Scaling a business – lessons from Silicon Valley Comes to the UK

No matter how good the original idea and the strength of the team around you, scaling up a business isn’t easy. In many ways starting a company is the simple bit – growing beyond those initial few clients to become a decent size is hard, and continuing that trajectory is really hard.

In the US, a greater percentage of companies move from startup to scaleup than in the UK or the rest of Europe. Recognising this, the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVC2UK) programme was founded eight years ago by Ellen Levy (Investor, Advisor and tech company exec) and co-Chairmen Reid Hoffman (Founder of Linkedin) and Sherry Coutu CBE (Serial Entrepreneur and Angel Investor) to support the ecosystem for entrepreneurs in the UK.

Its twin goals are to:

  • Help the most promising first time CEOs in Europe to scale their companies better
  • Foster relationships between leading entrepreneurs and investors from Silicon Valley and Europe.

SVC2UK works through a programme of invitation only events that bring together early stage investors, successful serial entrepreneurs, students and alumni with leading lights from Silicon Valley to discuss and debate how and why they have come to create and fund today’s most disruptive technologies.

The SVC2UK CEO summit

Back in 2013 SVC2UK selected Undo as a company set to reach annual revenues of $100million within the next five years, and this year I was chosen to join the SVC2UK Scale Up Club — the CEOs of the 60 most promising scale-up companies across Europe, and as such I was invited to attend SVC2UK’s CEO Summit. Held at the London Stock Exchange, the event brings together CEOs from Europe’s most high potential scale-ups and provides a unique opportunity for CEOs to learn from some of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and investors on how to scale a company.

60 CEOs and 42 serial entrepreneurs came along, with the chance to network and take part in workshops on the most pressing themes for growing businesses – best practice on talent, leadership capacity building and international expansion.

So, what did I gain from the day? Firstly, it was great to be one of the 60 CEOs chosen to attend, as it is testament to the success and potential of Undo, especially the team behind the company. The opportunity to network with CEOs in similar growth stages was really beneficial, and the chance to pick the brains of mentors has definitely added new perspectives to my thinking.

Getting out of the trenches

The best thing for me though was the fact that it enabled me to take a day out of the business and think in more strategic terms. As the saying goes, too many CEOs spend their time working in the business, not on it, looking longer term. To be pulled out of the trenches for a day and given an opportunity to concentrate beyond this year’s numbers is invaluable. Meeting serial entrepreneurs that have created successful businesses does encourage you to think big and have confidence in yourself to take the next step. And as a country we need to create more scalable businesses, rather than selling out early. One of the stats I heard was that 1% of UK companies contribute 36% of GDP growth – the aim is to expand both of those numbers. Overall, I learnt a lot from the day and would definitely go back if I’m lucky enough to be invited again.

In many ways SVC2UK reminds me of the Raspberry Pi. It isn’t a unique event, but it acts as a focus for entrepreneurship, in the same way that the Pi has concentrated people’s attention on increasing coding skills amongst the young. You can do what a Pi does with any number of existing bits of hardware – you could strip down an old PC and install Linux for example. But it increases profile and gives a focal point, both of which we need if we’re going to create more sustainable, growing businesses in the UK.

Concrete benefits

I find that when I attend events such as the SVC2UK CEO summit around 50% are fun and interesting and you meet good people, but don’t really change anything; about 40% are of some limited direct value, and about 10% change everything. Of course, it’s hard to tell which category an event will fall into before attending. What is surprising is how often you don’t know until some time after the event.

In the case of SVC2UK there were all sorts of interesting conversations and pieces of learning and good contacts made, but one thing Crystal Hutter, Co-founder and CEO of Edmodo said stuck in my mind. She said there are essentially three kinds of CEOs: the technology and vision driven kinds; the ones who are good with people and can bring amazing teams together; and those that are all about operational excellence. Few if any CEOs are able to span all of these, but all three are important for a business. I recognised some of the traits of the first two types in myself, but I know that I definitely am not in the third category. As I mulled this over during the following week or two I realised that, in contrast to myself, our Head of Engineering is exceptionally strong on the operational side of things, and his skills would benefit the business hugely if applied more widely. So Yanni, our Head of Engineering, is no longer our Head of Engineering, but our COO. It’s a change I’d been thinking about in vague terms for some time, but those few words of wisdom (eventually) hit home and made me understand how important it was to make the change. I should have done it ages ago, but better late than never, and I think it is going to be essential to scaling Undo to the next level. It’s not the first time that it has taken some time for the outcomes of such an event to become apparent, but it’s one of starkest, and demonstrates the power such conversations and contacts can have.