Nick Sturge – entrepreneur, innovator and business growth specialist

Vince Cable, who recently visited the Engine Shed with Nick Sturge (left)

Vince Cable, who recently visited the Engine Shed with Nick Sturge (left)

BLM met with Nick Sturge recently, founder of Bristol’s Engine Shed, serial entrepreneur and business start-up adviser.

Can you give readers some background to yourself?

“I trained as an electronics and computing engineer. I achieved a first but soon realised I was more interested in people than electrons.
“I worked in the medical device sector and then for a multi-national silicon company.

“I was there for three years and then seven of us left and started a business called Motion Media Technology.

“It grew to 125 people and exported to over 40 countries around the world, before we eventually sold it to an Austrian company.”

Can you give readers an A-Z of the Engine Shed?

“The emerging sectors in Bristol are low carbon, high-tech and creative.

“We wanted to create an incubator harnessing all three, with collaboration and showcase space all within one building.

“Bristol City Council had taken ownership of the building and wanted to kick-start growth, so we formed a collaboration between the Council, the Universities and the Local Enterprise Partnership.

“In January 2013 we wrote the business plan, and from conception to completion it took 11 months, which with a grade 1 listed building, public money and a difficult climate is astonishing.

“It was only made possible because everybody got their acts together and the business community got behind it.”

Do you believe there is a new energy in Bristol?

“There is a new energy in Bristol, following a few hundred years of not doing much. Where has the energy come from?

“It’s a lot of things but the most noticeable event that changed the environment was the abolition of the Regional Development Agency.

“There is a global trend towards city strength as opposed to regional and this changed the game; and there was a realisation from everybody that we’ve got to get on and do something.

“It used to be what does the RDA want us to do? Now it is let’s get on and do it.

“And whether it’s the science park, here or the Hive, it’s better to work together than compete because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. If we all work to grow the market we will all do better.”

The Duke of York talking to Sarah Laughran, "Growth Hacker" from WebStart Bristol, watched by Nick Sturge, left, Engine Shed Director, and Nick Flaherty

The Duke of York talking to Sarah Laughran, “Growth Hacker” from WebStart Bristol, watched by Nick Sturge, left, Engine Shed Director, and Nick Flaherty

In your opinion, can entrepreneurism be taught?

“An entrepreneur is someone who wants to do things better and get things done.

“You can’t teach this skill but you can unlock it.

“Whether it’s internal to an organisation or running your own business – you can be entrepreneurial.

“It’s also a culture, so I don’t think you can teach it from the classroom, but you can give skills and understanding so people have a better tool kit to deliver it.

“Often it is confidence that holds people back; the idea of the unknown, and some people and institutions won’t overcome that.”

You work with many start-up businesses – what are the common mistakes you come across?

“Quite a few things – one of which is an assumption that it’s quick to raise money; and the process a technology company goes through when hiring their first salesperson is often riddled with problems.

“Also – not thinking about succession planning early enough. The first mile in business is taking an idea and giving it legs, the second mile is generating profit and the third is scaling it up.

“All three require different skills and it’s unlikely the founding CEO will be as good at the third mile as the first.

“Some people go all the way through but they are the exception.

“So it’s important to think about succession planning, because some people are good at coming up with product ideas and not growing a business to 50 people.

“If you want to sell your business, the more detached you are the more someone will pay.”

So a founding CEO can be a risk factor to an investor?

“A pure financial investor will want to see scale up and return on investment which may take longer than the 1st mile.

“So a common risk and hurdle for investors is the founder CEO. And it’s complex because with tech companies the expertise will be with the founder/CEO.”

Engine Shed

Engine Shed

Can putting in a Chairman offset this?

“It’s not right for all companies, but those that have an effective chairman, in our experience, do better.

“Growing a company requires a wise chairman that is respected by the CEO and the investors; and someone who can act as buffer between the two in times of flux.”

In your opinion, what will the region look like in 30-50 years?

“A lot of things coming into play now will be part of it and we will have existing industries such as aerospace.

“But it will be higher tech and we will have other transport systems alongside.

“If we think long term there will have to be revolutionary technology and modes of transport because we will run out of oil.

“I don’t know what all the industries will be but I’ll bet my bottom dollar Bristol will be at the forefront because we have strength in so many areas.

“Bristol already has world leading excellence in low carbon and quantum computing, so there will be an industry around those; and global corporates are already seeing these trends and coming to Bristol now.

“It’s not just about planting trees and re-cycling – there will be real innovation and we are asking how we can deliver thought leadership in the next fifty years.

“Whatever happens, if regions work together with the four local authorities do, we’ve got this sorted. If they don’t work together we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

What makes Bristol great, in your opinion?

“Diversity on all levels, whether it’s cultural, ethnic, social, graphic and architectural, or the diversity of sectors we have.

“The attitude and independence of people here is great as well and we are low on ego – which may appear to as a lack of confidence and assertiveness, but actually it’s saying we will just get on and do it.”