Each company in the Leap 100 is different. But they all excel in four crucial areas which distinguish them from Britain’s many other innovative and growing companies.
In the entrepreneurs, we have looked for leadership and ambition, and in their companies we have looked into their team and money. This is why these qualities are so important.
Leading a growing company requires a particular set of skills. These aren’t the same as those needed to run a FTSE 100 company, where the pay packet, benefits, stability and prestige are the big draws for employees. When taking a company from start-up to scale-up, entrepreneurs are asking employees to take a risk and believe in their vision of the future. They are usually asking them to work for less than elsewhere.
This takes leadership. There is no single personality blueprint for leadership. Great leaders contradict stereotypes of what people imagine it takes to lead. Despite being a great orator and war-time leader, Winston Churchill was in constant battle with the “black dog” of depression. Steve Jobs was a business visionary who inspired staff and consumers alike, yet he was also notoriously spiky and negative. Though Richard Branson may come across as an extrovert, this is surprisingly built upon a personality that’s naturally shy.
A sharp leader is the difference between good and great. We have many great entrepreneurs on this year’s Leap 100 . Consider Sean Ramsden of Ramsden International. Since taking over the family grocery business, the History of Art Cambridge graduate has set it on the path to international expansion.
Before he died of natural causes (or a huge shot of undiluted wine) at the age of 32, Alexander the Great had conquered the Achaemenid Empire, right up to the boundaries of the Punjab. Thankfully – at least for those at risk of being conquered – most of us don’t aspire to vanquish foreigners on the battlefield. Instead, we prefer to channel our nationalist aggressions into professional sport and spend the rest of the time trading with our friends (and some of our enemies) abroad.
If big Al had been born today, he would be running an ambitious Leap 100 company. Perhaps, given his international outlook, something like Prodigy Finance, which offers loans to international postgraduate students through its community platform of alumni, institutional investors and qualified private investors.
We look for this bold ambition in our Leap 100 founders. People who go it alone because the world isn’t as it should be; people with a passion to create a product or service that doesn’t exist but should.
No entrepreneur is an island – it takes a team to build a business. Though we are social creatures and cluster in colonies, we aren’t bees, ruled by a tyrant with one drone easily replaceable with another. Instead, from a founder’s first to thousandth employee, each impacts the company’s culture and ultimate success.
The most common (and best) analogy is with sports. The surprise success of Leicester City in this year’s Premier League is rightly attributed to the efforts of everyone associated with the club, not just the goals of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. All the greatest teams in history – whether New Zealand’s current rugby union team or Brazil’s 1970 football team – are bigger than any one individual. Even virtuoso Michael Jordan, when talking about his success with Chicago Bulls, said: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
Many of the best leaders are team players. It’s surely more than a coincidence that many top sports people go on to become leading entrepreneurs. Venus Williams has already diversified into interior design and fashion. And one of the Leapers, Tom Britton, was a professional footballer before he co-founded SyndicateRoom.
If Pink Floyd had been writing their iconic song Money today, the line “Get a good job with more pay and you’re OK” would be replaced with something about the merits of building a billion-dollar tech company rather than slogging your guts for someone else.
Money isn’t everything, but it’s not unimportant. For better or worse, it matters where we fit in various hierarchies – one of which is related to the size of our home and cost of our belongings.
Yet money isn’t just a crude measure of who has the biggest speedboat, it’s a medium of exchange, a store of value and essential to the efficient running of a market economy. Although a growing number of companies can be started on a shoestring, it’s rare and remarkable for firms to bootstrap and scale without some cool hard cash.
Many Leap 100 entrepreneurs have taken a healthy injection of money from outside. Just consider Deliveroo. Since launching, the food delivery company raised £2.7m in June 2014, £16m in January 2015, another £45m in July and £66m in November 2015.
But raising money is never just about raising money. At its best, entrepreneurs receive smart money – investors with arguably the greatest asset of all: brains.