them where do you start? And how can you make by with the people that you know?

Nick Sturge:
So lots of bits in there so I guess the first one is the why? What’s the point of having a board? What’s the point of of building a board? That is more than just the founding CEO and perhaps this technical director or the finance director. What’s the point of building a board with somebody non-exec, somebody who isn’t full time in the business? Well, it’s as much about sharing the load about getting that sanity check that you’re on the right track. It’s also about you know, you get this response from people when you say you gonna, you should have a board of, well, I know how to run my business. Well, that’s fine, I’m sure you do. But do you know the things you don’t know? Well, of course you don’t. So how do you make sure that you’re fulfilling the potential of both yourself and your business. On your own, you may be perfect. Some people are perfect or not.
So having somebody else on board, who is, as a director has a legal responsible to act 24/7 in the interests of the company, even if you’re only paying them for a day a month, they’re on your back, they’re on your side, or covering your back all the time. Well, they should be, you know, you can hire the wrong person in any team, and the board is no different from any team. So finding the person to fulfill the role that you need and for different companies, it’s gonna be different, but somebody who can provide that objective challenge to help fill the gaps and it’s about you know, filling the gap. Nobody, frankly, nobody is perfect. So everybody has their weaknesses. So how can you fill those bits of weakness on your board to make sure that you are fulfilling your potential. Now you have a legal responsibility as a director of a company to act in the interest of your own business, even if you’re the owner of it, you actually have a responsibility to think about the future of the company that is different from your own ownership of it, subtle, but that true. So and then the other thing, of course, is that if your aspiration for the business is to be static, forever, well, fine. Continue with what you’ve got. If you want to scale, how do you make sure just like you’re building a house, you make sure you’ve got the foundations, you don’t overdo it, but you probably gonna work on the side of putting in stronger foundations than your calculations might suggest. Just to give you that safety and perhaps you can put an extra floor in the building if you’ve got enough money. Well, it’s the same with building a board. Building structure this is exactly what we do and this is based on my own learning, when we founded a company. We hired a non-exec chair at day one. It was the best thing we ever did. So when we listed three years later, we hadn’t planned to list on the stock exchange, but when we listed it went through as smoothly as it possibly could have done, because we’ve had a non-exec chair who was building in the right level, not onerous, but the right level of structure and discipline and strategic thinking. So that we’re listed on Stock Exchange was a breeze then we went to the full list and raised 17 million quid in 2000. So building in that, that capability to me it’s an absolute no brainer. Yes, there’s a cost involved and you need to make sure you get the right person it’s not just going and find you know, will Uncle Bob or Aunt Jane do me a favour and sit on my board? No that’s not good enough. That’s a waste of time and actually probably dangerous. You need to think right, okay, what do I need to achieve? What do I need in my team? If you’re a competent CEO, this is how you should be looking at building teams within your business. So apply that thinking to your own board. And it’s not a failure to have somebody else working at your level, giving you challenge. You know if it for works big companies, why can’t it work for small companies?

Nic:
But I think that’s probably the big discussion that happens around board is like when you hear about a board, you usually hear about that from like companies floating on a board on the stock exchange, or you hear about that from like 100 plus people kind of company. They must have a board and everything. It’s really rare to hear a small company like 10, 15 people to talk about a board or to talk about having a board meeting and we’ve actually decided to make some of our key people from the team to be part of the board. Cause we felt that it was the right thing to do. Especially that for us it was like it was an element of like having external parties helping us on the growth. But also because we’re husband and wife, having a person on the board to act as a

Nick Sturge:
Neutral voice.

Nic:
Yeah neutral voice. That was actually super useful. But that element of like, and I guess is the sorry where I was going with the question was does the IoD have that in mind when they talk about boards? Do they try to target smaller companies? Cause I think there’s a huge benefit that could be done here that smaller companies do not realize that they need

Nick Sturge:
So yeah, so no, the IoD is not doing enough to help smaller businesses understand the value of building a board. The IoD’s mission is about creating better directors to make better businesses to make a better UK PLC. There’s more to do. The work I’ve been doing at the Combined Authority worker is starting to look at that is how can we create better understanding of the value of a board to help drive productivity to help reduce climate impact, and to increase inclusion, all of which align, and none of which is a compromise. But those are kind of board level decisions and to be able to make strategic decisions around those issues, you need capability around the board table. And then the other way to look at this, of course, is that any business whether it’s destined to be 1000 person company, or a 50 person company, or static, at 10 people, whatever. You have to plan for exit points, right? So whether it’s the founder of the company wanting to retire or falling ill or whatever, succession planning needs to be a part of that. And you actually have a responsibility for succession planning. Well part of the succession planning, if you can have continuity with a non-exec helps founder extricate themselves and get more value out of the business, whether that’s planned or unplanned, if you’re gonna take investment, having somebody to share the load, add credibility, but also and tamper the dynamic, you talked about husband and wife on the board. Founding CEO and venture capitalist investor is often not a dissimilar dynamic, sometimes that can be rosy or it can be slightly foul having a neutral voice in those kind of dynamics becomes really important and especially if you have multiple investors, having a neutral chair especially, can be the thing which makes or breaks a company. So whatever the trajectory of a company, there is value in having a board for some, the value may be less than that. But I don’t think it’s acceptable for a company to set on a path with running the risk of founding CEO getting run over by a bus and the company fails. You have a responsibility to protect against that actually. You know, there’s also the value of the company for your estate. In fact if you’re the CEO, you’ve been mowed by bus, your family, you know, need the value of the company having a board more than just you protects you against that. So in every scenario, there’s value in having a board. As you can tell, it’s my pet topic.

Nic:
Pet topic so does that mean, we’re gonna hear more, we’re gonna hear more you talking about that vocally?

Nick Sturge:
Yes.

Nic:
Like even a few talks about that.

Nick Sturge:
Yeah and I think it’s critical, I think it’s one of a small number of things I’m gonna be focusing on going forward is that board-level capability and decision making and partly, you know, I’ll do that through doing non-exec directorships, but also championing it, training in it, helping set policy in there. But of course, the big point for me is this is as much a route to better inclusion in the city. Because it has to be, these have to be board-level decisions, which of course includes diversifying boards. So I’ve got some ideas around how we can do that. And diversification isn’t just about gender or ethnicity. It’s also about age, and also generally, it’s about different perspectives that make better businesses.

Nic:
So talking about age, when you were nine years old, what did you want to be?

Nick Sturge:
When I was nine, I may have been in the Bob the Builder stage and not Bob the Builder the program cause that hadn’t been invented yet, but I wanted to be a builder called Bob. I think I was probably at that stage. Soon after that, I wanted to be an ambulance driver. And then after that I wanted to, I was always interested in medicine and the medical side of things didn’t wanna be a doctor. So I thought I wanted to do medical electronics, which was my first kind of career.

Nic:
Which is how you joined the electronics! And you’re not allowed to insert the Engine Shed as your favourite place of all in Bristol could be a park, could be a restaurant could be a street, your favourite, favourite place.

Nick Sturge:
It’s Queen square.

Nic:
I’ve seen the old pictures of Queen square, which I didn’t know it was actually a drive-through.

Nick Sturge:
But part of it is that it’s such a nicer place than it was when I was a kid when it did have a dual carriageway through it. But it’s such a beautiful place and you’ve got it’s a thoroughfare so people always move about. But in the summer when you get people of all different shapes and sizes, and colors and ages. You know, you see silent discos. You see volleyball, you see people strumming guitars, you know, I’m sure people are having a few spliffs here and there and a few tinnies. Brilliant, I mean, it’s just beautiful with the heritage of the old buildings around. And it’s where the city somewhat made the decision to reinvest in recreating how it looked originally. And I think that was inspired.

Nic:
Cool. People want to find more about you. Where, what’s the best place is it LinkedIn, Twitter?

Nick Sturge:
LinkedIn is or Twitter yeah, but look for me Nick Sturge on Twitter and Nick Sturge on LinkedIn.

Nic:
Cool, thank you very much.

Nick Sturge:
Cheers.

– [Woman] This podcast was brought to you by cookiesHQ, a Bristol based software agency who builds apps and websites for early stage founders and growing startups. If you’ve been enjoyed this podcast, you can drop us a message @thecookiesHQ on Twitter or head to www.cookieshq.co.uk/podcast for more episodes.

Let's work together

It all starts with a chat

We have over 9 years supporting passions and developing amazing products. We run events, record podcasts, maintain open-source code and resources for everyone to enjoy.