Innovation and entrepreneurialism are vital in business. Sarah Shearman asks the man who was at the heart of many of Virgin Group's new-business ventures about the state of the UK start-up scene.
The UK is the world's 'leading internet economy', if figures from the Boston Consultancy Group are to be believed. With 8.3% of economic activity coming from the internet, combined with the shaky state of the overall economy, the UK government is highlighting the importance of technology to the future growth of GDP.
Investment has been flowing into the UK start-up scene, and East London's Tech City in particular, for a while. But with technology entering the mainstream, brands have also started to take notice of the business opportunities that start-ups present.
With this in mind, Marketing spoke to Ashley Stockwell, who is guest academy director of Wayra UK, a scheme run by telecoms provider Telefónica that invests in technology start-ups. Stockwell, a veteran of Virgin brands before moving to Global Ethics, where he helped build the One brand globally, works closely with the start-up teams to ensure they receive business, brand and marketing mentoring.
Here he explains how brands can learn and benefit from entrepreneurialism and the wave of innovation sweeping the industry.
Why is it important to have an organisation such as Wayra to promote innovation?
Today's economic climate, particularly in the UK and Europe, is as challenging as it has ever been for start-ups. If you can help a business on its way in times like these, we will be in a much stronger position in the longer term. Giving financial backing to these companies is important, but also vital are the connections and networks we can provide for them.
A lot of brands are supporting this start-up movement, but is the government doing enough?
Both parties are key, and businesses and government have been working hand-in-hand. Boris Johnson opened the Academy two weeks ago, which shows the commitment of London in supporting tech start-ups and business. The government is helping to get money into this sector and there is a healthy relationship to make it successful.
How many truly innovative new businesses are there?
When we opened the Academy, we had more than 1000 entries and narrowed it to 16. The economic environment forces people to think about new ideas and business opportunities. There will never be enough funding to go around, otherwise more businesses would launch and fly on their own.
There has been a lot of criticism of red tape stifling start-ups. Could the UK produce a Facebook or Twitter?
An entrepreneur should be able to challenge red tape. There are things that slow you down, but if your passion is to launch a business idea, then generally people will succeed, regardless.
More brand-owners are getting involved in the tech start-up scene, such as the PepsiCo10 incubator programme. Is there an opportunity for all brands to play a part?
It won't be right for every brand, and FMCG brands investing in tech start-ups wouldn't really make sense to me. It should be relevant to the brand. Clearly Telefonica's investment in Wayra, which helps tech start-ups that are mainly focused on mobile business ideas, makes sense for the company.
What is the role of entrepreneurialism within the marketing industry?
I believe entrepreneurship is the life blood of marketing. New agencies are created and driven by entrepreneurs, such as those behind Adam & Eve. The first few digital agencies weren't owned by the big agency groups, but driven by marketing entrepreneurs. And that's just those that do it within the industry; there are plenty of examples of marketers launching tech businesses or magazines.
Having worked in a series of start-ups, do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?
I wouldn't say I was an entrepreneur, but I like working with, and for, entrepreneurs - they are challenging people.
I worked on start-ups at Virgin, from drinks to mobile, and gained experience on rebranding and repositioning trains and media. Moving to a tiny start-up like Global Ethics was like stepping back in time, after 19 years at Virgin. It feels like the next logical step for me is to share some of that experience with a broader range of business.
WHAT IS WAYRA?
Telefonica in Latin America was looking for an alternative way to buy technology, rather than having to go to California. Someone in the team believed there must be talent locally, so came up with the idea of Wayra. It enables technology start-ups to submit their ideas, with the best ones receiving funding and the opportunity to work in the Academy for six months. Some of those businesses may end up working closely with Telefonica, some may not. There are now 10 academies in Latin America and Spain, with London the latest.
CV: ASHLEY STOCKWELL
- Wayra UK Guest academy director, May 2012-present
- Global Ethics Global sales and marketing director, moving to non-executive director, brand and marketing, 2011-present
- Virgin Media Executive director, brand and marketing, 2006-11
- Virgin Group Brand marketing director, 2000-06
- Virgin Trains Design director, 1997-99
- Eurostar Design and brand manager, 1997-99
- Virgin Drinks Design manager, 1995-96
- Virgin Atlantic Design manager, 1991-95
- British Airways Design executive, 1988-91
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