Neeta Patel - Helping Future Entrepreneurs!

Neeta and I met for breakfast at Finch's Pub for a very long overdue interview with Breakfast with Tiffany. Neeta is the founding CEO of New Entrepreneurs Foundation, where I was privileged to be part of the 2016 cohort. I will be forever grateful to her for allowing me to embark on a different career, as she was the one to extend an olive branch when I failed to get in with my original application and she gave me a second chance by inviting me to interview – the rest is history! We talk about her career as a corporate entrepreneur, an investor and a change agent; the origins of NEF and its successes to date, as well as her advice for founders of the future! 

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Meet Neeta

Current Job Chief Executive of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation.

First Job Aged 12 doing the 4-7pm evening slot after school each day in my parent’s corner grocery shop in Crouch End, North London.

Education Masters degree in Chemistry from Oxford University; MBA in Marketing from Cass Business School; Sloan Fellowship in Strategy and Leadership from London Business School.

Go to meeting spot Finch’s pub

Favourite book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford; More Human by Steve Hilton. The latter really resonated with me as it reflected on how we are de-humanising our society in the name of technological progress: making homes, buildings and offices attractive to look at but unsuitable for living and working in; making customer support totally virtual, thereby alienating and marginalising those who cannot participate. Lots of really interesting questions about where our society is moving. 

Necessary extravagance I subscribe to about a dozen magazines – a lot of business magazines, The Spectator, Harvard Business Review, The Economist but also Vanity Fair, Private Eye and so on! 

Favourite productivity tool My watch. I only have 30 min meetings whenever I can due to my very short attention span!

Top networking tip You have to be there in order to meet people, so show up and be present.


The Journey

Can you tell us about some of your experiences prior to New Entrepreneurs Foundation? 

I was lucky enough to begin my career in tech at BT and technology has traversed my career ever since. In 1995 came my first career pivot - my first management job at Legal & General. I was fresh out of my MBA, the Internet was just taking off and I was excited by the prospect. I was head of brand advertising and communications, in charge of a £40m budget and 47 staff. I always used to be described as an agitator within companies later coined an innovator, and I thought we should give the Internet a go! I persuaded the CEO to give me the budget and 2 people to work on it with me. He asked me to step down from my current role, which was a huge corporate job for a FTSE 100 company, if I wanted to pursue this hunch. It was a big risk - I thought it over for about a minute and decided to jump in with both feet. We launched the first ever personal finance website in Europe at a time when there were only 300 URLs registered in the UK. That website won 9 awards and beat the likes of Nike and BA to become the e-commerce company of the year in 1997 – something I am still very proud of. 

That kicked off my interest in the power of the Internet and digital technology. I subsequently joined The Financial Times as part of their digital personal finance team and then ran FT.com. That set my pathway of going into companies and turning around their digital presence. It also set my own understanding of my attitude to risk – I am a high risk taker – although the older I get, the more measured the risks become. The ability to embrace risk has allowed me to jump into my own ventures even though they failed and to always look out for the next opportunity.

What is New Entrepreneurs Foundation and its philosophy? 

We are a UK educational charity with the aim of developing the entrepreneurial leaders of the future. We are not an accelerator or an incubator – if anything I describe us an accelerator for the individual. Our belief is that if you select bright people who possess an entrepreneurial mindset, place them in an entrepreneurial environment where they can learn from people who have done it before, offer formal training in tools and techniques and, finally, give them coaching and mentoring from people who can help them, they are more likely to not only start their own ventures but are also likely to be more successful. This was the thesis on which NEF was launched. Five years on we have proven the thesis with some exciting results which are published in our annual report.

What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneurial leader today?

My line manager at Legal & General, who was one of the first female IT directors in a FTSE 100 company in the 70s, once told me she would give me just enough rope to hang myself with before she will come to my rescue. It wasn’t meant to be negative but rather advice to suggest  you should always try things but make sure you have a fall back. That has been my philosophy in life – give it a go. Nobody dies in the job we do as we are not in the medical profession. If you have an idea and you are passionate about it, do it! 

What would you like to be remembered for? 

Having had a positive impact on the companies I have worked in as well as on the individuals I have engaged with. I hope that the companies would say that Neeta came in and shook us up and made us think in a different way even if it was uncomfortable at the time. For individuals to say that she helped me think things through, moved my ideas forward, supported my ambitions and pushed me to think beyond my boundaries and comfort zones.


New Entrepreneurs Foundation 

What has been the evolution and milestones to date of NEF? 

It has been evolution not revolution. NEF was launched five years ago based on this hypothesis that Oliver Pawle, Founder and Chairman, had, and in an entrepreneurial fashion we just did it and tried it. Some of the new NEFers coming through don't realise how entrepreneurial and light footed we are. For the first cohort, workshops were being designed a week before they were delivered, we didn’t have venues or providers and there wasn’t a formal coaching or mentoring programme. What this ‘pioneering’ cohort got was very different to what the class of 2017 is going through. The programme has evolved over time in an iterative way, we do reviews at the end of each year and ask participants about what they think and then we change it for the following year.

What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for NEF? 

One of the difficulties we have is measuring impact on a programme that is about developing skills. NEF is about changing attitude and confidence - how do you measure that? We are not an accelerator so we can’t just measure startup KPIs. It is one metric but not the only one we care about. We borrowed some of the impact metrics from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business programme because part of their criteria is how the founders felt their skills had developed and we added our own criteria.

We now have two sets of KPIs, one is the hard data – how many startups, how many are still live, how much money have they raised, how many jobs have they created. We have to report that and we measure it rigorously every year. The second element is a study about how the participants on the programme have developed in terms of their own confidence and skills. There is a structured quantitative and qualitative methodology designed by UCL and we have just completed the second phase of that. We are trying to ascertain if the programme helps NEFers to develop skills that will help them with their entrepreneurial career, build networks and lastly the confidence to feel they can do it.

I am pleased to say the answer is yes to all of the above – the results are really encouraging. On the hard data - there have been 5 cohorts, 155 candidates have launched over 100 businesses of which 63 are live, and they have raised nearly £11 million in early stage seed funding and created over 650 jobs – that is quite amazing. What is incredible is almost 40% of the cohorts have launched a business considering we take people in with just ambition. We have nothing to benchmark against. There isn't an analog organisation but the perception data is also looking good.

What are some of the future ambitions of NEF? 

We have proven the hypothesis and now we want to see if it is possible to scale without losing the quality and personal nature of it. We are now at 43 people in the 2017 cohort. We could never scale to 100 in a single cohort as I feel we would lose the hands-on nature of the programme. With our Trustees, we are looking at various options by which we could scale the programme and reach a wider audience. These discussions are really at a very early stage so watch this space!


Women in Tech

What would your advice be to graduates? 

It has to be follow your passion. If going into banking is what you personally feel you want to do - you should do it, there will always be jobs in banking, consulting, industry and other sectors. It is about self- awareness. What makes you happy and what environment do you want to work in? Think carefully about that. Follow your passion and make sure it has a purpose. 

What tips would you share with female founders looking to start their own business and subsequently raise finance?

Do it. There is a lot of support out there. There are some amazing women coming up in the entrepreneurship space. Be as confident as is needed. Mirror investors. If you have a detailed, cerebral, quiet investor respond that way. If you have someone that feeds off energy give them that energy. I've seen men do it all the time in meetings and interviews and women don't do that because they feel it would be rude.

How can we do better to attract and retain more women in business? 

More role models are needed and media do have a role to play to showcase them but it is deeper than that. Structural change is required. It starts in the home and then in schools. Teachers should encourage STEM subjects; we need to create a narrative that says if you get a degree in physics it doesn't mean you have to go and teach physics. We have to show girls the different paths their careers can take.


Follow Neeta! 

 

Salone Sehgal - Building the Future of Gaming!

Salone and I met at Fernandez & Wells for breakfast. We talk about her move from VP in banking to Founder and CEO of an innovative gaming start-up for a female audience - pushing on the status quo. The interview covers her thoughts on accelerators, hiring and fundraising advice as well as our discussion on the future of gaming. 

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Meet Salone

Current Job CEO of Truly Social

First Job I was an analyst at KPMG in India, where I started my career, I was part of the transaction services team working on corporate M&A and diligence.

Education I completed my Economics undergraduate degree in India and I did my MBA at IESE Business School in Barcelona – the best two years of my life! 

Favourite book The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – it is the most truthful account of what it is like to be a CEO of a company – I would recommend it to any entrepreneur.

Favourite productivity tool Trello  

Recent inspiration The story of Yusra Mardini - a Syrian refugee who swam her way to Greece and then became part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team. 

Top networking tip Be confident and ensure to follow up to establish your credibility that you keep your word. 

Hottest tech startup in the UK right now Blippar


The Journey

What was the motivation to leave the corporate banks behind to co-found TrulySocial - did you perceive it as a big risk? 

I was so fed up, I had been in banking for over 6 years; I had pulled enough all nighters and was living such a bad lifestyle. What bothered me the most was starting to feel like a small cog and not feeling like I was having an impact. On the one hand you are paid well but on the other you don’t have the time to enjoy the money. At a point your learning curve also stops and that is when you start to feel that you want to do something meaningful. I was a VP when I quit and a lot of my friends and family asked me what I was doing! I thought I might want to try start-ups but I had no job nor plan when I left and at the time it did feel foolish.  

What is TrulySocial & what was the inspiration behind it? 

We are a casual mobile gaming studio – so we build mobile games. Sebastian, my co-founder is a passionate gamer and serial entrepreneur. He realised innovation was lacking in the gaming industry – people were just re-skinning successful game genres - no one was creating something different or new. We wanted to dispute the notion that gaming was a male bastion – that women don’t game. We wanted to come up with immersive, exploratory games for a casual female audience. At the macro level it makes huge sense - globally 55% of causal gamers are women who spend more money on mobile games than men. But the vast majority of games targeted at women are either puzzles or dress up! There is a market for something different. Our first title is this contemporary social world roleplaying game. It is very much like if your life was a sit com, what would it look like! 

What was your experience of Startupbootcamp and what was your thought process behind choosing which or if an accelerator was right for you?

We took part in Startupbootcamp's mobile accelerator. It was helpful in a lot of ways. We were outsiders in the gaming industry, which is renowned for being a small, close-knit and complex community. There are probably only 10 incumbents who have been in it for the last decade and you need some serious backing to go up against a King a Tencent or a Supercell. So we thought an accelerator would be a great platform for credibility and grooming as we were first time entrepreneurs. It helped us think about the business and look inwards – that was the time that I took over as CEO. We met a lot of interesting people, however, very few people understood games specifically, most were focused more on tech, mobile and entrepreneurship generally and less on the nuances of games and that was a bit inadequate for us but it was a superb stepping stone and a great launch pad. I would encourage people to go through an accelerator program simply because if you are two founders it is a great stress test. It is in hindsight a lot of equity to give up but you make the best decisions at the time with the information available to you. 

What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?

You have to drink your own kool-aid. If you don’t believe in your product, business and vision chances are people are not going to believe in you either. This self-belief is necessary. Another great piece of advice is to always look forward instead of going back and thinking you could have done things better. 


TrulySocial  

What has been the evolution and milestones to date of TrulySocial? 

  1. The fact that we came from outside the industry to a point where people know of us and know what we are building
  2. The fact that we have some of the best investors in the world involved. They watched us and monitored us for 12 months and even when they invested in us it was an investment in a hypothesis of what we wanted to do. The fact that they backed and believed in us makes me proud.
  3. We have some world-class talent in the company, passionate about our mission. It is a new team that has come together and delivering 100%. 
  4. Our foresight. Our thesis that women are valuable as an audience is slowing being validated. We systematically looked at the problem that the mobile gaming industry faced. Building a great game is not enough anymore. Now you need to have a robust user acquisition strategy. You need to have distribution and go after un tapped markets. One was the Indian market – no one thought it was a viable market for gaming but it is a billion consumers. Now the fact is that there have been developments in India that have illustrated that in the next two years India is going to be a market of 600m smartphone users, who will be consuming a lot of apps and gaming is a natural progression. That was a thesis that we had early on. So we have partnerships and distributions and celebrities in place there. We are building influence and relationships there. We are innovating in our space in a number of different ways. The way we build our game, the way we do distribution, the way we approach user acquisition. Thinking about the full stack. It is important to break the hegemony of the app store of fb advertising. If you want to reach your audience, particularly a female audience who largely don't consider themselves as gamers, then you have to think of different ways. 

How have you learnt and continually improved your CEO skills? 

I learn a lot from my team who are brutally honest with me. I appreciate that they feel they can give me feedback. We also had an executive coach who really helped my co-founder and I define our roles and how we could harness our potential as founders. Every entrepreneur needs mentorship through challenges. I also have an early investor who serves as a great advisor and sounding board to chat through strategic decisions. Supportive ex-entrepreneur parents and their guidance also acts as a major anchor for me. 

What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?

There are obvious product specific KPIs when you are building a company to help guide decision making – how engaged players are, retention of the product, measuring early monetisation etc. 

But the biggest KPI for my team is how happy people are – happy people create great products. How do they feel about the company. You constantly need to check in to see how motivated they are. How stressed are they? What can the company do to help? One of our values is we do well if we all do well – we take care of each other and we all thrive. We made it very clear that a person is an amalgamation of their personal experiences and their professional experiences – you bring both and that’s ok – you should feel comfortable coming to work and having a bad day. And if you are having a bad week that’s fine too.

We are also very careful about how we recruit. We learnt the hard way, as everyone does, and made some bad hires. We now realise the importance of culture and close-knit team and how one person can totally impact the team dynamic. 

What values do you hold and what kind of company do you want to build? 

When I used to be in banking you are constantly grilled the values – they were even the desktop screensaver! But somehow they don’t resonate. At TrulySocial we decided upon: 

  1. Be nice
  2. Innovate
  3. Lead by example
  4. We do well if we ALL do well 

We embody it to a large extent. It is something you have to be mindful of when we are growing. That is why recruiting is so important. 

How have you scaled TrulySocial, what should other founders be thinking about?

Sometimes you feel like you need more experienced people when you are not from the industry to complement your inexperience. Sometimes that works very well and sometimes it doesn’t. Hiring people who are passionate, who have potential and the hunger will help you achieve your goals quicker than someone more experienced but less invested in the success of the company. The people we have hired are absolutely fantastic, exceptionally driven and committed to the success of the business and product.This means everyone goes above and beyond their roles and carries a lot of weight.  It was also a very gut feeling – and founders should learn to trust their instincts.

Early on you want to work with people and investors who give things to you without asking anything in return.  One of my investors, a female game lead at Supercell (one of the best game designers in the world), was introduced to me by my other investor and after just a conversation she said she loved what we were building and wanted to invest. She is passionate about the business and our vision and wanted to actually do something to support us tangibly; that was hugely inspiring. It is not a zero sum game – just because you are successful doesn’t preclude others from being successful too. The best relationships occur when people share. 

What do you think the future of gaming looks like and in that context what is your long term vision for TrulySocial? 

People are going to start taking games as a medium to reach out to users much more seriously. To be able to harness the power of games you have to ask what is the potential and I think with smartphones as the main medium for entertainment, games are going to start taking centre stage. As a brand and a consumer goods company I would be increasingly concerned that people aren’t watching television any more, people find video ads disruptive. So how are you supposed to reach your audience? I think these companies will pay more attention to gaming. There is a lot of talk of augmented and virtual reality with Pokémon Go becoming so popular. I am on the fence on that one – I think we need VR to become less cumbersome and tedious to become mass market. Then adoption with audiences, particularly women,  it is a longer way off I think. Mobile took traditional gaming companies by surprise so it could happen but there is a still a lot more ground to be covered with mobile gaming I think.

The future of gaming has never looked brighter. Gaming companies will start thinking about new markets. China has been closed off to international players - but if this changes that is 1.3 billion people. India is another powerful market, whether the market monetises right now maybe not, but it will get there. We want to build sustainable games franchises on mobile for women and we want that medium to be more interactive for brands and influencers to reach out their audiences beyond social media. We want to build more inclusive games. We want the word "gamer" to become redundant and to ensure that even the unlikeliest of people will be "gaming" from a 60 year old grandmother to the 12 year old teenager.  


Women in Tech

Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital

It is incredibly stressful; it is important to stay calm, things never move as fast as you would like. I would advise all founders to take the lead in the fundraise. I am comfortable with financials, deals, legal contracts, models and leading a process. A lot of founders can get lost and let the lawyers take over but be mindful of what you are signing and the implications on your business. As a young start up unless you are cash flow positive you don’t have much leverage and the person sitting opposite has more – but you should keep in mind what your walk away points are. There will be times you sign things which are far from ideal but is the best you can do in that particular situation. As I said before, at any given point of time, you make the best decision with the information you have at hand, so I try to not berate myself over past decisions that don't go my way (which happens a lot in the life of an entrepreneur) and instead aim to always stay solution focused. 

Do you consciously think about building a diverse team and how can we do better to attract and retain more women in those teams?

We don’t consciously think about it. Out of a team of eight four are women. Being a woman I don’t have that unconscious bias so that gets reflected in our own hiring.

What personal qualities to you attribute most to your success? 

I think just grit. 

You have experienced both big corporates and startups - what advice would you give to new graduates?