I’ve been running Reincubate since August 2012, having left Wiggle after its sale to Bridgepoint, the private equity firm. Prior to that, I’d spent a decade as a CTO, helping people get their companies off the ground, raising money, and exploring ideas. Shortly before I left, I recall one of the team asking if I was nervous about taking the double step of my first role as a CEO and "going it alone" with a newco. I was as surprised at being asked the question as he was that I didn't feel the slightest trepidation.
The office got going with two people, as my colleague — and now our CMO — Andy joined me at the start. A year later we filled our little ten man office and moved to the larger berth that we’re in now. Much as I’m rarely satisfied with my own performance, I’m pleased with how we’ve got on building our products and the company. The CEO role has been challenging and stressful, but I’ve spent my career doing things which have challenged me to the point of stress-related illness, and it feels like I am adapted to it. One of the reasons for my starting up was that I wanted to create something bigger and more “right”, and it seems reasonable that taking more responsibility for the things we craft comes with some extra pressure on me. What has been different, though, is the emotional side of the role. I’d read how founder CEOs in particular can find it lonely and difficult to find their way with some decisions, and this has been borne out in my own experience.
Through my time in London I’d built a reasonably good local network of founders, and the start of a network in the bay area in California. They have been of great help, along with two mentors that I’d picked for our advisory board. Even with them, though, I found I was struggling with the role. When one runs and owns a small business, and when one hasn’t raised external funding, there are few people one can really share a dilemma with and get experienced help from. Family and friends are great, but mine, like most people’s, aren’t running tech companies. I spent a lot of time trying to seek out people in the London networking scene, but with little result. One problem I found in particular, is that in London the people who are most vocal about entrepreneurship are usually the least committed to it, and least successful at it. It seems the good ones have their heads down focusing on their businesses. Fair enough.
The Entrepreneurs' Organization
So it was in this position, casting about for experience to help me through some difficult decisions, and seeking some benchmarks of CEO performance and behaviour, that I first read about the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. I spotted it in a magazine article, and I recognised the names of a few past and present members. With a membership of around 60, it was small for London, and with its US English spelling and phrases such as “gestalt”, “forum confidential”, “boldly go" and mention of membership fees I thought it was some kind of American cult. I felt I was in a bind, though, and that I had little to lose by inquiring. After dropping them a note I found myself listening sceptically to an introductory call from a patient member who has since become a good friend. As I later learnt, the organisation is a not-for-profit, and is run by members who volunteer their time to coordinate it.
Whilst my business beat the $1m turnover requirement to join EO, I’d never spent an amount similar to the membership fee on anything, and it felt like a lot of money. I agreed to go along to what was described as a taster event, to meet some members and see what the group was like. This was a month or two after the first call, and on arriving I felt certain that it was just going to be another networking event. I girded myself for the usual London suspects, gassing on about navel-gazing pre-revenue daydreams, trustafarian hobbies and web design stroke barista collectives. But it wasn’t like that.
There were about 40 people at the event, and four of them gave talks that were useful and inspiring. One of them, Karl, talked about his conversion rate optimisation business, which was perfectly on-target for some of the things I was struggling with. Despite that being spot-on, what stood out most was the quality and behaviour of the people there. Of the 40, more than half of them introduced themselves to me in the few hours I was there, and not only were none of them dickish, but none wanted to tell me how much better their businesses were than mine. I saw the value of the $1m turnover threshold to join: humble, credible people with credible businesses, not having anything to prove in terms of their success or the scale of their ventures.
After that introductory event, I joined up and became a member at the very end of 2013. Since then I’ve learnt a lot more about the group, and have been co-opted into helping to organise parts of it in London. Not having seen much written about the Entrepreneurs’ Organization prior to my own joining, I promised myself that I’d take a little time to write about how I came to be a member, what I’ve got from it so far, and to extend an offer to share my thoughts on the group to anyone looking to get past a tricky challenge with their company, or to take their own performance up a level.
What’s it worth?
Having signed up, I was assigned into a forum, a long-term group of 7 other people who meet on a monthly basis to confidentially share the highlights and lowlights of their lives, learning and helping each other through shared experience. They’re not mentors as such, but rather a set of peers with businesses in different industries, picked so that there can’t be a conflict of interest in the group. Having written this down, I can appreciate this sounds a bit fuzzy, but in a forum members share the most personal and difficult issues they face. They are a non-judgemental group that a member can tell anything to, and who are there to support but not direct each other through the challenges and joys they face.
In the short time I’ve been a member, my time in forum has been invaluable to me. I shared a problem I’d been wrestling with on communicating and measuring performance against our strategy whilst juggling the distraction of spinning off part of the company, and the experiences that I heard the other members share around this were useful. Later, as my company started to sell a new product line in a new way, I approached my forum with a knotty business development problem, and two of them took hours out to share their own experiences and best practices with me on Skype.
I wrote earlier about having a need to benchmark my own performance, and with its emphasis on learning I found that EO has set me real implicit and explicit challenges to up my game in running the company. I have become more assertive and much more aware of where I fall short. I feel like an idiot in hindsight, but I noticed early on that I was by far the least well-read of the group when it came to guidance on management, and that I was doing little about it. As a CTO I had considered myself well read, so I pulled my finger out and have got on with my reading!
Over the months I’ve been with EO I’ve had a variety of experiences that I would never have otherwise had, including:
Gaining access to exciting places
- I've been to the UN's general assembly in Geneva for an EO discussion around the power of entrepreneurship
- I’ve been invited to Necker Island with Richard Branson twice (no time to go yet!), and to just about every private members' club in London for events or meetings
- I’ve had dinner at Kensington Palace Gardens with a bunch of EO members from around the world
- I’ve built a network of people around the world in all sorts of industries, who I can reach out to for help or assistance when facing a problem, travelling, or doing diligence on a new partner or deal
- I’ve had the pleasure of reciprocating to help others, hosting a Singaporean software mogul and a Malaysian restaurateur as they visited London, and helped people work through challenges with fundraising and tech
- My staff have gone from teasing me about my "secret EO friend" to asking when forum members might next be in the office, and whether they can talk with them about their own challenges
Business development breakthroughs
I’ve been able to talk with much more experienced entrepreneurs to get their insight when I’ve been stuck on problems, and none of them have remarked on how ignorant I am (I’ve also signed up to EO’s mentorship programme, though I’m yet to start it)
I completed an angel investment in a promising startup after being introduced by an EO member to a compelling entrepreneur who has strengths where I am weakest
- I got to meet and talk with Alexander Osterwalder about his business development canvas about a fortnight after first reading of it
- I’ve become a much better listener; being better able to fully listen to others’ experiences without rushing to give advice myself, and I’ve found this useful in coaching my own team
- I’ve learnt that many of the challenges I’ve faced which aren’t commonly discussed are shared by other entrepreneurs, and that in the right context and in confidence they are happy to share what they have learnt and done
- I’ve been on a media training course and been given a tour of BBC by a former newsreader
Hopefully, my having written this will be of some use to other entrepreneurs in weighing up what to do next, and whether the Entrepreneurs’ Organization might be right for them. I’m always interested to hear about new companies in London and can find time to talk if they reach out to me. There’s quite a bit of information published on the global Entrepreneurs’ Organization site, and we have a smaller site for the UK chapter. Being the avowed sceptic that I usually am, there are a few things that I wasn’t immediately aware of about EO when I first found it, and they might be of interest when evaluating it:
- It's a not-for-profit organisation, and whilst membership isn’t cheap, dues are ultimately spent to benefit member learning and events
- The organisation is largely run by volunteer members who do so for the extra exposure and connections they can build as a result
- Pitching or sales between members is forbidden; it is a learning rather than a sales-y environment
- Whilst UK member turnover ranges from around £1m to £500m, they are a grounded, heads-down bunch, and are not flash or showy
- It’s not all men! 20% of the UK chapter’s members are women, as are the current and former presidents
- EO stages bi-annual learning events called “universities” around the world, where upwards of several hundred members come together to learn for a few days at a time
- Members are well connected with a global directory, private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and they can reach out when travelling or doing business somewhere new to be hooked up with what they need to know