Building businesses: An interview with The Beermat Entrepreneur

Mike Southon, author of 'The Beermat Entrepreneur

Mike Southon, author of 'The Beermat Entrepreneur

For both budding and experienced entrepreneurs or even those of us launching something new I can recommend The Beermat Entrepreneur as a great book to read. Mike Southon, the co-author along with his business partner Chris West provide readers with a compelling template for launching a business.

As I suspected, there were plenty of parallels with the industrial print sector as the book draws upon the experience the authors have with launching and running very successful technology businesses.

So I thought I would contact Mike for the Industrial Print blog and discuss a few of the people issues surrounding successful technological innovation. This is sometimes a missed aspect of building a successful business, especially one with a technology focus. 

So Mike, tell us about yourself and your background?  

I studied Chemical Engineering at Bradford University, which is why I think I'm quite intrigued by industrial printing technology. 

After I left university I had a few lab-type positions, culminating in one of the best jobs I ever had, working for Tate & Lyle Research in Reading, turning sugar into detergent. I was particularly good at making washing powder :)

I also worked as a scaffolding salesman. I didn't particularly enjoy it but it helped pay the bills. I then came back into contact with a couple of old university friends who were doing rather well with this thing called UNIX (UNIX was the first computer operating systems written in the C language). Frankly, I had never heard about it before. I found out more and discovered that my personality and skill set was suited well to sales and marketing of UNIX training. From this start, by connecting with the right people I was able to launch a company called The Instruction Set, which, I am happy to say, became big and successful. 

So what have beer mats got to do with it then?

Well, the germ of the idea for The Instruction Set came from a chat with a couple of like-minded friends in a pub and we wrote the outline of the plan on a beer mat. The limited space helped focus us on creating a very clear elevator pitch, hence the title of the book. The Instruction Set grew into a significant business and we went through the same challenges that faced every business, and the book goes through those stages. This process isn't only relevant for The Instruction Set because it goes for all of the companies I've helped over the years. 

It is a practical book and easy read. So what inspired you to write this book?

To share my experience, to help others and frankly because I really believe in mentoring; I would have found It tremendously helpful to have had this book at the start of my journey.

These days I help and mentor entrepreneurs and since the book’s publication, I have worked with over 1,000 entrepreneurs, to build their businesses and enrich their lives, which is both fun and rewarding. 

The experience I have had could help others avoid any pitfalls and could also give people a short cut to success. All businesses are pretty similar, however in the technology business I think there are a set of rules that if you follow you'll optimise your chances of success.

So what are the peculiar challenges of a technology start up?

It's important to have the right people, first and foremost. Of course the idea is vital but having the right people in place makes the real difference.

So the formula isn't only about having the right Entrepreneur at the head of the business?

No not entirely. Whilst the entrepreneur might have formed the idea and have the vision and energy sometimes their weaknesses are as destructive as their strengths are constructive. For example, in the book my co-author Chris West outlines the downside of a classic entrepreneur’s personality, something that most business books skip.  

So what is the downside of an entrepreneur’s personality type?

Well there are a number of things. For example, they constantly interfere; they never finish anything and can be inconsistent. They get bored very easily; they can be intolerant of mistakes and impede progress, which can de-motivate people. Their dynamic impatience might be good at getting things started, but they really do need people around them who can finish what they have started and smooth out their rough edges.

Are entrepreneurs naturally good leaders?

Yes and no. They have the ability to inspire which is very valuable, but their ability to frustrate, meddle and change their minds doesn't always make for effective leadership. For technology businesses the entrepreneur must have a foil. A technical person needs a salesperson, and vice-versa. Later they will need a finance person. Each one of these cornerstones will be leaders in the business and must be strong enough to stand up against the entrepreneur. 

For industrial print technology, technical people are really important, what are the key challenges for a Beermat Entrepreneur?

Communication is key. A technical person is likely an introvert so they must be able to communicate well in order to inspire and direct appropriately. The technical person must be able to lead a team to innovate products the market actually wants not just ideas that are clever but that don't have an application or a purpose. This is a constant struggle with clever technical people. To inspire them to create things that are useful, as opposed to things that are clever but don't meet a customer need. 

One particular challenge is that technical people often don't trust sales people. They think that as soon as the sales person opens their mouths, they are telling a lie. It is this tension within a business that must be channeled in the right way.

What is the secret to success?  

Again, communication. All three cornerstones must be good communicators.  The ebullient one is likely the sales person and they don't stop communicating. But the technical and financial leads must be able to communicate well with their teams to ensure all are pulling together under the same vision. All cornerstones have to be focused and clear on goals and must be able to form the right teams of people around them to deliver success.

So is this as true for the large established businesses and small start up businesses? 

When the business begins it is in a ‘Seedling’ phase. Most entrepreneurs will be working from home at this stage. When one or two customers accept the idea, and they look to get an office, it will move towards the ‘Sapling’ phase where an office is established and the cornerstones begin to really get involved. 

As the business grows to 25 people, is relatively easy to retain a uniform vision and energy as the company doesn't require too much formal structure. The challenging step is from 25 to 50 people when the business becomes what we call a 'Mighty Oak'. It's inevitable that more structure and process is required in order for all to have what they need and for the business to move forward sensibly. 

The trick is to not overload the company with so much structure that this begins to kill inspiration and and ‘silos’ begin to form. Once this happens, it is likely the pace of innovation slows as the culture becomes more risk averse and people focus on staying safe. It all depends what the end game for the business is. 

So in your opinion it is the people strategy and culture that is really the key?

Yes it is, we can go into more detail about how this can go wrong, as most companies follow a cycle of growth and decline for one reason or another.  The reason they grow and decline is usually due to leadership and culture, which stems from people-related issues. 

So for those who want to hear more from The Beermat Entrepreneur, I recommend getting in touch. 

For now, thanks for your time, Mike

Mike Southon details: