After a short break from our podcast recordings, 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 to form the Engine Shed in Bristol. Read below for some of the key learnings from this Tough Cookies episode, or if you want to listen to the whole podcast you can on Spotify, Apple podcasts or on our website here.
Who is Nick Sturge?
I am in my third or fourth phase of career. I trained as an engineer, got a first from Swansea University but I never really understood electronics! I thought I wanted to work in medical electronics and for a while I worked in a couple of startups, then worked for Inmos semiconductor company. A group of us was made redundant in ’93 and so we took the opportunity to start our own business. We co-founded a business called Motion Media making videophones. We grew that, listed 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. 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. 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. I joined that as a volunteer mentor then became an entrepreneur in residence on a three-month contract. And then 2006, I took over running the centre and grew that. And then 2013 we needed a new home for the SETsquared incubator, so the Engine Shed was created in 2013. And then the back end of 2019, I decided it was time for me to move on. So now I’m working freelance.
Sometimes incubators like SETsquared need to have those honest conversations
The SETsquared incubator really builds up trust with entrepreneurs. Sometimes we have difficult conversations with founding CEOs that perhaps they’re not the right person to take a business forward. Or sometimes, the company is just not going to get to the right place, and in that case, the right place is stopping. Coming to a controlled stop in six months is 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.
The Bristol investment scene
We get investors to come down from London and say “oh I’ve heard there’s lots going on, introduce 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 are 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.
Bristol moving forward
There are a 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. But we’ve also got the inequality gap where people in different geographies and different communities of whatever descriptor should be 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 occupants of those roles, but there’s a gap in the middle. 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 pathway into modern styles and sector of business and technologies and skill sets and so on. We also need to do some work around making, removing some of the perceived or actual barriers that prevent people from thinking they can access those jobs or the training. 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.