This week we’re introducing The Big Ask Podcast on ICAEW Business Advice Service. A podcast for small business with small businesses, with guests and experts to help them meet their challenges.
We’ve been enjoying The Big Ask podcast kick-off with Neill Ricketts of advanced materials company Versarien. Neill was in conversation with Annette Kramer, and Nigel Hastilow, Director of Enterprise at ICAEW.
Ricketts started by setting some context for his business. Originating in January 2011, ‘just two of us in a garage, having come out of the corporate world’, Versarien has now grown to ‘about 75 employees’ and ‘four sites in the UK’.
It’s an ‘advanced materials company’ – the idea being to take the great technology which is ‘locked away’ in universities and make real products from it.
As Neill Ricketts puts it, ‘developing materials that we could only think about a few years ago’, and he gives one example of graphene: a material only ‘one layer of carbon atoms thick’, and 1/50,000 the thickness of a human hair, yet 200 times stronger than steel.
The first year – 2011 – was ‘all about fundraising, it was all about securing the IP, it was all about getting the foundations right’. Then, one year in, they got their first factory, at the start of 2012.
So, Annette Kramer’s ‘difficult’ question for Neill Ricketts was this: How big are you and how big is your team?
In response, Neill immediately concedes the issue: when you start a business yourself, just the two of you, and your clients are often ‘very very big – you know, hundreds of thousands of employees’ – it is, he says, ‘a bit like David and Goliath’.
‘You automatically assume that they won’t want to deal with a small company.’ But actually, there are ways to reassure, it transpires. Mitigating answers proposed by Neill Ricketts are ‘We’re as big as we need to be at the moment’, and ‘We’re as big as we can afford to be’.
What potential clients and investors are really worried about, he believes, is risk: this is what it boils down to – and their particular concerns will vary, so you need to understand the precise context.
‘We’re brutally honest’, he says, ‘that we have a relatively small team’. But he also appreciates ‘we need to grow very very quickly’.
Nigel Hastilow suggests perhaps promoting one’s profitability or financial security might be key. And yes, Neill agrees. He explains how they floated Versarien ‘after about nine months of being operational’ – thus instilling more confidence.
‘And we talk to them quite openly’, he says, ‘about the kind of people we have on our shareholder list – they’re some of the biggest investors in London – and it also gives a certain sense of due diligence to the whole process that these guys are also along for the whole journey.’
‘You can measure success and you can measure size in so many different ways’, explains Neill Ricketts. But it is all about risk. Can you deliver? Do you have the right facilities? The right people? The right funding?
The interview closes with an exchange between Nigel Hastilow and Neill Ricketts about financial expertise. ‘You’re an engineer,’ says Nigel. ‘How long did it take you to get to grips with the finances and how did you do that?’
‘So engineers and accountants, I think, use different parts of the brain’, agrees Neill. And goes on to explain that’s why it’s crucial for him that he’s ‘very well supported by a great chartered accountant’.
‘If you’re developing a business model or a business plan – which is key to running a successful business – you need to have that expertise.’
There’s a lot more detail. Access the full podcast here.
For for the full range of podcasts on The Big Ask go here.