Mark Thompson, CEO and co- founder of Virgin Unite Mentors, reveals how start-ups can be attractive to investors and avoid failure
By Sidra Tariq
Part of the British conglomerate, Virgin Group, Virgin Unite Mentors is a non-profit foundation that helps entrepreneurs around the world launch and grow their businesses. Its CEO, Mark Thompson, talks to SMEinfo.me about start-up investment, traits of good entrepreneurs and advice for SMEs.
Ideally, at what stage should start-ups look for investment?
It depends on their business model and what is inspiring them to bring this new product or service. Different businesses have different needs of capital, energy, team resources, and mentorship or expertise. One of the important things to have in the beginning is a business plan that allows you to take an honest look at what you need in terms of expertise, talent and capital. Getting a first look at what your needs are in those three areas, will help you determine what kind of support you’ll need and when.
What do you look for before investing in a start-up?
It would depend on the product or service that we are investing in, but primarily what we are looking for is something that has a special and unique contribution to a marketplace. Why does one more restaurant have to be in business? Why one more fashion outlet or architectural firm? Firstly, we look for that unique differentiator. Secondly, we look for a team that understands how to experiment and develop that idea, because you are not going to be 100 per cent right at the beginning, so part of this is having the experience to evolve the idea so that you can become more effective.
And finally, [whether the entrepreneur] will be able to scale [the business] quickly.
What are the major mistakes start-ups make when pitching to investors?
I can’t tell you the number of times I have been told: “We have no competition”. The truth is that there is always competition for the consumer’s money (if it’s a consumer business) and for any B2B business. Somehow, there is some aspect of a need being addressed, so how you are really differentiating is the better question, rather than trying to claim that there is no competition.
Also, one of the biggest mistakes is usually a sense of denial. Willingness to admit mistakes [is important] in an entrepreneur. Being a good entrepreneur is this rare combination of humility and ambition. While having the ambition to be the best of something or contributing to the market, you have to realise that you need to constantly improve, learn from your mistakes and, most importantly, know that there is no way you can grow the enterprise without recruiting excellent people.
I see too many people make the business about themselves. It’s not about ‘you,’ but about ‘us’. It is about creating a team and finding other people who share the vision and, hopefully, they are inspired to own it as a part of their vision.
What are the major reasons for start-up failure?
Some are the reasons we just described, ie the start-up has not been willing to learn from mistakes or be realistic about what the competition is.
Sometimes a rapid shift in technology can blind side you and change things. This is where having the ability to learn quickly, as well as being very flexible and resilient, becomes essential. One of the things that is underrated is the ability to be flexible in delivering the service – understanding that “maybe we don’t need ten product categories, but only four that sell best,” and “maybe it is not a matter of adding more features to a product, but just those that are easier to use”.
What advice would you offer to SMEs and entrepreneurs?
Become an expert on your customer. We just finished a study, [World Success Survey], with Stanford University and found that the most successful entrepreneurs don’t just understand customer experience, they understand what drives their customers in three ways – they have a special sense of empathy, a clear sense of what kind of talent they will need to serve the customer and they try to know what drives the customer’s economic engine. So, if you can demonstrate that you can understand how to help your customer be more profitable, grow or be more successful, you add something in the value chain. The way you become successful is to give other people success.
Also, I hope people tap into their personal passions for a business. Today, you have to work such long hours and it’s such a sacrifice; you’d really be healthy and powerful if you could be doing something you care and are passionate about.