Sophie McBain hears how the hatcheries of the not-for-profit business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark are helping to nurture nascent businesses across Scotland
Sophie McBain hears how the ‘hatcheries’ of the not-for-profit business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark are helping to nurture nascent businesses across Scotland
Sir Tom Hunter
The Hunter Foundation
My dad was a grocer in a mining village in Scotland. He did a lot to put money back into the community from which he was earning a living, and that provided an early example for me.
While I was building up my company, Sports Division, and as the company’s profile increased, people would write in with heartbreaking stories. We did what we could, but we never knew if these things really helped make a lasting difference.
My dad said to me, ‘You don’t sit here in your business life and react to what people want you to do — you set out what you want to do. So why don’t you do the same with your philanthropy?’ In 1998, when I sold Sports Division for £292 million, I set up the Hunter Foundation and spent about three years educating myself on what I wanted to do.
In 2007 I pledged to give £1 billion to charity in my lifetime. My wife and I decided we didn’t want to leave our kids great wealth, and when it comes to the fun we could have with that money, let me tell you this: once you find something that really works in a foundation, it’s the best fun you can have.
I don’t like to use the word ‘charity’ much because I believe people don’t need a hand-out, they need a hand up. When Jim Duffy came to me with his idea of Entrepreneurial Spark, it struck a chord with me because it was something that helps people help themselves.
It’s great having Entrepreneurial Spark’s hatcheries in my West Coast Capital building. I make a point of going to see the entrepreneurs often, because I’m so interested in what they are doing — these are people who’ve pretty much been sitting in their bedroom alone trying to overcome business challenges they felt no one else has ever faced. Now they’re not alone any more — they’ve got fantastic mentoring and help. I love trying to help people to get their business going, and seeing them create jobs for others and get the economy moving.
I’d love to see Entrepreneurial Spark’s hatcheries spread to Inverness and Aberdeen so it covers the whole of Scotland, and through that we could measure how many businesses have been successful, how many jobs have been created, and what the effect has been on the Scottish economy. That would be a great lasting impact for me. Scotland’s been very good to me, and so I want to put something back in.
CEO of Entrepreneurial Spark
I’ve had some good experiences in business, starting up a car valeting company, and some bad experiences. In 2009 I went to the US as a Saltire Fellow and spent four months at Babson College, a leading business school. When I returned to Scotland, I realised the whole entrepreneurship ecosystem, the landscape of support, funding, angel investors and venture capital was disjointed, and there was a better way of doing it.
I spent nine months researching before crafting Entrepreneurial Spark. I decided the best way to support entrepreneurs was through ‘hatcheries’ — these focus on the entrepreneurs’ mindset and behaviour rather than only their business proposition.
When the entrepreneurs come into the hatchery they are assigned a ‘permanent enabler’ (mentor). We then help them develop their business targets, and every two weeks we sit with them to see how they’re doing. They also have group support events every month, and every six weeks we have an ‘Acceler-8’ weekend, which is a full weekend of training. It’s very intensive.
It can have an amazing effect. We had one entrepreneur who set up a company called Early Bird Social Media. When she first came into the hatchery she couldn’t talk in a small group without shaking. Six months later, she received a six-figure contract to assist a council with social media, and she delivered a perfect one-minute pitch to 370 people.
I had originally designed the model as a private enterprise that would generate profit for shareholders, but as soon as I switched it to a non-profit social enterprise it really took off. We opened our first hatchery in Glasgow in January 2012 and now have two more in Ayrshire and Edinburgh.
Our Ayrshire hatchery is hosted by Tom, in his West Coast Capital office. I visited him while I was doing my initial research. After seeing my business plan, he put some seed money into the project and other philanthropic entrepreneurs started following.
I suppose you could say that for people like Tom it’s easier just to write a cheque. But putting his name on the door of a hatchery and hosting 44 start-up businesses with all the hassle that can bring — that’s a big ask. Having someone support us in this way has given us huge credibility. It’s thanks to him that we’ve been able to scale up so quickly.
This cause is really important to him as a philanthropic entrepreneur — I can tell he really wants to stimulate economic development in his local area. Tonight he’s speaking to 150 people at a masterclass. He could be sitting at home in his slippers and watching EastEnders, but he’s always out inspiring people.
I think as entrepreneurs, Tom and I share a no-bullshit mentality. If I’m sitting with Tom, we can just talk through what needs to be done and how to do it, rather than obsessing about the politics. As he’s said to me in many an email: ‘Just crack on.’ And that’s what I’m doing. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, working with people who are really positive and who want to grow their own businesses.