Monday, 24 April 2017

The merit of Start-Up weekends.

This short piece on the effectiveness of a burst of activity is based on personal experience.
My first engagement with this was some years ago with designing an event we called “The Real Alchemist Bootcamp”. It was a cheeky attempt at drawing on the Paul Coelho book and at the same time playing on words –alchemy - where we helped to turn ideas into businesses.
This project was run at Queens College – Cambridge around 2003 and provided us with a huge level of insight into how we might run them again. The main outcome or should I say outpouring was the positive buzz and energy that it provided. We did not have an ecosystem into which the students who took part could follow.
Several years later we became involved in what we called “IdeasTransform” and the notion of meaningful entrepreneurship. The reason for this was due to the increased decibels coming out of accelerators that seemed to be pushing out App based new ventures that had nothing other than retail, courier, concierge, fashion, dating and other such proposals. Many were me-too ideas some of which had succeeded and others which had failed spectacularly!
From this came other similar experiences and bit by bit we started to see the gestation of social ventures and new technology businesses. The two with which I have been involved and can see becoming successes are which is providing decision support for farmers and a host of other services that build on agricultural data. This firm was born out a start-up weekend I was involved in and came about when two strangers began to chat and found they had common interests. The firm raised around $1m in investment and presently employs nearly 30 people – with twenty in India. There are many other such examples.
More recently we established Start-Up weekends at Cranfield and already have three new ventures in the making and several others in the pipeline. (1) Corrosion radar will provide data and solutions to the oil and gas industry with sensors examining corrosion under insulation (2) PhycoFeed has technology that can accelerate the production of biofuels using solar energy. It provides a significant improvement in efficiency.  And (3) Datasolver is set to provide privacy security in the growing explosion of data. We have had other forms too that are coming along nicely and we can talk more about them in due course.
Happily we have also killed off ideas at these weekends before too much effort goes into them. 
So, what have we learnt?  First thing is to get quality ideas and people together. Secondly bring together a high calibre and experienced mentor group. Thirdly, have access to a pot of money people can aim at securing. Fourth, provide relevant content and process to generate ideas, perhaps pivot them around until something looks sensible. Doing this under time pressure seems to work because it is quality time that is not otherwise available to entrepreneurs.
From a purely social perspective – it is fun too! Yes there is merit. I feel that if we can get even one decent start-up out of a weekend that is sustainable, generates revenues and creates employment using novel research based technologies we win on many fronts. The input/output ratio is worthwhile!

Cranfield Start-Up weekends are free at the point of delivery. Our next weekend is 18th to 20th May 2017. We will report in more detail on the ideas and companies which flow through this event.  If you are curious to know more please follow the link:

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

We love what we do – Entrepreneurs who inspire

Recently we had two entrepreneurs at the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cranfield on Wednesday Business.  The first talk was by Angus Thirwell- co-founder of Hotel Choclat. ( and the second was Jon Thornes who founded Cool Milk (
So what do we learn from a chocolatier and a milk man!?
They are both in for the long haul. It is not about the classical raise money, build a business and flog it. Nor are they family businesses that are building something as a legacy. Both entrepreneurs have invested in their imagination, knowledge, time and energy to build two highly successful businesses.
In their respective journeys they also attended the Business Growth Programme at Cranfield and  had a major re-think about their businesses and what next.
But here are some of the ley lessons that is value to us in a short blog.
1.    They both love what they do. They love their products and the customers who buy from them
2.    In very crowded markets with demanding customers they have found ways to compete and set standards of product delivery and customer service that keep them head and shoulders above the others.
Hotel Chocolat has been truly innovative with creating a Club – now with 17,000 members who subscribe to them and as a result of which they get to taste chocolates ahead of the market. Customers also get to vote on what they like and this is used as a crowd voting mechanism for product lines.
They decided to buy a cocoa estate on St Lucia, so that they can get their own beans. They obsess about quality. More recently they have opened a restaurant, created a new Gin, developed a boutique hotel on St Lucia and taken first international steps in Denmark to better understand how to service retail outlets far away.
You only need to look at their website to see the aesthetics in the business and visit one of their shops to see how their staff love their products. It reminded me of the early days of the Body Shop – enthusiasm for the product by the retail staff.
There are lots of internal processes, systems ands standards – frankly – none of it is rocket science. What sets them apart is the founders – Angus and Peter – who love what they do and bring the spirit of entrepreneurship to the company.  They are businessmen too and recently floated on AIM (  By holding onto the majority of shares they are not yet subject to ruthless capitalism. Long may it continue!
Cool Milk is a Lincolnshire based business that provides milk through local dairies to about 1 million school children. The magic is in the business model. Although Jon started out in the dairy industry and knows everything you need to know about cows, milking, chilling and distribution, he has created a business that supports the schools to deliver their promise to children. Schools have to order milk, store it, distribute and collect money from the parents or local authorities. It is this set of problems that Cool Milk has chosen to solve leaving the actual dairying to dairies! 
The lesson is to figure out whose problem you really want to solve and what that problem is. Jon obsesses about this question and supports over 100 entrepreneurs through investments in them. But his key question always is what are you doing for your customers.
This in itself is not a new message, but is refreshing is to see someone actually practise it to such an extent that he has built a wonderful business. And his positive energy comes over as he talks about it.
I had asked him to talk about exits – to provoke a statement. He just dodged that bullet by saying he has no intention of an exit from this. But then he has hired a CEO and a Chairman to his company and now is shareholder and general trouble maker with a big smile!
The imagination in Cool Milk is in setting out streamlined systems and continuously improving them so that schools and parents can find it easier and easier to provide milk to children.

As with Hotel Chocolat – there is no rocket science in the operational aspects of the business – both the founders find that mundane and solvable. What they bring is motivation, enthusiasm and spirit to the business. They are happy in their pursuit.