Scale-up Challenges: Finding founder support

Last week I was in London at an event which celebrated the founder of an organisation that is very close to my heart – Teach First. It’s an education charity which enabled me to start my career as a teacher, and it continues to be the driving force behind a movement of leaders committed to social mobility in the UK. But not only that, it’s also a scale-up. An organisation which grew from 30 people to 300 in the 5 years I worked there (2008 – 2013) and has continued to swell ever since.

Brett in his inimitable humble style, talked about his experience over the last 15 years as one of real challenge, of loneliness and of support. This is a trend I have heard from a number of scale-up founders over the last 4 months – that the peer to peer support is vital to their growth, as leaders and as organisations. But sadly, that support isn’t always easy to find. So I decided to put some effort (about 10 hours of research) into exploring the options – what works and what is available, particularly in the West of England/Bristol area.

I didn’t find any formal ideal structure for leadership related groups that drive/support a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, but there are models from which we can draw inspiration. In London we see three broad categories of group:

  1. Mixed community groups – these are cross sector/industry and create an informal atmosphere for social interaction and sharing of good practice/ideas.
  2. Founders community groups which bring together investors, successful serial entrepreneurs and first time scale-up entrepreneurs.
    – In London one example of this is the ICE Group who are largely socially driven and participate in a couple of holidays together per year as well as regular drinks/social events and a stream of informal communication via what’s app.
  3. Invitation only groups which are often designed and managed by an individual both for philanthropic/altruistic reasons and for their own benefit as a member of the group. These groups, often of 6-8 people will bring together like-minded entrepreneurs often in the same sector/stage of business to problem solve and provide peer to peer support in a smaller, trusted group.

In the West of England, we have a wealth of small meetup groups focused on specific industries, business types and interests some would say that there are more digital meetups in Bristol than in any other area of the country. In fact, the sheer volume of meetup groups can be off-putting particularly for scale-up founders whose time is at a premium and for whom the guarantee of quality and value from an event is particularly important.

Currently there are very few groups that specifically bring together founders of fast-growing scale-up businesses. This paper shares more detail around best practice for scale-up founder related groups and  makes some recommendations for the future.

Scale-up Institute Endorsed Groups – good practice

The Scale-up Institute endorses a number of initiatives and programmes across the country. With particular reference to events to build founder networks, they suggest we consider the following:

  1. The Supper Club, Prelude Group – London only
    1. Membership club exclusively for fast-growth founders and CEOs (Founders and CEOs only with a minimum £1M turnover)
    2. Learn from their peers in the pursuit of business growth.
    3. Relaxed and confidential environment which is all about growing your business in a constructive, collaborative way.
    4. Exclude consultants, professional services, life coaches, one-man bands, mentors and anyone joining to ‘sell’ to our members
    5. Joining fee £495, social membership £250/month, forum membership £450/month Approx. 14 events/month for Supper Club – some with additional cost.
  2. Inspire Elite, Wiltshire: “Supporting the growth ambition of South West Businesses”
    1. Inspire are supporting high growth businesses to become even more successful because we believe that these growing businesses will have the highest impact on the economy of South West.
    2. The programme invites business owners who have consistently enjoyed growth for 3+ years, have an annual turnover of £1M+ and who have 10+ employees to apply for the program.
    3. Business owners (MD/CEO) will pay c. £1,000 per annum to attend quarterly, thematic events and receive tailored support from the Inspire Elite team.
  3. Platinum Group, The Black Country
    1. The Platinum Group, was formed 5 years ago by the Black Country Chamber of Commerce. It is a network of committed and senior leaders within the Black Country, from the high value manufacturing, automotive, logistics, freight & distribution sector, who become actively involved with learning, influencing and networking. They meet to share knowledge, new ideas and best practice, as well as working collectively to promote the region and tackle the challenges holding it back.
    2. The programme costs a business c. £2500 per annum and involves as many layers of an organisation as possible to ensure that it is not just the MD or owner that benefits from the experience and hold quarterly meetings for other members of their management team, such as HR Directors, Sales Directors and Operations Directors.

Existing Networking Events in the region

Drawing on a brief google search and conversations with the scale-up business community, the following list  summarises the existing networking groups in the West of England which could be suitable for Scale-up Founders. I have prioritised those groups designed to support development of leadership capacity and capability.

Founders Community Groups

  1. South West Founders – South West Founders is a monthly meet-up for people based in the South-West who have been, are, or want to be tech start-up founders. We aim to connect local entrepreneurs with co-founders and other like-minded people as well as tech investors to create an informal support network.
  2. Threads Meetup – Sponsored by TechFolk, Ashfords and Anomosys. Peer-to-peer learning for tech business leaders. Running a technology company can seem a challenging and solitary place as you build, lead and grow the business. Threads is a different kind of learning resource. Exclusively for founders and senior managers of companies creating technology, IP or products, it’s an informal facilitated roundtable discussion that draws on collective learning and experience. Think of it as a constructive group hack of the challenges faced at a business, staff and personal level.
  3. NEW The Bristol & South West Technology Leaders Society The Bristol & South West Technology Leaders Society is a group for meeting of CIOs, CTO’s VPs of Engineering and the like. These rules aren’t firm, more guidelines. Interested in networking and professional development then this is the group for you. Monthly meetings on Wednesday or Thursday evenings from 6pm – 8:30pm with guest speaker and networking.

Mixed community groups

The West of England has more tech meetups than any other regions which attract a diverse, broad community of attendees.

  1. Girl Geek Dinners – third Wednesday of the month – events run by women’s tech hub including a presentation from local female tech geek, discussion and dinner hosted by local business.
  2. Bristol Business Lunch: Networking, Mastermind and Learning – NRG Business Networking  invites Directors of a Business or Partners in Professional Firms whose best business comes via recommendation to join a trusted network for business, support and friendship. Join a monthly events to see if the NRG approach would suit you and your business.
  3. Working Breakfast – members business networking for small and medium sized businesses. Focused on referrals and informal networking.
  4. BrisTech – Bristech meetup events are held on the first Thursday of every month (bar August). Two invited speakers share their knowledge on topics from across the technical spectrum (with a bias towards software). Intended for those who are tech agnostic (and certainly ‘tech curious’) offering a wide variety of topics and not focused on any particular technology or software.
  5. Bristol Junior Chamber – The BJC boasts a large and diverse membership of c. 130 under 40yr old business professionals from many of the key firms and organisations within the city and region. Each and every member of the BJC is warmly welcomed to each meeting or social event and is given many opportunities to be part of smaller teams leading projects on behalf of the wider membership
  6. First Friday – an informal networking event hosted at the Watershed by Dick Penny on the first Friday of every month between 16:00 and 18:00. This event is not publicly advertised but rather shared by word of mouth.

Invitation only groups

  1. Executive Foundation – EFx Dinners at Calcot Manor hosted by Mike Wilsher
    1. ‘Join us in building the “Silicon Valley of the South West’
    2. Members only – further information not sought.
  2. James Breese – Evo Genesis:
    1. Breakfast Meeting at Harvey Nichols: First Wednesday of each month, 7.30am-9.30am
    2. Post Work Meeting at Harvey Nichols: Middle Tuesday of every other month, 6.15pm-8.15pm
    3. Advertised on EventBrite – all welcome to attend (pay for breakfast only – £18.50) and then may be invited to join the group.
  3. Big Bristols – Small group of 6-8 successful entrepreneurs who meet every six weeks for supper and problem solving. They spend the first 2-3 hours dissecting a specific challenge that one member faces. They will circulate a summary beforehand, provide a 20 min overview on the day followed by 20 min questions and 20 min recommendations.
  4. Entrepreneurs Anonymous – a small group of fast-growth business founders who meet regularly to share challenges, explore approaches and refine potential solutions.

Networking and referral/lead generation groups

These groups usually require attendance from a maximum of one founder per industry and work to support founders to increase referrals and new business. Largely these groups are populated by business-to-consumer (B2C) businesses rather than business-to-business (B2B) businesses.

  1. Interactive Business Club – Annual membership: £60 to attend fortnightly lunch (£16) at the Future Inn, Cabot Circus. Quarterly social events and a charity of the year.
  2. Business Networking International (BNI Cook) – select group of individuals (1 per industry) who meet at The Square Club, Berkeley Square fortnightly
  3. Network10, Almondsbury – business networking group based in Bristol, run by the members, for the members.
  4. Sterling Integrity – organises a network of groups designed to support business growth and success through conversation over a meal. Groups are curated and new members are welcome to attend one session initially. (Business registered in Cheltenham).
  5. Avon Business Club – a non profit model and a small, friendly, relaxed independent business club which helps members boost their business and focuses on quality referrals rather than targets. The group hopes to increase their business via direct and indirect referrals, tap into the expertise of other members of the group, establish strategic alliances within the group).
  6. 4Networking – Relaxed, fun and friendly business networking; three 10-min business appointments at EVERY meeting; network locally, regionally and even nationally; swap advice and biz with 50,000+ members online; choose from 5000+ unstuffy business networking events each year (business registered in Taunton).
  7. Vistage – c. 5 chairs run groups in or around the West of England
  8. Bristol Life Business Club a select group attend a talk from a leading business thinker. This event brings the city’s businesses together in a discreet atmosphere, away from overt sellers and keen consultants.


Some business owners will receive the benefits of leadership capacity and capability development through an organised programme. For example, members of SETsquared will receive support through business mentoring, business review panels and exposure to specialists and members of Entrepreneurial Spark will receive leadership development support through their programme.

Gaps and Opportunities

This quick analysis of the landscape of events particularly in Bristol and the surrounding area suggests:

  • The region has a wealth of mixed community groups – the examples listed are only a sample of those found through a search of Eventbrite or, these aren’t designed largely to support scale-up or fast-growth business founders.
  • There is a large number of referral or lead generation groups but these are not often attended by scale-up business founders (those looking to grow at 20% per annum).
  • There is a growing number of small invitation-only groups
    • There is an opportunity to scale this model but this is hard to achieve as the success often depends on the commitment and engagement of a lead individual in the group.
  • There are a small number of groups that are designed for fast growth founders which qualify as ‘founders community groups’ and these are largely not curated/managed. This presents an opportunity and there are some early movers in the field:
    • We will see Inspire Elite launch in February 2018 which will be a second example of a paid-for community group of this type targeting fast growth founders (Executive Foundation being the first).
    • A couple of local businesses are exploring the possibility of setting up a scale-up founders group – if you’d like to find out more, get in touch.
    • There are no groups which bring together specialist groups across sectors and industries such as CTO/CFO etc. Threads targets ‘operational leaders’ but does not restrict attendance to this group.

And one last thought – the scale-up founders in the West of England certainly don’t suffer from the peril that Brett (Founder of Teach First) highlighted – the ‘tyranny of low expectation’. So I hope we will emulate their approach as we (the West of England) work out how best to support our community of scale-up business founders. If you are a member of this community, you run a relevant event that should be on this list or you know about or want to create new solutions, please get in touch.

Where else can you look for scale-up events in the West of England? Try TechSPARK events calendar, Engine Shed events listing and as a starter for 10.

This blog series tells the story of the Scale-up Enabler, Briony Phillips. Briony joined the Engine Shed team on a 1 year contract in June 2017 funded by Business West, Engine Shed, The University of Bristol and the West of England Growth Hub. This group have a shared ambition – first, to identify scale-up businesses in the West of England region and to better understand their challenges and second, to design, facilitate and support initiatives that will make it easier for businesses to scale-up more effectively – in the long term.

Links and information are correct as of September 2017.

Briony – Scale-up Enabler