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What I learned from co-founding StartUp Britain

Co-founder and columnist Oli Barrett reflects on the past three years since the start-up campaign was conceived

What do you get if you cross a curry with a handful of sweets, ice-cream, pizza dough and a peppermint tea? Apart from feeling full, and bit sick?

I ponder this question as I sit listening to a group of founders pitching their wares to buyers from a well-known supermarket.

“You’ve got a problem,” one colleague tells her boss. He nods. He had agreed to give one of the budding entrepreneurs a shot. Now, he loves pretty much all of them.

Rewind to the previous year. Tuesday in Telford. I’m chatting to a teacher and we’re standing beside a tour bus, full of students. Something is wrong. For the first time ever, she has recently said goodbye to her sixth-form pupils. None of them, not a single one, had a job to go to.

Now we’re in London, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. I’m doing some last minute Christmas shopping and the range of products on offer, from sunglasses to hip-flasks is first class. Strange to think that, two years ago, none of the 10 retailers in the shop existed.

This month we announced that StartUp Britain, the campaign which I helped to launch, is to be taken on by the Centre for Entrepreneurs. Also that PopUp Britain (the retail arm) will be taken on by national charity ATCM.

In its first three years, StartUp Britain toured the country to 60 locations, hosted events for thousands of people, opened 12 shops with 350 tenants and, I hope, helped a large number of people, often in small ways.

The announcement is good news, because it means that more people will be supported in the years to come. I have hundreds of memories, many of them shared with co-founders Emma Jones, Michael Hayman, Rajeeb Dey, Duncan Cheatle, Jamie Murray Wells, Lara Morgan and Richard O’Connor.

Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. Just do it. Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time. I can relate to at least half of this, having launched StartUp Britain with precious little time, and precious little plan. We were, thanks to Lord Young, offered the opportunity to launch something, supported by the prime minister. We were asked if we wanted to play, or pass. We had less than a month. We did not pass.
  2. Find a force of nature to deliver. Co-founder Emma Jones is upbeat, relentless and effective. Exactly the kind of person you want (and I would argue need) to have on-board if you’re going to make something happen. It’s all very well bringing people together and having ideas – what’s needed is someone to put those ideas into action. Emma did that, and recruited an all-star team (including Jamie Williams, Lorna Bladen, Becky Jones, Remy Jansons, Katie James and Liz Slee) to work alongside her.
  3. Government can be a positive partner for business. Rather than becoming bogged down in bureaucracy, or obsessed by funding, I’d encourage people to think more laterally about how this relationship can work. We were interested in the power of government to convene people (by hosting events), to direct attention (by linking from existing sites) and by the power of attribution. We agreed a form of words to say that we were supported by government and this helped us to gain traction with supporters in big business.
  4. Accept criticism. It can be easy to get dispirited by early-stage criticism, which can be fuelled by a few things. People may wonder why you have not involved them, or why you are doing something they are already doing. Likewise, the criticism may be entirely justified. We made some early mistakes. My favourite hashtag remains the one spotted on day one, contained in a single tweet. Each of the founders’ names – followed by the simple demand… Deport Them All.
  5. Big companies want to help small ones – they just need the right ‘hook’. A catchy enough idea which will capture the imagination of their colleagues, customers or clients. For Sainsbury’s it was PitchUp – an idea for start-ups to pitch to them at their HQ and have a morning full of advice, including from one of the founders of Innocent Drinks. For the Crown Estate it was PopUp Britain, with a new cohort of 10 retail start-ups every week, in a prime location. It helps enormously to have backers who are in it for the long term. A special mention here for Intuit, PayPal, Iris, BT, Axa and Dell.
  6. Be resourceful. Between us, no matter what the challenge, we have all the ingredients we need to succeed. As William Gibson observed; “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” He was right, and the same idea applies to starting businesses. That is why some of the most useful people are the most resourceful or the best at making connections.
  7. Finally. You may need a range of people to build an organisation. From the detailed deliverer to the project manager, the paying customer and the trusted advisor.

That said, you still need the person or people with a ready supply of bold ideas, blank sheets of paper, table napkins and backs of envelopes. Next time you find yourself with an idea, a cause, and not quite enough time, I hope that you decide to play.

StartUp Britain and PopUp Britain continue, through the ATCM and the team, including Luke Johnson, Matt Smith, Robert Kelsey, Scott Craig and Skye Robertson at the Centre for Entrepreneurs


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