Coaching is key to the success of the work of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, a not-for-profit which ‘incubates’ entrepreneurs. Linda Aspey reports
The UK economy has been edging towards a healthy state – employment is at its highest since 1971 and wages are on the increase. This is due largely to the hard work of the 5+ million small businesses in the UK, which in 2017 generated 60% of private sector employment and contributed £1.9 trillion to the economy1.
What these small businesses have in common is that they began with people who are, or wish to be, entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs have a unique ability to turn opportunities and dreams into reality. They are driven by unwavering self-determination and ambition. But taking this from idea to reality requires additional skills, knowledge and experience, which some feel they lack.
Inexperience or lack of insight can be the downfall of an early stage business and is one of the reasons why more than 50% of new businesses fail in their first three years2. By providing easier access to skills training, coaching and networking opportunities early in an entrepreneur’s journey, they can feel empowered to make the moves needed to grow their business.
This is why the work of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF) is so vital to the nurturing of young entrepreneurial talent and the future of the UK economy. This non-profit powerhouse runs the country’s leading entrepreneur development programme, which provides smart young people with the hands-on workplace experience, formal training, mentoring, confidence and connections required to become successful entrepreneurs.
NEF supports the talent who will build tomorrow’s startups. It has a unique ability to spot talent and potential among young people. Each year NEF opens up applications to young aspiring entrepreneurs and seeks out applicants who show curiosity, determination, resilience, positivity, influence, initiative, humility, commercial awareness and willingness to take risks.
Over the past five years, the number of applicants has grown steadily as more young people choose entrepreneurship over the traditional corporate ladder. The 2018/19 cohort is the largest to date with almost
50 participants who were selected from nearly 600 applicants.
The organisation recruits participants for whom the programme will make a big impact, so established entrepreneurs must have something unique to merit a place. As Neeta Patel, NEF CEO, says, “We focus on incubating and accelerating the person, not the business. We want a diverse range of people who bring something unique to their respective cohort because the power of the NEF programme is the collaboration of the cohort.”
The NEF learning programme delivers around 25 learning days annually and is reviewed and updated each year to reflect current thinking and trends. The ‘NEFers’, as programme participants are called, attend these as well as networking, mentoring and coaching meetings, and develop their business idea. Each cohort starts the year-long programme with a three-day boot camp and ends with investor ‘pitch’ days in June, where investors and other potential supporters assess venture ideas and pitches.
The NEF Programme
The NEF coaching programme (developed and led by myself, Linda Aspey), brings together a pool of talented coaches whose skills can help each cohort member. When young people come to NEF they often have little or no experience of coaching. Their fast, bright minds don’t yet see the value of having time to think, so NEF’s team weave in thinking, listening and reflection skills exercises throughout the boot camp. When this is continued in their coaching, they quickly appreciate its significance in their development.
NEF alumni often view their experiences of the programme as: “riveting”, “exciting”, “exhilarating”,
“a once in a lifetime opportunity”, “exhausting”, “full on”, “life changing”.
When building NEF’s coaching platform, this feedback heavily influenced the type of coaches that would be recruited. As a Thinking Environment® (Time to Think) specialist, I felt that approaches and coaches that resonated with Thinking Environment® principles (such as being non-directive, attentive, easeful, encouraging, egalitarian) would best suit NEF participants. With so much information and advice, NEF believes each coach should provide a reflective, restorative and generative space where the entrepreneur could think for themselves. It has become something many NEFers now see great value in.
Roger Rawlinson, a NEF coach since 2016, says, “My NEFers never seem to get over their surprise that someone wants to listen to them for a protracted period without judging them, putting them right or giving them advice. Generally, their heads are so full of new stuff as well as all the normal millennial fears and anxieties, that an opportunity to get some order into it all is very welcome.”
Each of NEF’s 50 coaches donates their time and expertise pro bono (12 hours over the academic year) but it is important that NEFers are assured that their coaches are ably skilled and professional so we have rigorous recruitment standards. Naturally, entrepreneurs are individuals too, and they don’t all fit the stereotype that often comes to mind. However coaching entrepreneurs can be quite different from coaching line managers or executives in large, established entities. Their approach to risks and decisions, authority, personal agency and making a wider impact, for example, can be quite different.
As Meg Peppin, NEF coach says, “I think there is a greater awareness of the world, and they don’t view themselves as money makers in their entrepreneurism; but of creating exciting products, achieving as a person and making social change.”
Young entrepreneurs are rarely compliant and often convinced, particularly at the start of the year, that their ideas are infallible. That can be challenging for the coach who wants to be encouraging yet has concerns that they might be about to err in some way.
Rose Gledhill, another NEF coach, agrees: “It is tricky sometimes to ‘stay with the not knowing’ and to take time to explore the whole issue before working on options for future actions. That’s a great discipline for me in my coaching practice. I also must be wary of the temptation to be like a parent to the NEFer. That requires the relationship to start off and stay firmly on a professional footing.”
“As a coach I don’t often get the opportunity to coach this age bracket so to have insight into them is hugely helpful. My experience of them is of altruistic people and I am excited by their generation; I think they will take care of our world and make it a better place,” adds coach Victoria Macpherson.
NEF coaches are regularly invited to NEF’s speaker-based and work-social events and an annual CPD day – this year’s topic was ‘Mental Health and Coaching’. I work closely with Véronique Rapetti, programme director – learning and partnerships at NEF, and we contract with coaches and NEFers alike about what to do and who to talk to if they have any concerns
(all coaches are in supervision).
So far, when issues have arisen, we’ve been able to manage situations relatively smoothly. Although NEF does not offer therapy, several of our coaches are qualified therapists so the NEFers know they can request a coach with that particular area of expertise. The coaching contract is between the coach and the NEFer – NEF acts as the introducer – and our duty of care policies are regularly reviewed.
When matching NEFers and coaches, Véronique and I meet all parties before or at the start of the programme. This way we have a good idea of who will work well together; we draw on common sense and intuition for matching. Developing trust is important to the NEFers. Caitlin Robbins, NEF class of 2018 reflects: “Richard [Spence], my NEF coach, provided me with a safe environment to explore my priorities with my startup, and in finding answers to personal life questions. I was a bit stuck personally before meeting him, but with him by my side I have grown in confidence. I am grateful for how he continually serves as a believing mirror to me.”
Most NEFers choose to focus their coaching sessions on juggling commitments and responsibilities, exploring what kind of business they want to start, what their values are, the relationship dynamics of their host company and NEF cohort, and pressures (externally or self-generated) to do well. The NEFers have a strong history of success (some have limited experience of setbacks) which can amplify the pressure to continue to be successful.
Does it work?
Since its launch in 2011, NEF has helped nearly 200 young entrepreneurs, who have gone on to launch 92 new businesses, create over 1,000 new jobs and raise more than £27 million in early stage funding.
One of the first NEFers in the inaugural class of 2012 was Mike Bandar, an award-winning serial entrepreneur and founder of Hopper HQ, a social media scheduling tool, and of Turn Partners, a start-up and investment studio for digital businesses. As Mike says, “The NEF experience has so many factors and edges that make it an incredibly valuable programme and community.” He now contributes to the learning programme, delivering workshops that provide NEFers with the vital know-how to succeed in business.
Charlotte Pearce, NEF class of 2015, co-founded Inkpact. With the help of tech whizz friend and fellow NEFer, Andrew Martin, her idea went from a lifestyle business to thriving venture now employing five people (including one NEF alumnus). Their corporate clients can upload personalised messages (to clients or employees) onto a platform; Inkpact’s pool of ‘Scribes’ turn them into beautifully handwritten notes, letters and invitations. Charlotte was listed in Forbes’ 2017: ‘30 under 30 Europe: Technology’.
Ari Ratnakumar, NEF class of 2014, is co-founder and CFO of Wiser, a group of recruitment and creative companies. Wiser now has revenues of £4m+ and a 57-person strong team. Ari says, “NEF provided an incredible network which helped me to start my business, including clients, investors and advisors; I am still in touch with a lot of people from my cohort or other cohorts. It’s an incredible community for young entrepreneurs.” Wiser was ranked 2nd in the Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For 2018.
Alex Somervell, NEF class of 2016, appeared on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den with his co-founder Jonny Pryn. They pitched their educational children’s books company, One Third Stories, to the panel. Peter Jones was sufficiently impressed to offer £60,000 for a 20% share; they declined the offer as it would put his share above that of existing investors. One Third Stories is now worth a reported £2.64 million – eight times the amount Peter Jones valued it at!
And the future?
Last November, NEF joined forces with entrepreneurship thinktank, The Centre for Entrepreneurs, to create a not-for-profit ‘entrepreneurship powerhouse’ in the UK. This exciting step aims to train the next generation of social and business leaders, deliver research to identify gaps in support and input into UK government entrepreneurial policy.
I feel privileged to be so closely involved with this wonderful initiative, knowing that our coaching approach is meeting their needs and the NEF and its alumni are making a difference.
1 UK small business statistics: bit.ly/2sEZImA
2 Why do 50% of start-ups in the UK fail? bit.ly/2xKzsNw