In conversation with Matt Smith

684
Photo: Simon Harrison

With Global Entrepreneurship Week commencing on Sunday Week 6, many people with ideas – which they hope can make a difference in the world of industry – will be looking to grab the attention of the big names in business and establishing connections that could soon see them get their ideas off the ground. In Lancaster, things will be no different, with a range of events taking place on campus across the week (take a look at the dedicated LUSU webpage for more details).  To mark this week, SCAN talks to the Director of The Centre for Entrepreneurs think tank, Matt Smith.  Since he graduated from Lancaster in 2008, Matt has managed to build his organisation up into a team of over 24 staff, secured over £3.5million in Government funding for his initiatives, and has gone on to represent young entrepreneurs at several prestigious venues, including the UK parliament and the World Economic Forum.  Matt also serves as an advisor to the All Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship.

SCAN: Do you think your time studying at Lancaster was the point at which you decided to go down the route of entrepreneurship, or did you have ideas before or after university?

Matt Smith: I had taken part in Young Enterprise at college, without much success. I had also done some money-making one-off ventures throughout school and college. But it was re-launching the university enterprise society and interacting with local and celebrity entrepreneurs that led me to look away from a planned computing career to focus on entrepreneurship promotion.

SCAN: Can you think of any skills you learnt or developed at Lancaster that led to the position you are in now?

Smith: Re-launching and serving as president of the enterprise society had the greatest impact, but I was also an exec member on the ski club and the kite-surfing society and represented the academic societies within LUSU. All of these gave valuable leadership and management skills, boosted my confidence and built useful connections that continue to help me.

SCAN: What challenges did you face in the co-founding and development of your organisation the National Association of College & University Entrepreneurs, and how did you overcome them?

Smith: The greatest personal challenge was working on it full time for 18 months without a salary to get it off the ground. I regularly worked 80+ hour weeks and also spent 18 months living in London hostels for 3 nights a week when trying to cut costs by moving back in with my parents in Nottingham. I kept my drive and optimism by celebrating the regular wins, however small.

SCAN: Now that you have taken over the directorship of The Centre for Entrepreneurs think tank, the home of StartUp Britain, how do you hope to engage people with your services and assist entrepreneurs? Do you expect to see a rise in the number of people applying to you for support?

Smith: I was commissioned to conceptualise and launch the Centre last summer. I spent three months planning what it should do, then launched it with a team of two last October. The Centre aims to promote the role of entrepreneurs in creating economic growth and social well-being in the UK. Rather than supporting entrepreneurs directly, through research and campaigns we’re challenging the cultural and government policy barriers that hold people back from starting or growing a business. The ultimate aim is to see more people starting and growing businesses and public attitude firmly in support of entrepreneurs.

SCAN: As a graduate yourself, did you feel a greater pressure in representing students and young entrepreneurs to institutions such as the World Economic Forum, the UK Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?

Smith: Such unique and high-level opportunities (including discussions at 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, and delivering training to the Iraqi Youth Parliament in Erbil) can be a little nerve-racking, but confidence always comes from having strong domain expertise, a clear plan and the knowledge that the audience are keen to hear your insight.

SCAN: In your opinion, is entrepreneurship a skill which some individuals possess and others don’t, or is it something that can be taught and subsequently supported by organisations such as your own?

Smith: Entrepreneurs are made, not born. By developing your enterprise skills then putting them to practice through university-run business challenges you can gain experience, learn from failures and increase the likelihood of success when you come to start your own business.

SCAN: With Global Entrepreneurship Week commencing on the 17th Nov, and considering the enthusiasm surrounding the events that will be taking place at Lancaster, are you excited to see what ideas the next generation of potential business leaders have to offer? Are there any that have already piqued your interest?

Smith: Students and graduates are behind some of Britain’s best startups! Be it the Heriot Watt grads who started punk brewery, Brewdog; Bristol grad, Jamie Murray-Wells who revolutionised the glasses industry with Glasses Direct; or Oxford grad, Emily Brooke who is saving cyclist’s lives with the Blaze Laserlight. The creativity, innovation and drive of students is inspiring and their business ideas never cease to amaze me.

SCAN: Is there any business sector in which you see a greater amount of potential for expansion and/or innovation?

Smith: All things tech, digital and app-based are hot right now, but there’s lots of opportunity in every sector and industry. As we see above, some of the best businesses don’t touch digital apps. One example is that there very interesting opportunities around elderly care as the population ages.

SCAN: What advice would you give to any up-and-coming entrepreneurs wishing to step out in to the wider business world?

Smith: Always keep learning and bettering yourself; don’t be afraid to ask those a few steps ahead of you for guidance; equally, always support those at an earlier stage through mentoring; build a trusted support network of like-minded entrepreneurs you can rely on for support & encouragement; keep networking!