In May 2018 I took over as CEO of the Alacrity Foundation in Newport. After over a year in the job I feel like Major General Urquhart who stated in the epic World War II film, A Bridge Too Far, “I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000. I don’t feel much like sleeping.” The truth is, I am knackered, but I also do not feel much like sleeping – because I cannot – I am responsible, with my great team, for multiple start-ups.
What is Alacrity?
Alacrity is a unique technology-based pre-incubator. We take bright founders (graduates from leading universities) and form them into teams (companies). We give the teams’ demand-led problems to solve and put them through a rigorous fifteen-month programme that, hopefully, results in the teams forming a globally saleable technology-based businesses. At the end of the programme the teams/companies maybe eligible for up to £250,000 of seed-funding. Having run executive management programmes in higher education for many years, the Alacrity Foundation programme is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most intense and rewarding educational experience that I have been involved in.
In the last sixteen months I have: recruited a new management team; reorganised the Foundation’s programme; sought external projects and funding; maintained, established and developed stakeholder relationships; increased Alacrity’s external profile; whilst – completing the programme for the previous cohort, delivering the programme for the current cohort and recruiting for the next cohort. But, there is still much to do.
The challenges of the role have been myriad and I have far from solved all the issues we face. In fact, I still feel like I am new to the business. No two days at the Foundation are the same. I have, however, been rewarded with great support by my benefactors, my exceptional board and the best team in the business. Working with some of the great technology entrepreneurs that the UK has ever produced, trying to ensure that their legacy is carried over to the next generation, is exceptionally satisfying. Oh, and I came to the role with only the most rudimentary understanding of the software industry – what is an API? Google is a wonderful thing. I had a reasonable knowledge of start-up funding, incubators and accelerators. Technology-based start-ups, at the earliest stage in their development, however, have some idiosyncratic components. The intensity and speed of the software industry are not to be under-estimated. Also, the peculiar culture that has developed around technology-based start-ups can be somewhat bemusing for a fifty-five year old ex-academic.
There is a wide-spread misunderstanding that millennials are becoming a stereotype … fill in the gap: entitled; lazy; narcissistic; arrogant; materialistic; and, bearded!! These are terms that have been incorrectly attributed to the generation of founders from which we recruit. I can more readily apply the following terms to our founders: talented; driven; focussed; open-minded; empathetic; supportive; confident; self-expressive; and upbeat. These characteristics are essential in any form of start-ups…along with a table tennis table and donuts.
I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with some great partner companies and mentors since joining the Foundation. We depend on the input of external mentors who provide real-life and relevant insights (education) to our founders. We do not pay the external mentors, but fortunately they get as much out of mentoring as we get from them – a win-win. Our project partners support us with exciting, interesting and significant projects that allow our teams to work with them to develop a solution. Real projects, producing real solutions, for real problems. I wish every applied higher education programme could have such foci.
Like any business, a CEO is only as good as their team. We are a tight unit that work like any business that is run using agile principles. We are flexible, open with each other and are continually critically appraising what we do and the impact we have on each other and our stakeholders. We have no choice, because we literally do not know what we will face in the next week, day, hour …. and have to deliver.
Unlike Urquhart, I feel like sleeping but today the new cohort of founders commences our programme. Yes, we have lost a few of the troops on the way, but that is the nature of start-ups. I cannot wait to start working with the new teams today. Onwards and no bridge is too far!