Making the most of mentoring

The results of a six-month mentoring experiment

What can mentoring do for a business? A recent scheme sought to help mentors make a real difference to a handful of companies. Here, we take a look at the results

Jonathan Bramley started transport advertising company In Your Space in 1999 to target a mobile audience with large format high definition truck billboards.

Despite just £2,000 backing from Mum and Grandma, Bramley won business from Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s easyJet, but then didn’t sell anything for months.

The company led a hand-to-mouth existence for a couple of years, battling to win new business in a competitive market, with Bramley always head down on delivering for clients.

It now operates in 10 countries across Europe, turnover is a good seven-figure sum, and it has made a tidy six-figure profit in six of the last eight years.

Bramley credits taking part in the Mentor My Business scheme run by the Courvoisier The Future 500 network as a key recent turning point.

“I hadn’t spent time ‘on’ the business,” he says, “and 80% of revenue was coming via agencies, which was tough last year as advertising budgets plunged.”

Mentor My Business took place over a six-month period from September last year, with six mentors giving up a combined 50 hours of their time to six mentees.

The mentors boasted expertise in a range of disciplines, with the panel containing: investment banker Emmett Kilduff; Stephen Page, chairman of Ortegra, a software incubator for ambitious small businesses; partner of leading law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse and intellectual property specialist David Naylor; James Badgett, founder of The Angel Investment Network; Jonathan Pfahl, managing director of mentoring organisation the Rockstar Group; and Rod Banner, founder of marketing agency Banner Corporation Plc and an active business angel.

Seizing opportunities

Continuing his story, Bramley says “the thing they made me aware of was that licensing the brand was a good route, as there are gaps in the market overseas where a new business looking to enter the marketplace would not have the credibility and experience we have”.

This has already been achieved in Australia and it’s likely he’ll secure a partner in Holland soon. Additionally, and crucially, he has since introduced other media formats, including products specifically targeting the inner city urban audiences, motorways and FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) market.

A deal with Sainsbury’s has enabled Bramley to sell space on the supermarket’s home delivery fleet, with campaigns for Bird’s Eye, Diageo and the rebrand of kitchen towel Plenty (previously known as Bounty).

Equally, companies can place product samples into the shopping of online customers’ bags at a fraction of the cost of traditional sampling methods, ensuring a new coffee brand, for example, reaches the individuals it was intended for.

And Bramley’s making better use of the skillsets at his disposal, using his printing and fitting expertise to manage print at the O2 Arena in London and rebranding Sky’s call centres across the country with its latest product offerings to keep call centre staff up-to-date with the business’  latest developments.

He’s also making other inroads into international opportunities. “Media is now such a globalised industry, so it’s easy to cross borders. The credibility that we’ve built here makes it easy to transcend borders. Rather than just running a TomTom campaign in the UK we can do it in nine countries, returning significantly bigger profits with little extra resource.”

With a client list also boasting the BBC, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Virgin Trains, the business is finally maximising its potential. “The mentors were really good at broadening my focus and giving me the courage of my convictions to explore new opportunities. We’re not so reliant on one product or one market any more,”  he says.

Adding structure

Social marketing agency Livity is another of the businesses and was in fact named the overall winner of the programme for the strides it made.

Started nine years ago and run by Sam Conniff and Michelle Clothier, the social enterprise is a neat twist on the traditional agency. Reminiscent of 1980s children’s show Press Gang, in which a team of journalistic youths created a hard-hitting local newspaper, Livity trains and employs teenagers to create campaigns, content and communities, harnessing brands for the benefit of young people.

It does this for large blue-chip clients such as Penguin and Channel 4, as well as charities and government departments. And there is a magazine produced from offices in Brixton and Whitechapel and created as part of its LIVE Futures programme, which has been backed by central government and works with a range of key partners.

Conniff jokily refers to the first meeting with mentors as  “unrelenting, sharp, scary and professional”. It emerged that the organisation lacked structure, hadn’t pushed hard enough to be ‘paid for their time’ and wasn’t closing big opportunities, such as those in the offing with Coca-Cola, O2 and Google UK.

“The best thing we got out of it was confidence,” he says. “It provided perspectives on our business we hadn’t considered and expertise it would have been impossible to access.”

Livity did win the Coca-Cola, Google UK and O2 deals, appointed a non-executive finance director, took on a more direct ‘slow to hire, quick to fire’ recruitment policy, and Conniff and Clothier have secured their own full-time mentors. Conniff can now rely on Liam Black, former CEO of social enterprise restaurant Fifteen.

Finding cohesion

Shoreditch-based Reprise Music Group’s founder Howard Gray was seeking direction around managing growth. His business offers a full-service model – artist booking agency, PR and events, music publishing, and its own record label. But most of its ideas weren’t being turned into revenue streams. Gray refers to the old incarnation of Reprise as ‘Before Courvoisier – BC’.

It was making just £45 per booking on its roster of 40 artists. Administrative errors were commonplace. And time was stretched unnecessarily.

By the culmination of Mentor My Business, the company had relocated to new offices, merged successfully with a PR agency, increased its roster to 75 acts across a broader range of genres, had increased average bookings to £65, and five months in had eclipsed 2009’s full-year turnover.

It had also put in place systems to take care of admin. Gray puts the transition down to a number of key pieces of advice: cross-sell, up-sell, do any kind of selling; focus on customers and who they actually are; put contracts in place and protect yourselves; understand that revenue shares are nice, equity is nicer; and keep asking questions.

One line in particular struck Gray: “Dispatch competition with weapons of tomorrow I learnt to use yesterday.”  Today the business has acts playing all the major summer festivals, is doing PR for Fatboy Slim, and has surveyed its artists and asked them to recommend Reprise’s services (85% have; 15% said they would).

Monthly accounting has been reduced to four hours, not four days; Gray himself has got his Sundays back, and the company has a gender balance following a recruitment drive. Illustrating the new cohesion, Gray says the progress is analogous to a disjointed football team pre-season being given structure and then furnished with a tactical plan for the following season.

Getting commercial

Finally, you may recall a ‘mad’ inventor on Dragons’ Den three years ago attempting to ‘boil’ an egg with a direct contact heating device. It all went horribly wrong, but James Seddon was able to charm the Dragons and Peter Jones in particular.

The pledged investment didn’t materialise. And despite approaches from John Lewis and Lakeland, the product is still yet to hit the shelves. It’s close though.

At the beginning of the programme, Seddon readily admits to a lack of in-depth understanding of the IT requirement and little idea of how to manage partners. Mentoring tackled these issues, including helping Seddon realise the need to replace his manufacturing partner.

In addition he fleshed out the marketing plan and prepared a plan to seek funding. “I’m much further forward. Had I not been involved with the mentoring group I’d still be in the same place as six months ago.”

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