‘Entrepreneurs need to get out into their market and talk to customers’

24 Aug 2021

Image: Anna-Lisa Wesley

Start-up adviser Anna-Lisa Wesley discusses why founders need to put themselves out there to ‘learn the hard lessons’ and how there are opportunities with the ‘magical combination’ of material and digital.

In roles at Deloitte and Accenture, Anna-Lisa Wesley spent almost 20 years working on change programmes for organisations in the UK.

She then shifted her focus to start-up mentoring, co-founding advisory firm Sapphire & Steel and taking on mentorship positions with programmes such as Techstars. She was recently appointed as entrepreneur in residence at SETsquared Bristol – the University of Bristol’s tech incubator.

‘The customer is the critical ingredient to a start-up starting up, scaling up and keeping up’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m one of two founding partners of start-up advisory Sapphire & Steel. We’ve got a portfolio of start-ups across the clean-tech, fintech and social impact sectors where, along with my business partner, I invest in, chair and advise boards and founder teams.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

The intersection between materials science and digital technologies has grabbed my attention.

Founders operating here are solving some of society’s biggest issues – haptics technology to help people to participate in society fully, femtech to address lifestyle inequalities, clean-tech electrochemical systems to reduce the cost of renewable energy solutions. All have that magical combination of material and digital.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Many founders I’ve had the privilege to work with would identify as being neurodiverse. It appears to me that the skills they were born with and their often negative experience of the world sets them apart in being able to notice, redesign and change things.

I absolutely believe entrepreneurs can be made, but I do think they need to have had a formative personal experience to trigger that level of curiosity and drive.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Mission-minded and absolutely pragmatic in pursuit of their goals.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Get out into their market and talk to customers. Founders are scared to talk to customers. They are scared they’ll reveal they know less. Scared their solution doesn’t solve the problem. Scared that they’ll burn bridges.

Life as a founder can feel tremendously exposed and yet you have to put yourself out there to learn the hard lessons. All our advisory is market-led for this reason.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your personal arsenal?

I was taught many years ago how to have coaching conversations and I use this every day.

You first establish a rapport, then understand the ambition of the person on the other side of the table, and start to press them on their frustrations. Only then should you start to explore what can be done about it, and what you can do together.

How do you assemble a good team?

Understand the mission. Understand the secret sauce. These two things make the culture of the business. Then it’s a case of rationally identifying skill gaps in delivery and crafting job descriptions.

Don’t forget – take the exact same approach when designing your board.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

The customer is the critical ingredient to a start-up starting up, scaling up and keeping up!

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

I said that great founders are mission-minded and pragmatic. The biggest mistakes seem to come when you eschew your mission for short-term tactics or fail to develop tactics to deliver on your mission. It’s a tough line to walk but that tension drives you in the right direction.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Mentorship has been life-changing for me. I was a management consultant to business leaders in much larger businesses. Working with start-ups as a mentor gave me the chance to dig deep to solve problems live, rather than offering safe advice.

I’ll always be thankful to founders for giving me that opportunity to develop and learn. If your mentor says they are there to ‘pay it forward’, alarm bells should ring. A good test is, can they add value to you in five minutes?

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Keep control of your business. My business partner and I are devoted to helping founders do this.

This includes simple things: a deep connection with your customer; aligning your product, commercial and investment roadmaps; and – so often overlooked – strong governance. I’ve learned a great deal about this last point from other entrepreneurs in residence at SETsquared.

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