The Mentoring Business

Ex Goldman Sachs Wealth Manager, Jonathan Pfahl, is founder and Managing Director of the Rockstar Mentoring Group which offers entrepreneur mentoring and business funding.

What is ‘REAL‘ Mentoring? And how can it be part of an entrepreneur’s quest for investment when funds are particularly tight?

REAL Mentoring is when you are seeking guidance from an entrepreneur who has GENUINELY been there and done it. REAL mentors can be used to help you get your business funded or purely through helping one achieve financial goals in their business. The average Rockstar Mentor has started, grown and sold at least one company for £18m! In nearly every sector in the UK. Having one of those mentors, from your sector as part of your team in the business plan and then having them sit next to you helping you do the pitch is why the Rockstar Funding Model works so well.

What makes a mentor?

The word “mentor” comes from the Latin word “Mentore” which means “to emulate” or “to be like”. Therefore what makes a very successful businessman or woman that other business people want to learn from to help them achieve the same level of success.

How did the experience of setting up your own business help to shape or inform the service you provide? Was it the inspiration?

Yes it was. Setting up my own successful business was done through the assistance of having a REAL mentor show me how to do it. I then, in my spare time, began mentoring other businesses years later, enjoyed it and thus created Rockstar to scale up what I was doing and give more people the opportunity to be mentored.

What was the biggest hurdle to overcome in setting up?

Getting the brand and reputation out to the number of people we needed for it to work. Unlike a lot of startups, we had a large marketing spend but learnt very quickly that even that will not work if you are not investing in the right measurable marketing strategies for the right type of audience. What we do now to market ourselves is almost completely opposite to what we used to do… This has come from trial and error with a big budget and, in hindsight, I would have done things differently in relation to our marketing than when we started 5 years ago… But hindsight is a wonderful thing! – as they say.

Do you have one tip for people looking to fund their business idea?

YES – prove you have a market! That does not include Googling surveys and statistics online. Go out there and speak to your potential customers, explain what you would like to offer them and ask them if they would buy it from you. Better still, actually make some sales before pitching. If you have not at least sold what you do to a good number of people and can prove that you have people who are willing to buy your product, then focus everything on making that happen first before asking someone else to take all the risk!

And finally, is this Generation Startup?

YES. One of the key positives that the recession caused was to drive up the number of people who are now serious and motivated to start their own business. In the 5 years we’ve been mentoring businesses in the UK, it is clear that a lot more people are wanting to become entrepreneurs.

For more on Rockstar Mentoring follow Jonathan and the team on twitter or check out their website.

Raspberry Pi, revolutionising education

Engineer Eben Upton is a trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. He is also in charge of developing the software and hardware of the Raspberry Pi device.Kaamil Ahmed met with him to discuss one of most exciting startups to date and the future of generation startup.

Eben Upton talking about Raspberry Pi

Old Street. Tech City. Silicon Roundabout. Those are the names associated with the growing community of small tech-based start ups blooming on the edges of the City. The increasing strength of this community has led to it being closely associated with this notion of ‘generation startup’ we’re so fond of discussing here at It’s a more than reasonable link; the web-based apps that are being created are made with minimal resources by people with ideas and not necessarily much else. But just because an area of tech has come to symbolise the ‘generation’ that doesn’t mean that world of technology is heading that way. At least, that’s according to Eben Upton.

Upton engineered the Raspberry Pi, a dead-cheap computer built to teach kids how to programme. Despite some great innovation on show by the people behind those Tech City startups, many are limited by the fact that they don’t have a complete understanding of the hardware, as well as software, that they use. Even for someone coding an app, getting involved in other areas of tech development can often be a fearsome endeavor, which limits their abilities says Upton.

“Is this generation start-up?” he asks back, “In tech, no. It’s easy for me to say because I think of startups that turn basic research into business.”

What Upton is referring to is his desire to see startups that don’t just try and fill a niche but try to completely revolutionise things. The education process, from school up to University, is flawed and that’s where Raspberry Pi comes in.

“Universities are good at giving a theoretical gloss. I think you need both the hacking ability and the formal stuff,” says Upton. “I hope we’ll have people going to Uni and knowing how computers work. You can leave now, not knowing how computers work.”

By gradually rolling out these basic computers to young people, Upton is hoping to break down the barriers that stop people really understanding computers and ultimately limiting their potential. Even for a web developer who has no everyday need to understand all the mechanics of a computer, he says: “If you know you could, nothing is mysterious.”

Raspberry Pi will hopefully be available to most students within a few years and will give them a chance to walk away from the Excel spreadsheets that usually dominate IT lessons and into the world of programming, and for some, unlocking the ability to turn some of their business brain-waves into real products.

Raspberry Pi is a project that excites many computer enthusiasts who had the chance to cultivate programming skills at a young age. Like them, Upton reminisces about the past when he explains what he hopes Raspberry Pi will lead to.

“I had a lot of intimidatingly bright friends. I hope there’ll be a new generation like that.”

Entrepreneurial Law

James Knight, along with friend Charlie Stringer, established their commercial law firm, Keystone Law, in 2002. Keystone was the first and now the largest ‘dispersed law firm’ in the UK, employing 105 lawyers who have gained experience in larger, more traditional law firms and now work all over the country with a central administration office in London.

In this sense, Keystone is truly entrepreneurial. ‘I don’t see entrepreneurs as just small business owners; entrepreneurial means doing something different in an established market with the scope to really grow’. James notes that their business model is ‘unusual’ for the industry.

But this is far from a revolution. The firm operates in a tough industry, with strict regulations to conform to in order to act as a fully-compliant law firm. James calls this a ‘challenging’ aspect of setting up the firm; the model was ‘engineered with these regulations in mind.’

But is it truly non-disruptive? In a sense, ‘that is the way more conventional law firms might see us’ but it seems that it was not the aim. The business model is shaped by growing technologies and not just because of the need for quick communication. ‘It was never possible before because of the technology.’ James takes me back to the days of law firms using libraries, vast collections of books to be referred to for every clause of the law. Of course, those are all online now. But they are not a web company. Essentially it is a ‘normal service but without the overheads and these cost savings are passed on to the client.’ These differences have resulted in what is fast becoming the strongest brand in the industry. Without the infrastructure of a conventional law firm, along with high value services, it’s clear that there is an element of disruptive business modelling, even if it wasn’t the plan.

Keystone are responding to age-old images of the legal industry as being ‘intimidating and expensive’. There was definitely a ‘strong demand for a different service at a different cost,’ he says. Lots of small companies and entrepreneurs in the UK need sophisticated legal advice and high quality lawyers with experience. Traditionally, law services are marketed through recommendations and word of mouth. ‘It was, in fact, illegal for services to be advertised in the press. Now you have a new version of the Yellow Pages: the Internet.’ Entrepreneurs and startups are a key part of their clientele. ‘They want a consultative service that is more personal.’

Is this generation startup?

‘We are moving from a corporate to a flexible culture’ when it comes to careers and ‘anything that’s been glamourised on TV is sure to be popular but you’ll struggle to see something others have missed if you’re coming from nowhere.’ James heavily emphasises the feedback you get in the very first stages of your business. It’s less about believing you can make it than actually receiving an enthusiastic response. ‘I never doubted my business could work because of the feedback we were getting – sentiment is the life force.’

Advice about law?

‘Don’t go to a lawyer to ask them to run your business, that’s your job – provide the skeleton, the lawyer can put the flesh on it.’ ‘They’re not there to make visions a reality.’
‘And don’t get into disputes, get everything in writing’ (an email counts!). Nothing slows a business down like a dispute – it will cost you time and money.’

Interview: Charles McGregor on his 90s startup

By Steph Pickerill

Charles McGregor started his first business in the early 90s, just a 28 year old. His fibre optic network business, Fibernet, went on to become a fully listed stock exchange company.

The reasons for starting your own business are as varied as the ideas themselves. So why did he start his own business? Motivation came from a few years of experience in industry. After graduating he went to work for 6 years, having studied business studies and banking. Those years of experience, the chance to ‘brush up against real life,’ provided the background he sees as key.

The decision to break from the regular and become self-employed, effectively in competition with his previous employers, was motivated by a number of factors.
The business started as a partnership, the joint aspiration of Charles and a friend who also worked in the industry, with mutual agreement that they could ‘quite arrogantly, do a better job than their employers.’

Age was a big factor, and this had a lot to do with youth and mindset. ‘The risks involved at that age seem relatively small. If it doesn’t work, I’ll get a job’. The freedom that comes with youth allows for the kind of independence that is so essential to taking the risk of starting your own business. ‘It is a decision taken very much for yourself, before the responsibility of making decisions for a family’. At the time of starting out, he sold his own house to raise funds. ‘I put in all I had, financially.’

That’s not to say that the risks aren’t there, while the personal decisions seem relatively easy to make, ‘it is very scary’ working without the support network provided by an established business. Inspiration came from the prospect of ‘an exciting adventure’.

The realities of starting out are, to use a cliche, a learning curve. ‘Nobody gets it right completely and it is definitely harder than you think it’s going to be.’ Also, looking back, the ambition was not as well thought-out as the success would suggest. ‘I’d love to say we had a grand, well-crafted plan’ but ‘we learnt as we went along.’

Any secrets to success? Charles is modest. ‘We were enjoying ourselves, that’s the best way to be.’ This ethos spread to the structure of the business in those crucial first five years. We did the jobs we loved’, he says. Getting the right people to work for you is key. ‘You have to give them prospects, a career path, even as a small business there must be ambition to retain good employees.’

And entrepreneurship? As lots of entrepreneurs do, Charles appreciates that ‘not all entrepreneurs are the same,’ but there are some aspects of his character that, looking back, seemed to fit the mould. He was head of school, something he now looks on as a sign of future leadership roles.

Charles speaks humbly of his startup experience and, since selling his business, has gone on to aid others in theirs as an investor and mentor.

‘I would do it all again, it’s extremely scary but very exciting.’

And is this generation startup? ‘I think that comparing this generation (ie yours) with those gone before where working hard and creatively for one company for a whole career meant stability, security and a rewarding pension was the expected ‘norm’ has now all but disappeared and has pushed today’s generation to start up their own businesses because the relative disadvantages are much closer. Couple this with the much improved environment, social acceptability and optical spectre of reward, both in job satisfaction and financial, then this is Generation Start Up.’

We’re live!

So now that we’re live here’s how we’re going to organise things:

Offshore - a look at the business and startup world outside the UK

In Focus – the freshest, youngest business idea we could find, from the people behind them

Tools for Trade - reviews of some of the many resources out there for entrepreneurs

Social StartUp - startups that are social, simple

Business Class – ok so it’s not all about us, what can we learn from those that have done it before?

Talking Shop – news, business talk, debate and discussion or just what we happen to be thinking about…

What do you think?