Special report: Five entreprenuers share their stories
Entrepreneurialism can take many forms, from a start-up with its eyes on unicorn status to a sole practitioner with ambitions to do things their way for the benefit of the community – or even someone using their experience to advise others on the best way to build a business. CA magazine speaks to those at the coalface of creativity and hears why, despite the economy undergoing a series of shocks, the world is awash with opportunities
The industry expert
Sean McGrath CA - CEO of Entrepreneurial Scotland, an independent charity which advises and represents entrepreneurs across the nation
Where do you currently see the best opportunities for entrepreneurs?
Warren Buffett said: “Be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.” It seems a terrible time to be starting a business because there’s so much uncertainty about. But that means it’s probably the best time because that’s when everybody else pulls back and you can stand forward.
Green energy is an obvious starting point. A lot of the major EU economies are investing in infrastructure for hydrogen, and when governments make decisions like that they tend not to go back. Processes such as making green steel cannot be done with anything other than hydrogen
AI, of course, is and will be hugely disruptive. The world of quantum computing is a lot closer, and will impact on so many more areas, than people realise. Our technology is not capable of seeing that magnetic field around your brain activity, but quantum will be able to. Which is just incredible.
Another really interesting space is gut microbiome. It’s not what you eat that affects you, it’s how the microbes in your gut process it. So if you have certain microbes, the chemicals released by processing food can be harmful or beneficial. It sounds disgusting, but some organisations specialise in poop transplants. So you might have bacteria
in your gut that’s extremely beneficial to fighting cancer. And basically, they just have to take a bit of your poop, dry it out, stick it in a pill and get me to swallow it so it goes into my gut. I’m sure they will find a better way of marketing that!
What do you see as the challenges?
There isn’t a single entrepreneur in the world who won’t tell you the first challenge they face is funding. And it’s true – but if it wasn’t a challenge, we’d all be entrepreneurs. A lot of the people I talk to in the investment world will say there is money out there. But the people who invest in businesses always say they back the jockey as much as the horse, if not more. They back the leadership team, not necessarily the business idea, because ideas are ten a penny. If I’m going to write a cheque for £1m, the next time I see you, that money will be spent, so I better believe you’re capable of doing what you said.
In which areas are we lacking?
Scotland has a shortage of entrepreneurs to put the innovation into action – and that’s what we at Entrepreneurial Scotland focus on. Then there’s a talent problem and a real shortage of skilled labour in the UK. More people in Stem, more people in computer science, yes we need that. But we also have to recognise the importance of soft skills.
In what areas can the Scottish government help?
I sat on the advisory council for the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. I want the government to understand that, in the past, we used to prepare people for a specific change. So we would say, for example, life science is going to be very big and we will structure our system to make sure we have more scientists. But the pace of change is so fast now, we can’t prepare people for specific change – or they will be obsolete. What we must do is prepare people to be capable of change, and then we have a chance of maybe leading that change as opposed to just reacting to it.
How has being a CA helped in your role?
Being a CA has given me credibility. It helped demonstrate I was worth listening to and could have a seat in the room, and I will always be grateful to ICAS for that. What I do is like being the kit man for Manchester United. To be around that energy is fantastic. But there is a perception that entrepreneurialism is about people having good ideas. Some people ask me to sign an NDA before they will discuss their idea. I chuckle at that. The idea is about 5% of it. It’s really about the execution.
The tech start-up
Stephen Scurr - Founder and CEO, Orders Made Simple, which is digitising the food service supply chain, making it easier for hospitality businesses to order all stock on one platform
When did you start Orders Made Simple?
We’ve been trading for three years – we tried to launch in March 2020, but for obvious reasons it didn’t go to plan. We now have over £1m worth of transactions going through our platform every month.
What factors have helped the business grow?
The pandemic was terrible in many, many ways, but one of the effects is that so many people, chefs included, are now much more tech savvy. Video calls were virtually unheard of in 2019, but now they are commonplace – and we’ve seen the benefit as a company.
What is the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur?
We’ve gone straight from an economy-crippling pandemic into a cost-of-living crisis. On top of that, it is so hard to hire in the hospitality industry at the moment, which means everyone is working a lot harder than before. From the chef’s point of view, it is hard to adopt new technology (such as Orders Made Simple’s) when you have to work 50–60-plus hours a week thanks to staff shortages.
Where do you need more support?
Funding and guidance. As a start-up, we found it extremely challenging to acquire funding. The financial backing to start new businesses and the ecosystem to support them aren’t robust enough.
How did the ICAS Foundation help you?
The support allowed me to pursue an opportunity. And the skills learned while studying accountancy have certainly benefited the businesses I have been involved with.
Given the chance, what would you have done differently?
Don’t be everything to everyone. Ask questions and focus on the responses that most often appear. Rome wasn’t built in a day – it takes time to grow, and so too does your company.
The social mobility supporter
Izzy Obeng - CEO, Foundervine, which supports entrepreneurs from under-represented communities with access to networks, capacity-building and finance
Where do the entrepreneurs you work with most need help?
Funding is often the number one thing, but it is just as much about leaders having the necessary skills and experience to run a business, the infrastructure for their operations, and the team they have around them. If you’re someone from a lower socioeconomic background, it might feel overwhelming to go to an event and try to speak to a potential buyer or investor. So putting people into these spaces, making them safe and engaging, has been a big part of our success so far.
Is there an element of needing to “fake it till you make it”?
All of us are going through different kinds of anxiety about different things. The only way we can expand our comfort zones is through being uncomfortable. The only difference between a lot of founders in our community and elsewhere is the ability to take that anxiety and leverage it into the adrenaline they need to move forwards and make themselves uncomfortable. If you’re dealing with people who have historically been told that something is not for them, they should stay in their lane or they’re not intelligent enough, part of the challenge is building that confidence.
How do you build that confidence?
Perhaps among the more mainstream accelerators, there’s a focus on what it takes to raise investment, build a product and sales strategy – all super important. But if you are working with people who face mental and emotional barriers even starting up, that can make the more technical learning hard to digest. So, if you can, spend time coaching and network-building to demystify a lot of the jargon around entrepreneurship and investment. Convincing that person they are uniquely capable of building up that business can work wonders.
How can the UK government help under-represented communities in business?
I hear some positive signals from this government, but it’s been distracted. For example, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report (aka the Sewell Report) was a missed opportunity to look at what diversity means in the business sector.
The sole practitioner
Karen Kennedy CA - Founder, Kennedy Accountancy, a Highlands practice which has grown through social media and working with SMEs to help boost the local economy
What advice would you give to someone thinking of setting up their own practice today?
It’s important to remember that you’re running the practice first and foremost as a business, and it needs to wash its face. Accountants can be very good at helping other people, while not helping themselves, so you need to be on top of issues such as pricing and staffing levels.
You started Kennedy Accountancy three months into the pandemic. Why launch at such an uncertain time?
I figured if a business could survive that, it could survive anything.
If you were to start your business over again, what would you do differently?
I would have hired staff a bit quicker. I probably left that too late, especially on the admin side. When you start up, you tend to do everything yourself, and that went on a bit too long in my case.
Is there anything more that the Scottish or UK governments should be doing to help entrepreneurs?
We’re based in the Highlands, and there is some funding for start-up businesses, but it’s very niche, mainly in tourism, and there’s nothing for service-based businesses. A lot of the start-up help available is in the shape of training and courses, which is all great, but new businesses need cash.
What do you enjoy about being an entrepreneur?
I love the flexibility around family life and financial freedom. And being able to do something that I love.
The circular economy champion
Victoria Prew - Founder, Hurr, the UK’s leading clothing rental platform
What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
Turning a vision into a reality and every day proving that the circular economy is the next big opportunity in fashion. We started in 2018 and now we have 35 employees.
What’s going well for you at the moment?
The booming consumer interest in different ways to consume fashion – resale, rental, repair. The conversation is only just beginning!
And what’s challenging?
Moving from start-up founder to scale-up founder is a steep learning curve. The challenges are very different.
Where do you need more support?
Like every start-up founder, we could always do with more hands on deck.
How does your finance team help you?
Finance plays a critical part, advising C-suite on everything from the team, capex, managing growth and runway, and planning for every scenario.
What one change would you like the government to introduce?
I’d like more emphasis on the circular economy – from research through to implementation within the fashion industry.
Best business advice you have received?
Never take no for an answer.
What would you have done differently?
It took me too long to launch – 80% should have been good enough.
How do you recharge?
By turning off my phone and doing an “offline 48” most weekends.
Who inspires you?
Other female entrepreneurs who are a few steps ahead of me in this process.
Visit the ICAS business start-up guide for more resources