Get structures and systems in place before you grow a big idea, says Matt McLaren’s mentor Charles Payne.
What do you look for in a mentor? Friend? Expert? Someone like you, or the complete opposite? When Matt McLaren launched biotech start-up Entomos after finishing his Cambridge MBA, and was accepted onto the Accelerate Cambridge programme, he made a beeline for resident mentor Charles Payne, an experienced senior executive with a strong background in business strategy, business growth and development.
With Charles as his mentor, the business – specialising in innovative solutions that break down food waste (with 1.3+ billion wasted globally) and convert it to useful substances such as biodiesel – has gone from strength to strength. Here Matt describes why the relationship is so successful, and why Charles has helped Entomos keep its feet on the ground and its mind on the detail.
Matt McLaren (Cambridge MBA 2014), Founder of Entomos
We got in touch with Charles, who is one of the resident mentors at Accelerate Cambridge, right from the start. When you’re starting out, there’s a lot of potential traps around forming a company. He has a lot of great advice on the nuts and bolts of running a business, and the broader strategy around what we’re trying to do. He’s fantastic on setting up a company, trademarking, getting the right shareholder agreements in place, making sure we protect ourselves against competitors and that we protect our IP.
We talk about strategy and big ideas but Charles is always telling us to get those nuts and bolts right. He’s very good at making us think about what’s directly in front of us, step by step, so we don’t get caught up in these big grand ideas and lose our way. It can be counterproductive to race too far ahead. He encourages us to slow down, look at what we’re doing, do it well, do it once, and move on.
It’s true that emotions can run high in a start-up. There’s a chaotic element to them. Charles is calming and grounded. He’s not easily perturbed. He’s able to sit there and listen, and that’s a good dynamic to bring to the team. We have formal meetings every week but we can also email him if we’ve got an issue. He’s made it very clear that he is available any time, on call. So there have been several times on a Sunday evenings when we will email him with a quick question about some really pressing legal issue and he will respond straight away.
Then there’s the networking aspect. Charles has been very generous with connecting us to people in his personal network. He’s always sending through relevant articles, and suggestions for whom we could speak to. I think, slowly and surely, those introductions and ideas really help us to meet important new clients and important new potential investors. He’s always looking out for things that might help us, whether it’s a new conference we should attend, or a visiting academic, or someone related to our research. I just can’t overstate the usefulness of those warm introductions when you’re a small company with no real brand or presence and you’re about to knock on someone’s door for the first time.
It’s critical to find someone who is genuinely and altruistically interested in what you’re doing. I like to think that our idea was weird and interesting enough for Charles! He doesn’t have a vested interest. There’s no strings attached. He’s genuinely interested in helping us to be successful.
Charles Payne, Accelerate Cambridge mentor
Matt approached me to be the mentor at Entomos – he lost no time in getting stuck in, and I welcome that sort of approach. All the companies in Accelerate Cambridge have a coach appointed, but it’s much better when the applicant comes forward and says: hey, can you give me some advice? There’s a proactivity to it which means there’s a lot of enthusiasm. Matt’s a great guy: an open and honest character. He listens to what you have to say and then uses what he needs.
There’s two aspects to my mentoring: first, as someone who really abhors food waste, I felt the idea was good. I felt a great synergy and that I’d really like to help as much as I could. But the other context is that an idea can be brilliant, but if you don’t put in structures and systems at the beginning, that can cause a lot of damage when the business grows.
Some of the damage I have experienced is where people develop a business on the understanding that they are friends and want to proceed. Then, a year or two down the line, that friendship might be disintegrating. There’s no basis for saying who gets what if one leaves the business if they are only half way on the road to proof of concept. So I like to install structures early on.
Business doesn’t stop at the end of that coaching session. If there’s something that needs addressing between that coaching session and the next, drop me an email or phone me. I don’t want to hold things up. If you don’t have that, the ventures just flounder. People think: help, I have to make a decision before the next meeting. What do I do? It’s usually ad hoc problems – for example, a start-up is we’re negotiating for some temporary premises: could I have a quick look through a draft lease? Or as in Matt’s case, he’d found the vehicle he needs to transport some of this food waste. So I took the initiative and found all sorts of information about companies owning and running vehicles, how you have to ensure your drivers are properly qualified and so on.
Why do I do it? Friends and family have commented that when I get back from Cambridge on a Thursday, I’m always on a high. And I think yes, I am. I’m mentally quite drained but I really enjoy it. It’s a reflection of the enthusiasm of the ventures and it’s the fact that I’ve been able to do something to help them. Part of that process goes way back when I was at school. I was never given appropriate careers help or advice. And people have to get that help from somewhere.