The leadership and vision of a passionate and skillful founder are key to the long-term success of any UK start-up. However, as these firms become increasingly complex, a point will inevitably come where business leaders with in-depth sector and management experience must be brought in to support operations while still pursuing growth.
Every business is unique though. There is no set time for bringing in expert help. Nor is there a set position that such a person should hold. Here, we look at three firms backed by Pembroke which have incorporated the skills of these so-called industry “silverbacks” to maximise their chances of becoming a large-scale player while maintaining, or even enhancing, their founding cultures.
When searching for investment opportunities, we scan Britain’s pool of small enterprises for critical traits like an established brand, a disruptive and flexible business model, and existing revenues. However, of equal importance to these operational characteristics is the leadership of an exceptional company founder.
Starting any business is a complicated process fraught with uncertainty and daily challenges. Often, it is only the sheer drive and passion of a founder that can see a firm emerge from this period successfully.
As firms grow, they inevitably become more complex to run. Customer and staff numbers increase, product ranges widen, and job roles become more defined. At some point, even the most passionate founder will be unable to dedicate the time needed in every operational area to maximise overall business growth and realise their vision. When this occurs, the need to take on additional staff with deep experience in a specific sector or area of financial or operational management becomes apparent.
Although essential, the addition of industry veterans can present an existential crisis to the founder of any organisation. After years of dedication and personal sacrifice conceiving and nurturing a vision, the idea of sharing its development and direction often triggers concerns over lost control and compromised culture. Unfortunately, these fears can cloud a founder’s acknowledgement of how much the long-term success of their firm relies on a widening range of expert skills.
With growth comes complexity. Given this, it is inevitable that founders cannot shoulder all responsibilities. Choosing who they do share this with though, comes down to appraising skill and, equally importantly, whether that person, or persons, have the shared vision and the personality to take the business to greater heights.
Over the years, several of the start-ups we have backed at Pembroke reached a point where they needed to bring in expert help to maximise future success. Fortunately, the founders of these organisations made the first step in recognising the need to take on specialist support in every instance.
Popsa – bringing in expert help early on
Popsa uses technology to disrupt the process of making photo albums – a £5bn global industry despite traditionally being a laborious task. Under founders Liam Houghton and Tom Cohen, the start-up’s AI technology has cut the time taken to design and print a photo album from many hours to an average of just six minutes using your phone, and they are working on removing even this time requirement completely with the help of machine-learning.
Houghton recognised from the outset that Popsa would need to guarantee that it could produce and deliver its printed products at scale at the same time he focused the company on developing cutting-edge data science. Since being founded in 2016, the start-up has snowballed across the world with over 15 million photos printed in the last year, exporting the vast majority outside of the UK. To ensure that customers consistently receive high quality products he hired Declan Mellett.
Mellet, who joined as Popsa’s chairman and commercial director, has spent over 25 years in the digital print world. His expert help in managing manufacturing requirements at large volumes and international teams across complex organisations has ensured that Popsa is fit for growth and has already significantly accelerated its development.
Since joining, Mellet has helped the company’s tech and design teams to surpass ambitious growth targets for three consecutive years.
ME+EM – establishing shared roles
Contemporary womenswear brand, ME + EM, founded by Clare Hornby in 2009, designs and produces quality clothes and accessories at an affordable price.
Since starting out as an online-only retailer, the company now has five boutiques in central London and two concessions in Selfridges. Given its rate of growth, Hornby recognised the need to bring in additional expertise to enable her to devote enough time to developing the brand and managing product development.
In March 2018 Phil Mickler, a 20-year veteran of the retail industry, joined as commercial director. Having worked at Diesel and Whistles, Phil supported Hornby by ensuring that ME + EM could build on its growth both operationally and financially.
Now ME + EM wants to expand internationally and so has hired Ciaran McClellan as customer director because of his experience in helping UK businesses expand into the US.
Boat International – bringing in executive chairman
Boat International is the global authority in superyachting, celebrating the yachts and the life which comes with them. The company publishes the world’s magazines and luxury books, organises events and provide digital media services and data to owners and professionals in the superyacht industry.
In February 2019, the company appointed publishing veteran John Paton as executive chairman. Given the incredible pace of change in publishing, it was felt that a deeply experienced person was needed to work hand-in-hand with co-CEOs, Tony Euden and Toby Moore. Paton brings over 30 years’ experience and relationships in newspapers and online media in the US, Canada and Europe and serves as a strong pair of hands on the tiller (pun intended).
Andrew Wolfson is CEO of Pembroke Investment Managers LLP