The Foundation worked with Katherine during her MSc/PhD research into the “I am who I say I am?” – Identity negotiation in an entrepreneurship development programme. The research highlighted a set of key findings that allowed the Leadership Team to reflect on its practices and, hopefully, ameliorate the Foundation’s programme and improve the outcomes for the Founders that Alacrity serves.
Research Question 1 – How does an entrepreneur’s sense of who they are and who they are becoming change during the entrepreneurial process?
The Foundation’s response:
Alacrity has assumed that the Founders it recruits on to the programme are … ‘entrepreneurs’. The research highlighted that our approach needs to appreciate an individual’s sense of who they are and how that perception might change over the course of the programme. The Leadership Team spends a significant amount of time observing and examining individuals. In the past, during the first phase of the programme, Founders met with a member of the Leadership Team weekly for one-to-one discussions. These usually took place in a neutral location away from the office, such as a local café to discuss the Founders ‘feelings’ about the programme and their and their colleagues’ performance. We have recognised mood swings are normal during the programme. We sometimes describe the programme as an emotional roller-coaster with highs and some quite severe lows. The research has resulted in the Leadership Team extending one-to-ones so that they now take place throughout the programme, although on a monthly basis, or more regularly if requested, rather than a weekly basis after Phase 1 of the programme. During our one-to-ones the member of the Leadership Team now spends more time exploring the perceptions of a Founder in terms of the individual’s entrepreneurial journey. The Foundation does not have a template of characteristics that we believe that an entrepreneur should have. We do, however, expect individuals to take ownership of their project, company and their developing role/s in that organisation. The Leadership Team recognise that identity conflict is something at we all face in every walk of life and it should be seen as a part of a process that manifests itself in a myriad of ways. We are careful not to superimpose a particular view of an entrepreneur and only intervene where we see the internal conflict that someone faces as being destructive rather than constructive.
An interesting feature of the Foundation is that we ‘de-risk’ several key elements of the entrepreneurial journey that we have identified as major causes of failure for tech-based start-ups. For example, we provide a reasonably generous stipend for individuals throughout the 15 months of the programme and we have a seed-fund associated with the programme that teams that are exiting at the end of the programme can access. The latter element has been problematic as too many of the teams have viewed seed-funding as almost a certainty. The Foundation is now trying to impress upon the Founders that receiving the seed-fund is not a given and life for most start-ups is significantly more difficult than the journey they are on with the support they are given.
Research question 2 – What forms of rationality are driving their identity work?
The Foundation’s response:
Unashamedly, the Foundation guides its teams to develop significant economic value through rapid growth in sales and valuation. The Foundation introduces entrepreneurs who have had significant financial success and they tell their stories of the impact on themselves, co-founders and employees. Alacrity educates its Founders in establishing equity structures that rewards all those that contribute to business success; this is an important mechanism in establishing a values-based business that has significant social as well as financial impact. This message can be somewhat difficult in an ecosystem in Wales that has few role models of this type of business start-up and ambition. This is another distinguishing feature of the Foundation’s model. At the same time, the Foundation is very careful to espouse the highest ethical values in all business practices. This is non-negotiable.
The Foundation, as a result of the study, has altered its narrative to potential recruits, emphasising the values it expects of its Founders. In light, however, of the findings of this study around a Founder’s sense of who they are and how that perception might change over time and the notions of identity conflict and identity crystallisation, the Foundation is careful to understand that a Founder’s ‘rationality’ might not be fixed. The Foundation is also cognisant that many of the Founders are young and inexperienced. We have improved our approach by introducing what we describe as ‘non-executive mentors’ (NEM). These are experienced entrepreneurs who form a close relationship with individuals and a team and can advise on their development. The NEMs are normally introduced as part of our programme of external coaching, but, on the request of the individual or team, form a closer advisory and mentoring relationship with the individual or team. The NME may be a subject expert or someone who has a depth of knowledge and understanding of the entrepreneurial journey. The NEM might go on to become a formal non-executive member of the company’s board or even take-up an executive role. Whilst at the Foundation a NEM is not remunerated, however, after the team forms a company and receives funding this might change.
Research question 3 – What identity management strategies do they use to negotiate and construct their identity (ies) throughout the entrepreneurial process?
The Foundation’s response:
The findings of the third research question in this study have resonance with the findings to the first research question. The notion of identity conflict is one that the Foundation’s Leadership Team is very familiar. The Foundation actively recruits those that identify themselves as different and have a track record of acting differently. To develop successful global businesses based on digital solutions in a global market, the Founders have to be able to develop unique approaches. Adopting the status quo will result in failure.
The nature of the programme causes an amount of identity conflict: am I an entrepreneur?; am I good enough?; do I want to work in a team?; do I want to work in this team?; is this the vertical that I want to establish my business?; is this the technology I want to work with? These are just some of the questions that our Founders raise with us in our one-to-ones or other forums; there are many more. We recognise identity is an issue but is a by-product of our unique approach.
We are a demand-led pre-incubator. Our ideas come from industry. Far too many start-ups fail because the idea comes from the founder/s who have developed their business without demand for their product. This approach, however, requires a level of adaptability from our Founders. It is rare that a project will exactly fit the aspirations of a Founder. We are not convinced about the rhetoric in the start-up world that someone has to be passionate about their project from the outset. From our experience Founders develop a passion for their project and the sector that they are working in. The passion required is to work in a start-up and all the highs and lows that brings. The research, however, has resulted in the Leadership Team emphasising to potential recruits on to the programme the nature of our project identification and selection processes. We have now also adopted a strategic partnership approach to project identification, where we work with organisations well in the advance to a new cohort to identify areas that we may work with them. This informs the type of graduate that we recruit and also allows us to give a flavour of the type of project that may be available.
We form teams from often disparate groups of individuals. This is another unique feature of the programme. It is also another aspect of the programme that can be problematic. Forming teams in any endeavour is fraught with issues, but in a pre-incubator that specialises in tech start-ups this is probably the most difficult aspect of our programme. Again, identity conflict comes into play. We deliberately only designate certain positions, i.e. business or technical founder. We do not designate the dreaded ‘C’ level positions. In the past we have observed teams spending more time on their ‘C’ level designations than they have on their product. During the course of the research, confirmed by the findings of the study, we have, during one-to-ones and other fora, spent more time with individuals getting a better understanding of their perspective on their position in the team. Where we can, we coach and mentor the individual to help them find their way through the twists and turns of building a fast growth company from scratch.
A feature of tech start-ups is their tendency to pivot. Sometimes teams move significantly away from their original business problem. At all times we attempt to keep individuals and teams grounded in the principles of the Foundation’s programme: demand-driven products; globally scalable businesses. We have recognised that with every pivot there is dislocation for the team and its members. Again, as a result of the study’s findings we have extended the period for individual mentoring and are far more aware of the dangers of identity conflict and even identity loss: “what on earth am I doing here?”
In the past we have expended significant effort on building associations; developing a community within the cohort and with the wider Alacrity family of graduates. At the same time, the Foundation’s Leadership Team ensure that where an individual desires a degree of separation from the cohort that wish is facilitated. It is important for all on the programme to have alignment between their personal goals and identity and those required on the programme and as a member of a high performing team.
The programme is a extremely intensive learning experience. The mental and physical health of our Founders, however, is the highest priority. The Foundation has established protocols and support for Founders. The research reinforced the necessity for constant vigilance, particularly around the mental health of our Founders.
Overall, as a result of the findings, the Leadership Team are better able to articulate areas of concern. Many of the findings did not surprise the Team, but having areas that are critical to the safety and performance of the programme highlighted using clearly expressed frameworks have assisted the Team in the strategic and operational management of the Foundation. In particular, it is important for the Leadership Team to remain cognisant of some of the underlying issues that a programme of the nature of the Foundation’s will always face and to react to individual circumstances appropriately.