When Vince Cable Came to Town – The Value of Mentors

October 3, 2012

This is the text of short talk I gave at the SJIC when Vince Cable came to Cambridge to launch the Growth Accelerator.

Our company makes microchip gas sensors. As three young engineers, when we got started we knew something about building a microchip, but nothing about building a business. In our first pitch to a VC they we were discussing the product and they asked, “What’s your margin”, not knowing what margin actually was, we put a smile on our face and said emphatically, “oh, our margin is very good”, hoping this was the right answer and adding this to the list of things we had to look up on wikipedia that evening.

When we got our first term sheet for $2M, we threw ourselves into learning everything we could about term sheets, the legalese and building a a wonderful spreadsheet model that we intended to deploy to maximum effect during the negotiation! Our first ever mentor was Walter Herriot who used to run the St John Innovation Centre; we arranged a meeting to get his advice. We walked into the office, told him about the offer and thumped the printout of the spreadsheet on the table. Walter looked at us, then at the mass of paper in front of him, slowly pushed it aside and said, “guys, has anyone else offered you $2M?”. This was a lesson for us in the difference between knowing about something and actually knowing what to do about it. This is where the experience and advice of a mentor is truly powerful.

Innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship will play a large part in injecting dynamism and growth into the economy as we slowly recover. Any program that helps the chances of a nascent technology or company, succeed, employ people and grow on the world stage should be seized with both hands. The GrowthAccelerator aims to help 26,000 high growth businesses; a great ambition and one that I hope it succeeds in. I’ve always been amazed at the willingness of successful entrepreneurs in Cambridge and beyond, who give up large portions of their time to share their experience and expertise with the companies of tomorrow.

As I look at our company today, with 47 employees, $17M in capital raised, contracts with some of the worlds largest companies, it is easy to see that we are we we are because of the help of others.