Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor CBE is the definition of a multi-tasker. An entrepreneur, investor, podcaster, film producer, university professor, coffee tycoon – the only thing Stefan doesn’t do is sit still.
BLM spoke to Stefan about his business ventures, his creative projects, and the number one piece of business advice that he gives his university students.
Can you tell BLM about your background?
I left school at 18 and sadly didn’t get into university. I qualified as a stockbroker, and for about three weeks I was the youngest qualified stockbroker in the UK. I managed to have that coincide with Black Monday, which could have been telling of my luck, but thankfully it all worked out fine. After working as a stockbroker for a year or so I set up my first company at 19, and I’ve been an entrepreneur and a financier ever since.
I’ve had a varied business career, with many hats and many different roles over that intervening 32-year period.
Are there specialist sectors you work in, or is it anything goes?
I’m a generalist, for sure. I like to think that whatever I’m working on at the time, I’m a specialist, but that’s probably ego gone slightly mad.
I’m a quick study, and I’ve picked up the fundamentals of how businesses work over many years at the coal face. So perhaps I’m an expert in what not to do, rather than what to do – that might be a bridge too far.
You’re a man with many hats – financier, serial entrepreneur, professor, philanthropist, film producer… How do you stay on top of everything? Which project is your priority?
In business, one of the key skill sets to learn early on is the ability to effectively delegate and to work well with others. In truth, each of my rather humbling titles has a massive amount of other people involved. It’s cliched, and people roll their eyes, but I’m genuinely only as good as the team that surrounds me. And if that team is not enthusiastic or motivated, or if they just aren’t very good, then I don’t look good. And I don’t achieve what I need to achieve.
As for priorities, I don’t favour one role over another, though some have more urgent demands. Balance is an important part of having a broad portfolio. But if you’re asking whether I have a focus, then right now my focus is definitely Coffeesmiths Collective. That venture currently dominates my time.
What piques your interest in a venture? Are there any similarities between your different activities?
It’s a good question, because it’s so difficult to answer. It’s easier to say what turns you off than what gets you genuinely enthusiastic.
With me, it could be anything. We live in a world now where people create impossible opportunities and solve insoluble problems. If you have exposure to the start-up world, you have a window into the future. It’s not quite as heuristic as you think – it’s how we live, where we live, how we travel to work, what we eat. Architecture, infrastructure, food. All of these things are being tackled using technology and innovation, whether that’s innovation in bricks or clicks. And they all pique my interest – until they don’t.
Does that happen often?
Yes. Not usually because it’s a terrible idea, but usually because the founders think they’re the only people to have thought about it and in reality, there are ten other companies that are doing a similar thing. And when you tell them, you can see them deflate rather than say: “Yes, we know, and here’s what we’re doing better.”
Competition is a great thing. If you don’t have competition for whatever you’re creating, there is a reasonable chance it will be a deeply crappy business.
You’ve recently launched a new podcast, The Investor. What is your vision for the podcast?
The Investor is an opportunity to have an unvarnished look at what a particular investor is thinking when they do or do not back a scale-up business. Bearing in mind how many people want to start their own business, and the scary percentages of people who are currently employed who want to found their own venture, not every business needs to be a global dominator for it to have interest from me. It doesn’t have to go beyond employing ten people as long as it’s profitable; it doesn’t have to take existential risks.
Scaling up is one of the most dangerous and difficult parts of any business journey, and it’s an area that I will enjoy discussing on the podcast because the people I’ll be talking to will have already broken the back of the problem. We’re looking at doing The Investor: London, then maybe The Investor: New York or The Investor: Los Angeles and looking at the scale-up ecosystems in different parts of the world.
It’s fun, it’s got legs, and I’m reasonably confident that we know enough about our subject matter to not sound like complete muppets.
Are you happy there are so many people looking to start a business?
It’s a big issue in terms of what we’re teaching younger people – although it’s not only the purview of younger people, it’s an issue for everybody in the workplace. With the growth of AI and robotics, there is no doubt that human skills are being devalued. Over the course of the next ten or fifteen years – perhaps even sooner – people will need to think in terms of creating a job rather than finding one.
Again, that doesn’t mean to say that I’m only interested in the next unicorn. I don’t like unicorns, as it happens. As an investor, they make me nervous. You’ve got to be in the business of investing all day, every day, to be excited about unicorns. They scare the life out of me.
For me, encouraging people to think about these things in a constructive way is important. There’s a lot of supposition about how you raise money for a company, how to pitch to investors, and what you should be doing. Most people learn the hard way, by saying and doing the wrong thing and failing to get off the ground because no one taught them.
Is your aim to monetise the podcast? What do you think of podcasts as business ventures?
Podcasts are monetised through spot ads or sponsorship or in some cases listener donations, which I don’t think we’d qualify for – though I suppose it depends how bad I am. There may be a sympathy vote for me.
Ours is no different in that regard. We’re lucky to be working with all the major platforms, and the more successful we become, the more the podcast can be monetised.
It’s definitely not the point of The Investor. The point is to educate, inform and entertain.
Do you have any other creative projects in the pipeline?
I’m not a great creative myself. I know what I like and what I don’t like and that’s about as far as it goes. So in that sense of the word ‘creative’, no.
We are, however, in the process of launching a new brand with an entirely new coffee-based drink. And that’s a hugely creative process, as we need to create a lifestyle image for that product as much as the taste of the drink itself – it’s called Dept. Cold Brew and it will launch the first carbonated cold brew cola anywhere in Europe. I like to confine my creativeness to business more than anything else.
Can you tell BLM about your work with film?
As a film producer, my mission statement was less to do with the quality of the films and more to do with the quantity. I wanted to allow as many people as possible the funding to create their showcase film.
There is no doubt that the film and television industries are not as inclusive as they should be. For me, it’s about attacking opportunity poverty, and getting to parts of the country and talent that don’t find it easy to network into Shoreditch or Soho. It’s been a super quick and reasonably light-touch process. We’ve made 60 short films that about 3,500 people have been involved with, and 25 of those films got into almost 700 film festivals. Many are multi-award winning.
It would be someone very unwise not to recognise that short-form content is going to rapidly become the new normal. In the past, short films have been a bit niche and artsy, but not anymore. So what we did was thankfully a bit ahead of the curve.
In the UK, the film industry is the largest single growth element of our GDP growth. It’s pretty important. And it seems you’re taught everything there is to know about film except how to make money out of it. I’ve met Oscar-winning scriptwriters who are still living in tents. So for me, it becomes a matter of focusing on the entrepreneurial side of these projects and not concerning myself about whether I think they’re good or not. That’s not for me to decide.
You have spoken before about the importance of emotional intelligence as an entrepreneur. Can you explain your views on that?
One of the important things you must do as a start-up or scale-up entrepreneur is to get great people to do great things for much less money than they would otherwise charge you. You have to get them to buy into your vision so they can share the upside with you, or so they can feel they are part of something genuinely exciting.
Only one out of ten start-ups succeed, and only one out of ten of those survivors scale. That’s pretty miserable in statistical terms. And the single biggest threat to your business is the same as its biggest asset: people. If you an entrepreneur with a vision, and you forget the human relationships of your business and how to motivate your employees, you’re going to fall down. You will fail.
What is your personal approach and ethos in business?
Try not to cock it up.
There’s also a skill set that no one ever gives us: the ability to see ourselves as others see us. Wouldn’t that be a chilling thing to see every day? But even so, I try to be cooperative and team-building.
In business, though, you sometimes have to crack eggs to make omelettes. The very nature of business means that if you’re winning, someone else is losing. So you need to think about your personal business ethos, certainly, but then you also need to check yourself and your decisions every day.
I hope I get more right than I get wrong, but there is doubtless a healthy dose of both.
You are the first ever Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship at Kings College, London. What is the most important lesson you want your students to leave with?
First, always understand your cash flows. Understand exactly what’s going on with the money flowing through your venture, not matter how big or small. Follow the money.
Second, speak truth to power. If you are fearful of your investors to the point where you are omitting important information – an omission is a lie by another name. It’s not in people’s natural instincts when they’ve just sold a concept to someone to then come back and say: “Actually, it’s gone to crap, and we need some help in this area.” But you have to.
If you follow your numbers and are straight with your investors, you’d be surprised at how helpful they can be.