Words and interviews by Simon Bland
Creative Enterprise: Evolve is back, relaunching with a new cohort of vibrant, screen-sector businesses, each with big ideas and an eagerness to level up. Throughout this intensive, nine-month scheme, each team will be paired with their very own industry mentor who’ll be on-hand to offer them bespoke advice on how to take their creative concepts to exciting new levels, preparing them for growth and ultimately, future investment.
This year, our cohort is more varied and exciting than ever. From horror filmmaking with an action twist, big-scale branded influencer marketing and award-winning rich media content, to multi-camera streaming that puts viewers in the director’s chair, nail-biting warzone stories and much, much more – each featured business is a fearless disruptor and the perfect embodiment of the ingenuity and inventiveness of our world-leading creative industries.
Over the next few weeks, they’ll be given the exclusive opportunity to level-up with the help and expertise of industry mentors. It’s an indispensable and enviable tool that many emerging companies dream of one day acquiring – but how can they, or any creative working in today’s ever-changing climate, ensure they get the most out of their hotline to insight?
“I’d say it’s less about the questions you ask your mentor and more about engaging with that relationship,” suggests Cecilia Thirlway, communications expert and one of the four mentors taking part in Creative Enterprise: Evolve, alongside Travis Baxter, Tim McSweeney and Kieran Battles. “Mentors are there to support you, so it’s important for companies to not be afraid of asking for what they need. It might be that sometimes, what they need is not for that mentor to work with them but for them to find the right person to work with,” she continues. “I think it’s really important for companies to be very upfront about what they want and need out of the relationship.”
While laying the groundwork for the type of advice you’re after is key to any successful mentor-entrepreneur relationship, so is a willingness to be unguarded and vulnerable. “The other thing is to engage openly, honestly and transparently,” suggests Thirlway. “Sometimes, mentors are there to give you practical advice, sometimes they’re there to pick you up when you’re down. The more open and transparent that relationship, the better.” It’s also worth remembering that mentors are only human: “They don’t know everything,” she adds with a smile, ‘but if there’s something you need that a mentor doesn’t have, they should be able to go out and find the right person for you.” This element is echoed by Thirlway’s fellow mentor and broadcast expert Travis Baxter, who highlights the importance of remembering that – while access to this advice is undeniably a perk – it’s also a two-way street. “It’s all about working together to come up with a plan that will hopefully deliver what the company owners and the people involved in the programme want to achieve,” he begins, “however, it’s really important that they understand that the purpose of our contribution is to help them get somewhere and then they’ll implement the plan afterwards.”
According to Baxter, this self-actualisation is instrumental in ensuring a mentor’s advice sinks in and works long after an entrepreneur’s pipeline to guidance has closed. “Creatives should be asking us questions that enable them to do what they’re doing better because I’m not going to do it for them,” he reasons. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the company to decide what it’s going to take on board and why, and then for them to get on with doing it. My job is to help that happen,” says Baxter, “but in five years’ time, when hopefully the company is achieving what it wants, I’m not going to be there.”
As for the additional work entrepreneurs can do to safeguard their company and make their offering more appealing to investors, the advice from Evolve’s third mentor, Tim McSweeney, is three-fold. “It starts with story: what’s the ambition? What does the business do? Why should anyone care?” explains the innovation advisor and company director. “This is a question that’s difficult for founders in any industry to answer. However, they’re literally lying to themselves if they don’t identify the scale of what they want to achieve. Not just for themselves but for their employees, investors and the partners they’ll need along the way,” reasons McSweeney. “Being honest with your goals means you can move your business forward with an intent commensurate to the scale of your ambition.”
As for what you actually do? Here, having a clear narrative is king: “Creative companies exist to monetize IP, so be clear on how the business does this. What’s the compelling story that’ll make others invest into the business – not only with capital but with their time, effort, revenue and partnerships.” Finally, when it comes to the all important ‘why should I care?’, going against the grain is what could set you apart, says McSweeney. “When I speak to many creative entrepreneurs, I’m reminded of a nature documentary where a dozen chicks sit in a nest chirping for their mother. Everyone basically does the same thing and everyone’s going after the same people to pay for it,” he highlights. “Be different. Understand why you’re different. Understand your place in the market and understand why you – and why now?”
McSweeney’s points are hit home by Creative Enterprise: Evolve’s fourth mentor, Kieran Battles, who joins this year’s programme following an extensive career as a successful company strategist. “If you can’t articulate value and difference, you don’t have either of them,” he argues. “You can have a great idea but you have to be able to inspire people with it – and that takes language, clarity and inspiration.”
To illustrate his point, Battles paints a vivid and wholly valid picture using a real-life example: “You can have an idea called the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ but if you stand up in Washington and talk about a robust blueprint for the Civil Rights movement in America, you probably won’t get much interest. However, if you say you’ve been to the mountain top and seen the other side and that you have a dream, suddenly you mobilise millions of people,” he says. “It’s a combination of ideas and the ability to articulate them in a way that changes people’s perceptions and ultimately, their behaviours.”
Of course, for many businesses looking to break through to that next stage of company growth, encounters with investors will quickly become a common place occurrence. As far as these situations are concerned, Battles urges entrepreneurs to display their value the same clarity and simplicity. “You have to put yourself in their shoes,” he adds. “You’re going up against the greatest forces in the universe which are apathy and inertia – and the weapon of choice is clarity. That’s all about why you’re the best people to do the job, why this idea is valuable, why your strategy is going to make that happen and adding clarity around how much you want, what you’re going to do with it, when you’re going to give it back and to what quantum,” concludes Battles. “You need all of that and it needs to be done quickly and clearly – that’s the schtick.”