Episode 3: Growing a Business in Cornwall

Featuring Andrew Farmer & Meredydd Jones

In this episode, Andrew Farmer and Meredydd Jones talk about some of the issues faced by some when trying to start a business in Cornwall, as well as the county’s rich history of innovation and the wealth of resources available to start-ups and SMEs alike.

Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“The first thing that’s a challenge is that you’ve got two Welshman talking about Cornish business, which is probably never a good sign… I can tell one or two people have switched off already. Please hang on, please hang on. It’ll get better, I promise.”

“But there’s a common theme between the Welsh and the Cornish: all Celts at heart. And we share a number of common themes in our history as well. Not only historical, but on industry and business development. So there’s a lot of benefits here.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I think one of the things that really surprised me over the last sort of 10 plus years working with in Cornwall is there is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship. And I think, you know, people talk about the gig economy and having a portfolio of jobs.”

“The Cornish have been doing that forever. And some of that’s necessity, some of that sort of need, but what’s really behind it is that people don’t want to sit in their hands that they want to go out and make living really.”

“And also it gives them an element of control in their destiny. And if we, in the form of coaching can support those entrepreneurs to move their business in a manner which will make returns and provide a sustainable business and help those of all succession etc. It’ll put some real solid businesses on the ground here, which will continue for subsequent generations. And that’s not unique in Cornwall.”

“And people often say that there are specific issues down here in Cornwall. Yes, there are, we acknowledge them. But as far as business is concerned, they are phenomenal opportunities here, which, for example, our presence on the ground here, we can help with coaching, access to funding etc. And it’s this is aspect of, you know, yes, there’s many forms of funding support here, but funding on its own would help those businesses.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I think you’ve got to look at what you start with. And, it’s easy to sort of think of the beautiful landscape that we live in and you look at, you know, tourism and farming, and fundamentally, they’re very important to the economy. But then you got to look back at the mining.”

“Will there be a renaissance in mining? There’s this huge history within Cornwall, as you see in the landscape, but out of that has come some of the best brains in the world through history in terms of the mining community, and the skills and the techniques that come out of that?”

“And it’s amazing because wherever you go in the world, if there’s any mining operations, be it Australia, North America… “

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“South Africa.”

“Exactly. There’s a link straight back to the School of Mines.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“The Camborne School of Mines, definitely.”

“And those skills of traveled around the world and it’s lovely. There’s Cornish associations around most of the globe much as you have with the Welsh. We travel far and wide. And a lot that’s come from sheer entrepreneurialism. The endeavor that individuals have to succeed in a business venture, and therefore harnessing that hunger for developing new products and services is here. And we can help with the coaching and helping those businesses become successes.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I think there’s as well as the great history in terms of business, there is an inherent resilience in people and a resilience that’s based on adaptability. So, you know, ‘what do we need to do?’ and that’s the foundation of entrepreneurship is resilience and adaptability, really.”

“How do you adapt what you do to the surroundings that you’re currently in? And I think one of the interesting stories for me around at the moment is around space. This idea that I have to say perhaps cynically, I looked at it first thing in what is Cornwall doing talking about space? But actually, again, you got history.”

“You’ve got all the Goonhilly stuff. You’ve got the links to America, you’ve got the telecommunications (the Marconi), and then you’ve got this great asset in terms of Newquay airport in terms of the runway and you start thinking ‘well actually, let’s start linking some of these things together.’ You know, it’s put a lever and a wheel together and you create a wheelbarrow, which is a lot more useful.”

“People tend to forget these things. Cornwall has a phenomenal part to play in Britain’s quest in the space business, it’s more than just exploration now it is a business.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Well, satellites! I hadn’t realised that the UK is something like 40% of the world’s satellites are produced in in the UK, and we don’t necessarily have anywhere to launch them from. So the horizontal launching available from from Newquay and the fact you’ve got a large bit of sea for them to fly over to start with… a great asset to have!”

“Precisely! And… brilliantly located. And we cannot but play up that plus point. I mean, the fact that we’ve got a world leading satellite tracking place in Goonhilly. And the fact it wasn’t just built yesterday, it’s been around, 50-60 years.”

“Many of us will remember the original moon landings and this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of that. Goonhilly had an important part to play then, in handling the pictures from the moon. So with that already in place, the potential further growth and encouraging businesses to establish themselves here is undoubted.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I think it’s not all straightforward. And you asked the question about working around in Conrwall for the last 10 years. There are a lot of things that we can learn from other areas, and a lot of the concerns that you have when you set up a business are common. This idea of ‘what’s the strength of the entrepreneur? What is he or she’s background? What is their education? What is their experience of running a business?’ Critical factors.”

“The basic idea: is there a market out there? Is there somebody who’d say “Do you know what? your solution helped fix my problem, I want to buy it.” And then thirdly, and you alluded to it: the resources, the funding. Good ideas don’t happen because they’ve got one of those three things. They happen because they’ve got all three.”

“And there’s also this bit about pushing forward with your idea. I was thinking this morning, about an entrepreneur I know who… it’s his third endeavor. His first one wasn’t too bad. He made a return for his investors. Not too bad. His second one was, was not too good. And again, in a different area to where he started off from. His third one is in FinTech. And it’s doing brilliantly.”

“He’s taken onboard a world-leading investor, the business employs number of people, and it’s growing like Topsy. But it wasn’t his first business.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I suppose that’s something we can learn from the Americans in a sense of, you know, when we fail as an entrepreneur, we used the word fail. In America, it’s a case of ‘Well, I’m just building for the next one.’

“And that’s really important. You’ve been around, you’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs, how did the best entrepreneurs learn from their experiences?”

“They dust themselves off and pick up what were the key features of their previous enterprise, and sometimes they do make 180 degree shifts.”

“And that’s the thing that makes many of our eyes pop: how can they go from one sector to another? Many of them that have specific skills in harnessing the people around them. Again, the best of everything around it, to make that plan work.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“A really important thing is that you only know what you know. So the stuff that you don’t even know you don’t know exactly. How do you find that out?”

“Well, many of them have developed networks of over time. And many of the successful entrepreneurs I’ve come across have not stuck to one track. They have varied. They’ve taken going back to your earlier point about people having multiple skilled roles, etc. and an entrepreneur needs to wear numerous hats. And he’s at capacity of being able to evolve forward their business plan.”

“They’re not stuck in one track. They’re not ones to sit down there twiddling their thumbs, they’re always on the go thinking of the next market they need to tap into with a new product or service. They’re highly energized. And, you know, that’s something we can do as coaches is to understand how to give them some direction.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I guess it’s about being a sounding board, isn’t it? It’s finding a safe place where you can say to somebody, I’m not sure this is gonna work.”

“What do I do? What do you think, you know, he’s creating that safe environment to reflect on things.”

“And I think that gives them a lot to work off because sometimes they come back with some statements or some ideas that their colleagues think, perhaps, are a bit mad. Whereas in our case, we’ve heard many weird and wacky statements and plans in the past and we can help them think perhaps it’s not that wacky.”

“‘Why do you think it’s wacky?’ And it’s pushing the envelope sometimes, and we can help them in that respect. Because, you know, if you’ve heard it all before, then is it gonna work?”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“But I suppose it’s about making sure that you test the idea. And, and if it’s going to fail, let’s fail quickly.”

“Exactly. And that’s one thing, about getting the right type of funding, some people’s plans are constrained because they don’t realize that doing it purely organically… It won’t work.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Where do you start then, Meredydd? You’re an entrepreneur, you got a great idea. You’re based in Cornwall, you’ve alluded to the fact there’s different sorts funding. Would you say there’s different types of funding for different stages of growth?”

“Yes and that definitely is the case, I mean, the three principal elements are: debt, which is loans, equity, which is sales shares, and there’s grants, which is like money, you may or may never have to pay back.”

“But it’s a combination of those ideally that work best and some level of funding is more suited, depending on is it a startup with no track record or if it’s a company that has got a product or service that now needs to enter into the market once it’s been tested, and is then the next stage whereby is an established business and it is moved to the next level of growth.”

Sometimes it’s a fear about selling a stake in the business. And the question then needs to be asked well, what is your fear? Let’s explore that. Because if you’re going to take the business to the next level, sometimes you need to share the risk. And, there’s this constant of risk and return.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“And I guess in some instances, you might have to give something away. And you may own less of your business, which means less control, but actually you might end up with a smaller percentage of a much bigger entity at the end of it.”

“Taken as a concept: you might own to begin with a whole cake. But you might be giving away a slice of that cake. If you don’t do that, in order to grow the cake, you might end up with just a little fairy cake. (Nothing wrong with your fairy cakes, they’re very tasty).”

“But is the concept of getting that growth: how can you do that just with your existing resources? And I always get uncomfortable when people use the phrase “giving away equity”, you’re not giving away equity, you’re exchanging equity for some finance.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“And some support as well.”

“So in terms of your experience when people are hitting a wall, when they’re finding it difficult, what are the sort of things that entrepreneurs struggle with?”

“It’s finding somebody within their own team that they can talk to without showing any hint of weaknesses or losing credibility. And this is where coaches come in really, really useful because it’s confidential that conversation, and as you said earlier, it’s a means of bouncing the idea around the room without anybody else being affected by that conversation. So we’re well experienced in hearing those difficult decisions that entrepreneurs have to make.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Leadership is a very lonely place. And I think as well, it can be quite challenging, in a sense, particularly when you start to recruit people, you feel responsible for their livelihoods, you feel responsible for their families, and that can limit growth in some respects because you’re taking a risk and it gets to a point in an entrepreneur’s life when rather than looking up to what they can achieve, they start looking down what they might lose.”

“There’s an analogy I always used to people is that when they’re walking on the streets, the very cautious person looks down and knows where each foot is being planted so don’t trip on the cracks between the pavement. They don’t walk very quickly that way. And the risk is they’ll walk into the lamppost. And this is important to sit back sometimes and look far ahead and see that lamppost in the distance and take big, more meaningful strides.”

“So it’s important for us entrepreneurs to realize that there are people out there that can talk to generalise it. There’s different ways of doing things to help move forward the team. And that’s one of the great things that that we here at OI have done is trying to get leaders together to help you explore in a comfortable environment some of the issues they face on a daily basis. And unless you’ve been in that position, it’s very difficult for others to understand.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“As you know, I’ve coached quite a lot of senior businesses leaders within Cornwall. And one of the things – it’s some key themes that come out, I think people (as a business grows) struggle about this, they look for a concept to say ‘alright, I need a balanced life.’ And, it’s a panacea, it just doesn’t exist.”

“If you’re ambitious, if you are a high achieving individual, the best you could hope for is finding a solid base to reach toward from. So let me just explain that: so you need to build a base where your resilience comes from, where your identity comes from, where you as an individual form that character, the things that make you. And if that’s a broad base and a deep base, you can stand tall and you can reach to some of the wobbly bits.”

“Well, it’s like the foundation of anything: good foundations, you’ve got a chance. Ready weak foundations, unfortunately for the business, the idea, the service will collapse quickly when the pressure’s built on and its important to realize that. And these poor people realize their strengths and their weaknesses at play.”

“Too often I’ve seen people trying to run before they can walk on these concepts. And if the foundation is strong, they can pivot, they can move forward, change their model a little bit and still achieve something. The other thing that people sometimes don’t realize is that success doesn’t just come through luck. It should be structured. There’s a plan that people tend to follow to get an output and the ideal planning for succession planning for an exit for a business.”

“It’s not a bad thing to talk in the early days of a business. It gives you something to plan or focus for sure.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I suppose the elephant in the room is this sense of… you’re an entrepreneur, you start a business, it’s everything about you. People use analogies as to how important it is to you… it’s your baby, all sort of phrases, and they really believe that… but it gets the point where you may not be the right person to take it to its next stage.”

“And that’s a difficult one and that takes a lot of coaching skill to help that entrepreneur realize that he may be a great ideas person that he does. He’s very good at coming up with the ideas and putting them into practice, but you may not be the person can lead that new enterprise to the next level. And it’s a time of realizing that perhaps your strength is in developing new ideas and developing new businesses but not necessarily leading those businesses to greater things.”

“There are steps to help them seek to engage with a suitable director or chief executive. It’s not a sign of weakness. If anything it’s a sign of success.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“He or she needs to be very self-aware. And there’s that fine balance between having the confidence that nothing’s going to get in the way and having the recognition that you need to manage risk. And it’s striking the balance between the two, back to this foundation that we talked about as well.”

“That’s true. But there’s risk in everything we do. And if I come across a businessperson who says, he’s in a fine place, he’s got nothing to worry about… then he’s not being realistic. Because there’s always stresses and issues you have to consider in business, the moment that disappears, I think you’re probably dead. Because businesses constantly have… they are a living thing they evolve. And you have to accept that.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“And I think as well, you have to recognize that there’s going to be an element of personal growth. I use the analogy and not using any names to protect the innocent, but I remember a very successful CEO saying to me… well I asked the question, really when she looks back, what does she see from Oxford Innovation? What help are we giving her that made a difference.”

“And the example she gave was around finance (something close to your heart) and when she started the business, it was a spreadsheet, basically it was a spreadsheet, and you managed it around your bank account. And you know, not even to the level of technology we have now in terms of instant information.”

“And then over a period of time as the business grows, with our encouragement, she then went out and got a professional bookkeeper, which was almost like level two. And then over a period of time, as the business grew again, it became more complex financially, she brought in her first finance manager. And that was the first sort of permanent recruitment. Business grows, it gets bigger, it gets more complex, international markets. People go out and maybe have an interim finance director… and that sort of evolution of (I’ve just used the finance function there), that’s applicable everywhere, whether it’s in It or HR or operations, and it’s about insourcing and seeing what skills are right at a point in time.”

“But it’s also trying to get people to think through, you know, where they’d like to be and what our business model is like. In honesty, I’d seriously ask: “what do you think this business will look like in 10 years?” 10 years is far too long these days.”

“So in three, five years’ time and think about what the team mix might be, and help them realize that there’s some positions they haven’t even thought about yet. And not to be put off because the classic I get back is, “I couldn’t afford x, y, z. I couldn’t afford a world leading marketeer, or Production Director’ well… yes, you can do because unless you try and think through that plan, you might not get there.”

“So start thinking through what the business could look like, and help focus a business that way. And take it they need to hire that person… is the right time? Can you do an interim to begin with? If they do need a permanent role can the business afford that interview? Can that individual actually help the business? Because if you hire the wrong level of people too early, it can be an expensive mistake.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“The difficult one there is… when your cash is really tightened and you have a high level of uncertainty (positive or negative) in your business, you always hang on to the last minute, and then people become opportunistic in their recruitment.”

“I’ve been into a business and they’ve gone ” I really need a finance director, and he needs a person to this…” and we talked about the role, what they can bring. And then a few weeks later, I’ll go in and they’ll go “I’ve just recruited a finance director” and you go “oh, fantastic that’s really exciting. How did you…?” “I met him down the pub.” And there is such a risk that… if you buy a piece of kit, a piece of machinery, that was £150,000 pounds… c’mon just go back.”

“I cycle a little bit. I’ve got spreadsheets on pedals… you ask your friends what ones do they use what’s the best to suit my needs? You go on to Google you look at it you go on to eBay, you search for prices…”

“You do the same thing in employing the key individuals.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“It’s such an important decision… “down the pub, I met somebody, it’s okay.”

“But it’s also a bit about people, you know, cash is as much as marketing collateral as much as the product itself or the service level, etc.”

“They’re all equally important in growing the business and one of the things it really pains me when people say, “Well, I don’t want to look at finance now because I’ve got to get money.” And the next conversation they have; “I’ve got a cash flow crisis.” Yeah, but that should have been spotted. You should have been planning and it’s so easy to go out and talk your story about your business to raise money when you don’t actually need the money, because guaranteed it takes much longer to raise the money than you need.”

“Therefore you need to plan it and to try and raise money of any sort, at the last minute when you’re desperate is the most expensive money you can ever find. So it’s encouraging people when they’ve got a high growth strategy.”

“Let’s look at every element of business and let’s work with them on the various elements and pulling the expertise they need. And people with the experience because guaranteed, you know, the plan might not deliver exactly as you’ve envisaged some aspects of it might work better than others.”

“But one of the things when it comes to money and another resource as you say, key staff is a plan with plenty of time. Otherwise you will be down the pub, and you will be picking the first person who can give you any modest confidence…”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“…and that recruitment will fail within months.”

“I’m sure there will be plenty of examples of people saying “I met my best buddy in the pub and he turned out to be the best production manager” or whatever, but they’re rare.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“If you had the opportunity and you’re sitting opposite as I know you do many times, somebody with a great business idea, a good entrepreneurial experience, something that’s probably looking okay in terms of the marketplace, there’s potential for it, etc. What two or three things would you be encouraging them to do to start with?”

“To make certain that they allow time in their busy schedules to sit back and reflect, to make certain they have an adequate personal plan, in addition to the business plan, and some personal resources to support that plan. That’s not just money, it just means moral support for them, because it gets tough in business.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“There’s something there about reflection, Which could be done best with somebody else to be fair. There’s something there about planning in advance for the resources that you need and making sure that you know what those right resources are and getting them in time.”

“Precisely because Cornwall has got it all. It’s just a case of realising that you don’t have to go too far: we’ve been very fortunate in the time I’ve been researching the West Country.”

“There are resources here, that in the past, you’d have to go to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, wherever to get the professional resources. You have them here now on your doorstep. And not only that, you know, we’ve got high speed, digital communications, telephone conferences, video conferencing, etc. can be done instantaneous, you can talk to people, you need to take your business forward without having to travel.”

“So that gives comfort to any budding entrepreneur, that Cornwall is a great place to start a business or to grow your business to the next level.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Precisely because Cornwall has got it all. It’s just a case of realising that you don’t have to go too far: we’ve been very fortunate in the time I’ve been researching the West Country.”

“There are resources here, that in the past, you’d have to go to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, wherever to get the professional resources. You have them here now on your doorstep. And not only that, you know, we’ve got high speed, digital communications, telephone conferences, video conferencing, etc. can be done instantaneous, you can talk to people, you need to take your business forward without having to travel.”

“So that gives comfort to any budding entrepreneur, that Cornwall is a great place to start a business or to grow your business to the next level.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“I think that’s an important thing. I mean, people who don’t know the area think of the beaches, which are very lovely, and the farming and the good food and all those sorts of things. And a great lifestyle, but fundamentally, it’s a good place to start businesses as well.”

“And the irony of all ironies, coming from Wales like we both do… I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Snowdonia. Beautiful part of the world, nothing as good as Cornwall, obviously.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“It’s just taller.”

“Precisely. And I had no means of communication for three days, no voice, text, digital whatsoever. Zippo. I don’t think I can say that about Cornwall. Most places in Cornwall I go to I can get some means of communications. So you’ve got very good coverage here, which means you’re not out of touch with the world.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Yeah, for the rest of us those three days went really quickly.”

“I was pulling my hair out, but there we are.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“Okay, so, just to sort of think about what we talked about, really. It’s a good place to start a business. It’s really important that people do think a little bit about what they’re trying to do, learn from experiences, maybe chat with somebody else to test the idea, chat with somebody else to see what’s out there in terms of funding.”

“And I think it’s well, it’s recognising that leadership is a very lonely place. And having somebody that you can be confident that they’re going to be discreet, confident that they are not going to tell you to do the wrong thing. And confident they’re going to be supporting and challenging in equal measures.”

“And the great thing is, coming from you, because you’ve got many years experience of coaching, but that bit about an partial approach of helping somebody with their challenges and to help them develop their own coping strategies with making that major decision they need to make because it’s easy from our experiences to say “Well, if I was in your shoes I would do x,y & z. We don’t do that. But it’s to help them overcome those big challenges. And there’s always a challenge in business.”

Meredydd Jones Oxford Innovation Cornwall
Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“There’s a Chinese proverb, something along the lines of (I’m going to misquote this) “no man stands in the same river twice” and that is so true of business.”

“Context is everything. Really important that we think of the context.”

“And I think that’s important for us. I mean, we should ask tough questions. Because where we ask them, it’s a safe place to do it. And it’s better we ask those tough questions, than the questions are asked at a much later stage when it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Andrew Farmer Oxford Innovation Cornwall

“There’s a Chinese proverb, something along the lines of (I’m going to misquote this) “no man stands in the same river twice” and that is so true of business.”

“Context is everything. Really important that we think of the context.”

“And I think that’s important for us. I mean, we should ask tough questions. Because where we ask them, it’s a safe place to do it. And it’s better we ask those tough questions, than the questions are asked at a much later stage when it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Interested in working with Oxford Innovation Cornwall? Get in touch to see how we can help your business grow.

 

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