The third and final panel session of VenturefestWM saw leaders of very different, fast-growing West Midlands businesses giving frank, first-hand accounts of what it took to successfully grow their businesses. This complemented the keynote address on scale-up (see Part 4 of our Venturefest Blog Series) by adding personal experience and advice.
The session Chair, Paul Adams of Goldfish and formerly Virgin Start-Up, started by pointing out that West Midlands is one of the best places in Europe at starting businesses, but it is not so good at growing them. As such, we should learn from those who have.
The panel was comprised of Shelley Lloyd, co-founder of Cellsium (2015), a global relocation business that grew rapidly and was sold to Brunel in 2018, retaining the Cellsium brand with Shelley as the Relationship Director; and Bryon Dixon OBE, CEO and co-founder (2006) of micro-Fresh, the antibacterial and anti-fungal businesses which grew rapidly from 2013 to a £5m turnover company, and is now trialling new products in new markets.
Shelley and Byron had different experiences, given the contrast in their sectors as well as their personalities. Whereas Shelley found the starting-up lonely but enjoyed the growth phase, Byron found the starting-up more exciting, with growing being more of a grind. But they certainly agreed that the challenges of starting and growing were different, and many common themes and lessons emerged from the discussion:
- Getting seen by potential customers during the starting-up phase was tricky, as well as getting references when small and unproven, particularly with an innovative product where being the first customer is seen as risky.
- To get the first big client requires confidence in your expertise, and professionalism in everything – including social media channels, because you will be checked out.
- Challenges of growing a business were agreed to be very different and as such require a different mind-set, requiring founders either to develop new skills or hire people with those skills.
- Whether to hire first or grow production/customer base first is a dilemma – both carry risks so a clear strategy is important which is kept under review to avoid spreading too thin or incurring too high costs.
- Another choice is whether to chase funding/investment or whether to focus on securing customers.
- Beware of payment terms on contracts and the fact that promises will not always be fulfilled – both can lead to financially challenging times, so structure your business to get over cash-flow issues.
- Networking is critical to success, both your own industry networks and wider business networking organisations, whether general business networks or sector specific.
- Be prepared to be proactive and to stretch yourself – it can be fun but also inspire others.
(Author: Pam Waddell, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)