‘A founder needs to be very self-aware – not everyone would make a good CEO’

3 Mar 2020

Helena Deane. Image: WestBIC

WestBIC’s Helena Deane discusses what she has learned from working with start-ups, and why market research is the critical ingredient for success.

Helena Deane is an entrepreneurship and innovation expert with more than 20 years’ experience in international markets and disruptive technologies.

She currently works with the WestBIC business and innovation centre as project executive and head of the Horizon 2020 European projects unit.

Deane helps to mentor entrepreneurs in the areas of commercialisation, strategic planning for growth, maximising access to finance, evaluation of risk and investment readiness. She promotes and supports innovation and investment in SMEs, looking particularly at the ICT, medtech, marine economy, renewable energy, nanomaterials and advanced materials sectors.

‘One of the main reasons for the high rate of start-up failure is a lack of proper management’

Describe your role and what you do.

I work with ‘born-global’ R&D-orientated SMEs, as well as high-potential start-ups (HPSUs), supporting them in their commercialisation, internationalisation, growth and funding strategies. This may take the form of hands-on mentoring, as well as provision of detailed and intensive technical support.

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

I continue to witness the digital technologies permeating virtually every sector and influencing every science application. While advanced in some areas, there is still a huge scope of progress and development in areas such as agritech and food tech, as an example. I anticipate we will continue to see the existing boundaries of what is possible being pushed out further with many new business models, products and services yet to be conceived in parallel to new digital advances.

In terms of exciting new markets, space is definitely the one to watch and the one where I expect most extreme innovation to happen as it moves to become the next commercial frontier – it is already valued at more than $250bn and is estimated to reach $1trn by 2040.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

In my experience, either can be the case – I think each comes with a certain set of strength and challenges.

People with a strong entrepreneurial instinct tend to be, on balance, more prepared to take risks, which can have its advantages. But also, if you are willing to learn and absorb, you can develop strong entrepreneurial skills. I don’t think one size fits all.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

A founder needs to be very self-aware. It is important that you are real and honest to yourself about where your strengths and capabilities lie, as opposed to weaknesses and limitations. Be realistic about what your best contribution to the business would be, and in what capacity are you the greatest asset to the company.

Not every founder would make a good CEO – one of the main reasons for the high rate of start-up failure is a lack of proper management. A good founder does not ignore anything and acts with agility when they identify a gap in skills, expertise, capability or knowledge.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Never spend too much time focusing on just one aspect of your business or idea. Ensure that you do a quick mental check on every key area every day to identify what actions need to be taken.

When you are starting a business, all parts need to be fully functional and strategically lined up. That requires continuous focus and benchmarking of progress.

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

I am a big fan of the Adobe suite of products in terms of dealing with a lot of information and documents, and producing a well-presented, multi-faceted report or even a funding proposal.

And, I hate to say it, Google! I usually have anywhere between 40 to 50 tabs open, researching and assimilating information. Being up to date and having a finger on the pulse of what is happening in the start-up world, with technologies and the markets, is a must in my job and I spend a lot of time researching and reading.

How do you assemble a good team?

I think it is important to start thinking about company culture very early on. It is a very competitive job market out there and to attract the right type of talent you need to be able to offer more than a good salary.

People are attracted to companies with a strong vision and who are very clear for what principles they stand and where they are going with their ambition. Increasingly, companies who have a strong social and ethical compass, offering something that inspires and can be aspired to, are coming out on top with strong teams.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Market research, market research, market research. Start talking to prospective customers early and talk to them continuously. I have seen countless product ideas developed to quite a mature stage to only then be put in front of the prospective customers, ending in disaster – having to basically tear it up and start again because key customer criteria were missed.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Not having a clear strategy and road map. A lot of founders are reactive and have no clear path chartered in front of them – this can lead to many bad decisions and U-turns.

When you have a clear strategy and vision, you are able to distinguish what is noise and what needs to be filtered out, and what is relevant and need to be acted upon. The how is easy if you have the why.

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

I think having mentors and role models is important. On every founder’s journey there is always an element of having to fill a knowledge gap – a learning curve. A mentor can be invaluable in pointing out pitfalls and opportunities, and advising on a course of action that would organically happen much slower or wouldn’t happen at all.

A good mentor should also be a good listener and act as a sounding board. Being a founder can be stressful, isolating and burdensome, so sometimes the mentoring can be just about helping the founder stay on the course and keep their eye on the ball.

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

Be agile and don’t take anything for granted. The technologies and markets are extremely fast moving and you need to think two steps ahead at all times. You have to be looking outward as much as inward when trying to grow and scale the business, identifying opportunities and challenges as early as possible.

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