Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Insights and Inspiration at Accelerate 2013

I recently had the privilege of hearing some of the best known business leaders in the UK and beyond speak in person at Accelerate 2013 event in Liverpool. Their inspirational stories reinforced just how exciting and how challenging it is to be an entrepreneur.

Accelerate was the first event of its kind aimed at potential high growth businesses across all sectors. The event recognised that in the future the majority of new job creation in the UK is likely to come from the small business sector and so the SME sector is rightly attracting the support and encouragement which it has probably deserved for some time.

One of the recurring themes of the day was the tenacity needed to be an entrepreneur, especially in the face of repeated setbacks and even failures. This was amplified by the first keynote speaker of the day, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. 

Wales enthralled the audience with his down to earth and brutally honest account of his numerous business failures before he hit it big with Wikipedia and only then almost by accident. In a follow up fireside chat with BBC economics editor Robert Peston, Jimmy gave even more valuable advice to entrepreneurs such as 'learn to fail fast'. Obviously you should be committed to your new business start up idea and try and overcome challenges but when the writing is on the wall or circumstances conspire to defeat you, recognise this fact, extricate yourself, learn from the experience then move on. It's a lesson I wish I had followed myself many years ago when trying to launch an innovative online venture that proved just a little too innovative for its time! One business failure later and I felt the pain the pain of getting in too deep to my cost. However Jimmy Wales' final utterance made me feel a little better; "real entrepreneurs fail".

The mood turned to a more positive one however with the next speaker, Doug Richards formerly of Dragon's Den and now of School for StartUps. Doug told an amusing anecdote about doing a lucrative deal for IT equipment in his early days as an entrepreneur based purely on opportunism, chutzpah and a can-do attitude. His advice to the audience was to 'always say yes'. You never know where it could lead you.

Again this advice rang true personally. My current start up Simply Lawyers came about from an innocent phone call from a business contact asking if I fancied meeting up with some legal guys with a clever idea and wanted to talk to someone who knew about SEO. I could so easily have declined such an ambiguous request as a potential waste of time, but of course I said Yes!

Martha Lane Fox formerly of and recently digital advisor to government spoke passionately about how the Internet creates opportunities and breaks down traditional business barriers, especially through the use of social media. In short it's never been easier to be an entrepreneur thanks to easier access to information, contacts, funders and markets.

Then a more traditional approach to business was reflected by veteran politician Lord Young who had served in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet and was now acting as a small business champion within the current government. His talk was actually surprisingly up to date and instilled something of a feel good factor in the hall - it's both uncommon and pleasant to be told just how important your efforts as an entrepreneur are to the economy and the UK.

This political veteran was followed by a military veteran, General Sir Mike Jackson former head of the British Army. He growled his way through some pithy and succinct advice on leadership, with one of the most important points being the need to ensure everyone in the organisation knows what the aims of the mission are, from general to private soldier.

We'll skip over the senior executive from Ryan Air whose contempt for keeping to the strict timings for the event amply reflected the attitude of his airline to its customers, which were spoken of as a commodity and a statistic. His talk gave evidence of Ryan Air's rapid and impressive growth but was sketchy on the details of how this was achieved.

Luckily Lord Bilimoria of Cobra Beer was on hand to bring some dignity to the proceedings. I had recently watched a BBC interview between Peter Jones and Lord Bilimoria so was keenly anticipating his talk and wasn't to be disappointed. His measured tone and delivery combined with his obvious passion and gut wrenching honesty to deliver a talk during which you could hear the proverbial pin drop. He implored us to retain integrity in everything we do in business, and spoke movingly of his own personal failures and challenges.

I was lucky enough to hear Lord Bilimoria speak again later in the day during a breakout session and grabbed the opportunity to ask him a direct question. He had been speaking about the importance of your team and so what, I asked him, was the secret to forming and leading a good team? His answer was to recruit your team based on attitude and not skills. A passionate and motivated employee can be taught new skills even if they don't have much experience, whereas its harder to motivate a skilled employee lacking that spark.

It's an approach I think I have always followed, hiring on potential and attitude, not length of CV. Of course that's not just because of a shortage of experienced SEO or content people at a local level, but a can-do positive attitude can certainly help contribute to the constant learning and reinvention needed in the constantly changing digital marketing field.

So in summary a very long and tiring day but a great one, which proved the value of getting out of the office and absorbing the experiences of others every once in a while.
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