Young Leaders: Five things we learnt about innovation

The Young Leaders Summit innovation lightning session
By Alex Burden, CA Today

27 September 2017

Some of the today’s most successful businesses have challenged the status quo by harnessing new digital technologies. Understanding where and how digital disruption can be translated into an incredible business proposition was underpinned at our Young Leaders Summit Lightning Session on Unleashing Innovation. 

We heard from CAs who have harnessed the power of new digital technologies - driving digital disruption, implementing new business models and generating an incredible competitive advantage.  

Joining us at the inaugural Young Leaders Summit was: Gareth Lewis CA, co-founder and CFO of Delio, a private investment space and asset platform for entrepreneurs, organisations and financial institutions; Oliver Cummings CA, Commercial Director of, a VC-backed FinTech start-up seeking to overhaul finance and simplify experiences for UK businesses; and Neil Simpson CA, Financial Director of Brewdog, the Scottish craft beer company.  

Here is what we learned from their discussion:

1. Working in an innovative industry can mean approaching traditionality from a different angle

Oliver Cummings CA said: "I'm a big fan of the user journey - innovation is finding a set of customers, finding out what they need, then building a platform or some form of technology and then working out what in that technology is now scalable to make a business. To me it's all very user-focused, I'm not about trying to start something that doesn't exist."

Neil Simpson CA recounted how Brewdog, who use technology to craft "the perfect beer every time", raised funds through their own innovation: "We went down the crowdfunding route way back before it became fashionable to do it. There were no platforms to do it then; we had to do it through our own site."

Left to right: Gareth Lewis CA, Oliver Cummings CA, and Neil Simpson CA

2. Failure can happen, but that's not a reason to give up. 

Gareth Lewis CA noted the advantage that newly-formed companies can have: "We haven't really had any rules or anyone telling us how to do things. I think start-ups have an unfair advantage in the way that they're able to do things. It's how you deal with it. If you give up when you get something wrong, you aren't going to get very far. 

"You've got to be very, very level. If things are going right you've got to keep moving forward, and you need to do the same if things are going wrong."  

If you have a fear of failure, don't go into a start-up.

Neil added that the scale of a mistake indicates likeliness of reoccurrence: "It's those big failures that you aren't going to do again. Those are the ones that stick with you!"  

"One of the biggest things about working in technology, is the amount of time you've spent working in tech is completely irrelevant", explained Oliver, "It's a complete meritocracy. Failure is a part of A/B testing. It's all part of being in a tech start-up. You can't have a good idea all the time. If you have a fear of failure, don't go into a start-up. It's all about learning when you're failing and improving on that."

3. Being a CA doesn't mean you need to stick to an accountancy role

Oliver stated that he had no idea he wanted to work in Fintech or start-ups: "I was obsessed with what we do as accountants -  FD, CEOs CFOs, investment bankers. I'd advise you to look outside of that. There are so many things that you could do with your skills, and ICAS is a good background."

Neil Simpson CA agreed: "Don't just go in the middle of the box and tick the box, as an auditor, a tax advisor, a financial controller in practice - it's how you can add value and think differently and come up with an idea that it's still within your principles... Think about how you can push things within your boundaries.

"When I started at Brewdog, I realised it wasn't about making money, which goes against what you learn in the textbooks. We wanted to make great beer, and that costs money."

4. Collaborate and embed passion into the work culture

Digital technology, by its very nature, needs to be innovative as part of a sector that can reinvent itself every year or every few months – but it can't happen in isolation. Gareth commented: "If you're in an organisation and you want to implement change there, it needs to be collaborative. You need to get people involved in the idea and the process, otherwise they can feel intimidated and they will resist it."

Whatever you're doing, just be immersed in it.

Neil said: "You can be innovative in really small ways, you can change things by being innovative, and that's got to be embedded into the culture to make it happen. Our mission statement is very clear; everyone is as passionate about great craft beer as we are,  but behind that, there's got to be a culture to get to that point. One of our charter points is 'we are geeks', so whatever you're doing, just be immersed in it, be so indulged to the point that you can possibly think a bit differently."

5. Inspire your team and hire from varying backgrounds

Gareth believes that a wide scope of talented staff is key: "We're not tied to people with so many UCAs points or anything like that. Some of our best developers are people that dropped out of school and taught themselves how to code in their free time."

Oliver emphasised that passion is essential: "A really interesting thing about having innovative culture is who you hire. For me, I'd be really keen to hire CAs into the business, but what I would be really keen for to ensure innovative culture is ask them what their passions are, what they're into in life, and whether they have an urge or purpose - to me, that's the kind of people you need for a start-up."


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