Having the guidance of a mentor can be the missing piece that takes your business to the next level - finding someone with business expertise who recognises your offering and how it can grow is invaluable in the early days (and at any stage in your business journey, let's be honest). Robert Cooper is one of our Virgin StartUp mentors; here's how he helped a Virgin StartUp-supported business refine their proposition and win major investment.
My name is Robert Cooper and I work in corporate finance for a large accountancy firm in Newcastle upon Tyne, UNW LLP. After working for myself for over ten years and then in corporate finance for a few years, I felt I could offer startups the benefit of my knowledge and contacts. Having been there myself several times, I could appreciate many of the struggles business owners face when first starting out and the Virgin StartUp program seemed like a great thing to get involved in during my spare time.
My Virgin StartUp mentee
Trench Networks, who I was introduced to in 2015 through the Virgin StartUp program, had developed a technology called “Outpost” which allows for the Wi-Fi to be setup on construction sites. Whilst there did appear to be systems available to the construction sector, many were not particularly reliable, user-friendly, cost-effective and offered a relatively weak signal. The founder of Trench Networks, Kevin Latimer, is a communications specialist from a construction industry background who knew what problems the sector regularly faces when attempting to establish Wi-Fi in remote or otherwise difficult to network locations.
Since then the product has been developed further and gained a number of contracts and trials with some notable construction firms throughout the country, as well as delivering work into other sectors.
It was clear after our first meeting that Trench Networks had identified a genuine problem faced within an industry, and come up with a cost-effective solution. Whilst the technology had been largely developed it still need to be fully tested in the field in order to prove it had commercial appeal. Gaining investment at proof of concept / seed stage such as this is always challenging, so it was important to clearly identify what else needed to be done in order to make the product commercially available, how long that would take, and how much funding would be required to get there.
Kevin clearly knew what he was talking about and had a deep understanding of digital communications, coupled with the clear advantages Trench Network’s system offered over market alternatives. Looking at the business as it stands today, they have made huge strides in developing the technology further and successfully taken a concept into a six figure revenue business within a year or two – not an easy feat for anyone.
Supporting the business to develop
I mainly helped Kevin by providing feedback and suggestions on his business plan and helping him update and reform his financial projections. Whilst I introduced him to several potential investors, the actual investment came about through a chance meeting at an event with a woman whose husband was actively seeking equity investments. Within a few weeks the deal was done and Trench Networks received around £120k in investment.
Maintaining the relationship
I speak with Kevin on a regular basis and continue to help advise and provide a sounding board when required. I also make introductions when I come across a business or individual whereby I feel it will be of benefit to both parties. I would mentor other businesses, but as with all these things its important that I have a degree of understanding as to their marketplace and can identify an area where I can bring something to the table. It’s also crucial that you get on well with the people you are working with.
Tips for other mentors
I apply the same logic to mentoring as I do with my day job; don’t just tell people what they want to hear. Seek to target any potential issues head on so they can be dealt with sooner, rather than later. It’s also important to put things into context and not to get over-obsessed with sorting out every loose end when there may be bigger issues on the agenda to deal with.
Start-up owners can also get so bogged down in the detail and have so many things to deal with they can end up in a situation where they can’t see the wood for the trees. As a mentor you should stand back and try to see the business in its wider context, and help provide feedback and guidance to the mentee based on this.
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