Growing Up

Growing Up


Dr Soraya Jones, Entrepreneur in Residence at St John’s Innovation Centre, explains, with the help of tenants, what makes the place work so well

With the unprecedented rise of co-working and shared office spaces around the world and companies such as WeWork taking UK’s office market by storm, it is good to know St John’s Innovation Centre (SJIC) has been offering flexible accommodation to early stage companies and SMEs since 1987. It was the first incubator in Europe when it first started and it continues to offer not only flexible space but also business support/ mentoring for the early stage companies and SMEs, based in its community.

The average stay for a company at SJIC is between two to four years. There are of course some companies that move out before the two year period because they grow so rapidly that they need a bigger space to accommodate their expanding team. And then there are few others who switch offices as they grow to more spacious ones within the same building because they like the vibrant community and entrepreneurial spirit at St John’s. These movements are based on availability, timing and very often mutual agreement between tenants themselves.

The ongoing dilemma is that we would love to keep all of our swiftly developing companies as tenants and support their growth with a wide range of services we provide, but unfortunately we do not have space for all to grow with us. We are actually operating a waiting list with several virtual tenants who have great products and technologies, but are waiting in the wings, ready to move right into any empty office once it’s available.

I often think that if I were an investor I would definitely invest in properties as it seems that Cambridge does not have enough accommodation for early stage businesses and does not appear to have a focused plan for an infrastructure to support this? Or am I being deliberately provocative here?

Leo Poll_AkendiLeo Poll, the President of Akendi UK, a company specialising in user experience (UX) and creative design, is one of SJIC former tenants and a great example of a company who is experiencing exponential growth in business. According to Leo, “with the advent of Internet of Things, UX will increasingly involve physical objects. Connecting all of these in a way that makes sense to the end-user or, in other words, in a way that users can just pick it up and use it is where the challenges are in the real world.” So bottom line, UX is here to stay and will have an impact on the future of businesses and their revenues.

When I asked him why he decided to leave Philips four years ago and set up his own business in UX, he said that it was a big gamble on his part as at the time he had a young family to support and a mortgage to pay. So I provoked him even further with a question “What made you take the plunge then?” And he replied “It’ was the Cambridge business scene and observing the spirit of entrepreneurship across the city; I was inspired by the entrepreneurs and investors who lived in Cambridge and who seemed to silently convey the message that it is OK to take the risk, because if you don’t, you’ll never know. I was also lucky to have a supportive wife who believed in my dream of running my own business.”

Having spoken to a few entrepreneurs in the region, I believe that to be an entrepreneur, you have to be daring and you have to take risks and be prepared to work extremely hard. Certainly, Leo Poll, in his early years of occupying a small office in our building, had worked all the hours and did what he had to do to take his business off the ground. That involved working hard through the weekends on top of his training courses and with the family helping out and for example painting the office walls. Four years later, as a reflection of his dynamic growth, he’s getting a bigger office space to recruit more people.

“Was it worth it then?” I asked, and he said “Definitely YES!” Both in the UK and beyond, there’s a huge need for UX not just for the design of services, software and devices but to design an organisation’s overall user experience delivery .Leo is now travelling to the Middle East and Europe to respond to enquiries and requests for his service and his company’s expertise.

To me, Leo is an entrepreneur who ‘took a leap’ and ventured into ‘strange territories’ when it would have been much easier to just stay in a comfort zone of a large organisation such as Philips. I admire him for taking the risk in the world of entrepreneurial uncertainty and becoming a happy and successful businessman. Was it just luck or a great example of true entrepreneurial skills? Or perhaps it was both?

Here’s his advice for budding entrepreneurs, “Don’t worry about saying no to some potential business offers. Follow your gut feeling! You’ll know when to say yes and when to say no”, “Test the boundaries, the parameter for potential opportunities and be very creative in your offer!”

It certainly worked well for Leo, as he continues to expand his business and has just moved to a bigger office near Cambridge railway station. We wish him very well and are proud to be able to support him when he first set up his business here at St John’s.

Philip Mashinchi

But SJIC has more success stories, and one of them is Cambridge Software, a tenant company providing customised software development and bespoke software engineering solutions to businesses across UK. I spoke to the Managing Director, Philip Maschinchi, who has just acquired a bigger office at SJIC.

According to Philip, Cambridge Software was found because the clients from the previous company he also founded, BrightVisions, kept on asking him for custom made software solutions to solve their business needs. He started referring his clients to other software houses but soon realized that the solutions offered were disjointed from what his clients really needed so he set up Cambridge Software, out of the desire to meet expectations of his clients. He spotted the gap in the market and in true entrepreneurial manner took the risk of setting up another business to provide seamless customer experience through services tailored and appropriate to particular business models.

Cambridge Software

Today, Cambridge Software is successfully scaling up and when I asked Philip what made him the successful business owner that he is, he said that it’s all due to a great team. “I always surround myself with people who know more than me and I like to see the potential in younger people (showing my age now!)” he commented. ‘”The thing that gives me the most sense of achievement is helping and watching people develop. For example, the Managing Director of BrightVisions joined me right after his University degree and it was his first job ever as a junior support technician. Today he helps me run the business…It gives me great pleasure knowing that in a small way I assisted him in his growth.”

I personally think that behind the growth of Cambridge Software from an idea into an established business with 10 people on board, were also these two essential factors: 1) Philip’s friendly, warm personality and getting along well with everybody, especially his team, 2) and his courage to move to England at a young age and take control of his life and future.

“We’ve been lucky enough to have offices in SJIC, growing larger with each leap, so we’ve had a good opportunity to see the place from different angles, quite literally! Besides from the flexibility and great support, our location gives us the opportunity to work in an innovative dynamic environment that motivates our team to do their best. The campus attitude of professional yet fun working is felt throughout the entire building,” he concluded.

Entrepreneurship is all about perseverance, determination and being able to stand up and move on after a bad fall that makes innovators like Philip and Leo so successful. Tenants like Akendi (the one who ‘grew up’ and left SJIC) and Cambridge Software (the one who is growing and staying on) make me believe in what we do over here. We try to provide support to those who need it and when they need it via our informal chats, meetings and events but also through more formal business support programmes such as the Enterprise Europe Network services.

We do everything we can to link up early stage founders and SMEs with the right people, mentors and partners. This is what an innovation centre and incubator should be all about. We bid farewell to those who have ‘grown up’ like Akendi UK and wish them all the best just as we did many years ago to the ones considered now big names in the industry, Autonomy, Jagex, Owlstone, Breathe and more.

We are here to continue to support those who want to stay on like Cambridge Software and many others but we also look forward to new companies that are about to join us and co-create this thriving community of entrepreneurs at St John’s Innovation Centre.*

*This article first appeared in Cambridge Business Magazine, Issue 50, February 2016