Interview with Ian Mason from Virgin Startup

Ian Mason is the Head of Development for the Virgin StartUp Program, Sir Richard Branson’s not for profit organisation for entrepreneurs. Launched in 2013, the StartUp program was created to not only promote entrepreneurship in the UK, but to provide support, advice and investment to early stage businesses. Since its inception, Virgin StartUp has issued more than £16 million in funding to over 1500 entrepreneurs.

As Head of Development, Ian has played a pivotal role in the evolution of the Virgin StartUp program, with his main responsibilities including improving systems and processes, post loan support offerings and business development. Ian has also been heavily involved in Virgin’s more recent venture, ‘The Virgin StepUp program’, a two-day mini accelerator for businesses in the scale up phase of production.

Ian recently spent the week at QUT Creative Enterprise Australia to offer advice to our Collider Accelerator Program attendees.

Hi, Ian! Can you tell us a little bit about Virgin StartUp and StepUp Program?

The Virgin StartUp Program is the Virgin group’s not for profit organisation for entrepreneurs. It was established to essentially support anybody who wanted to start a business in the UK – this includes startups at the seed funding, pre-scale and scale-up stage of their journey.

Virgin helps businesses in a number of different ways, with the main way being our loan schemes which provide financing. The idea of the loan scheme is that you don’t just get money but you also get advice on how to shape your business model and refine your execution strategy.

We also have a program of 350 mentors across the UK who we handpick per business to help them grow and develop over the course of twelve months. This all stemmed from noticing a major gap in the UK market in terms of helping businesses between the startup and scaling phases.

If you look at business demographics split between the US and the UK there’s a similar number of businesses in each ecosystem but in the US 20% of those small businesses have 10- 49 employees where in the UK that number is only 3.7% of small businesses have that many employees.

 Why do you think that is?

One of the reasons we think that’s the case is that there’s virtually no support for established businesses that are trading but don’t know what to do next. That’s why we created the Virgin StepUp Program. The Virgin StepUp program is essentially a pre-accelerator for startups looking to scale. It’s a two-day program where they get access to a series of experts that come in and deliver workshops on the topics startups are struggling with at that stage.

Can anyone partake in the Virgin StepUp Program?

It’s a competitive process, so there’s a big call for applications and for every one place on the program, forty startups apply.

What are you looking for?

What we want really are cool founders – it’s all about the entrepreneurs. Business ideas come and go and there are hundreds of them flying around but actually, it’s the person behind the idea and how they think that is absolutely crucial. I like to say we’re a company that was founded by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. I’ve found some really great participants in the Collider Accelerator Program who have been open to new ideas and willing to change what they’re doing. The cohort has been fantastic in that sense.

Why did you partner with QUT CEA?

I met with Mark Gustowski (CEA’s acting CEO) in November last year when he was introduced to me by an Australian friend of mine. I got a sense straight away that QUT CEA and Virgin StartUp were two organisations that shared a similar ethos, culture and goals. We decided then and there that we’d get started and thought the best way to do that was to offer places on our Virgin StepUp Program.

Thoughts on differences between the AUS and UK startup ecosystem?

There’s a lot of talk about Australia’s ecosystem being behind the ecosystem of London, or having a long way to go etc. I can sort of understand that London tends to attract more entrepreneurs but Australia really is a fantastic place to start a business. There’s a real buzz around what everyone’s doing at the moment.

It’s kind of reached the stage where there’s a critical mass in terms of the right people, the right intentions, the right culture, and it’s just an exciting thing to be a part of. I think sometimes people need to understand that the world really is at their fingertips and it’s not a huge jump to go from a startup in Brisbane to trading in the UK. There’s a huge amount of potential and people just need to have an open mind to the fact that scaling is possible.

People recognise fintech and smart city. What is creative tech and why does it matter?

It’s the most exciting thing in startups! Creative tech is great because A) It’s so broad and B) the kinds of technology and (the fact that you can apply them creatively) means that the possibilities are almost limitless.

I was a judge on the Creative3 shortlisting event the other day and there were at least two businesses there that I would not only buy from now but could absolutely see being a global player in five years’ time.

Is there a difference between creative tech founders and regular ones?

That’s a difficult question to answer because people who want to start businesses are so diverse and they come from all different kinds of backgrounds! I’d say, if anything, that creative entrepreneurs have a greater potential because their mind is a lot more open to new ideas and new things. It’s all very well having someone who’s good at financials or good with operations, but the most important thing as an entrepreneur is to be open minded.

How would a startup get your attention?

To get my attention you have to be open, humble and really willing to listen, but also not too willing to just do what you’re told – you’ve got to listen with the intention of filtering out the noise. They should be expansive in their thinking and always seeking opportunities. It’s being an entrepreneur and all the things we associate with being an entrepreneur…but without the arrogance.

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