2021 was an interesting and further turbulent year for businesses. Hot off the heels of an unprecedented lockdown ridden 2020, we started the year facing a third national lockdown. One that came into effect on 6th January 2021. Given the tumultuous past year and uncertainty that 2021 offered, the thought of starting an incubator would seem, to many, a big risk. We have, throughout 2021 had some fantastic wins, and some great times. As the year draws to a close, I felt it would be a great time to share our experiences, where we have been and what we have achieved. As a member of the team and community, James Rix would say ‘Be a show me, not tell me company.’ In a way, this roundup is our chance to show what we have achieved and give thanks to those who have made it possible.
Business as Usual
Probably one of the most overlooked things in a majority of what I talk about, is the fact that Akcela is a consultancy practice as well as an incubator through Akcela Ventures. Each year we support a large number of businesses with business process reengineering, technology implementation consultancy, marketing and branding consultancy and start-up consultancy.
This year, we have worked with some incredible Blue-Chip companies, who, unfortunately, due to our NDA’s and ongoing nature of the work, we cannot talk too much about (if you have some work for us, don’t worry, we are allowed to share them for case studies). Outside of our larger blue chip BPR and technology implementation projects, it has been a strong year particularly in the foodservice consultancy space. To all our clients, we have enjoyed every single project, working through their own challenges and seeing some great outcomes.
As for business as usual, being Norwich based but most of our work being in London, has been interesting through COVID times. We hope to continue to grow our presence in the BPR and implantation projects through 2022, especially right here in the East of England.
We were also lucky enough to welcome Tom to the business under the Kickstart scheme for 2021. Tom later took a graduate role in London, moving himself down there for the opportunity. I will never forget his end of placement project with us and the team wishing him off with a bottle of champagne and some advice for the future. It was a pleasure to be a part of supporting his growth through his time with us at Akcela.
We will continue to grow the team in 2022, with some exciting projects and a requirement for some further hands to the pump to deliver them. More on that into the new year.
The start of the incubator concept
I guess I have always been one to move fast. If something is going to work, it takes the collective will of a few key members and a real drive to make it happen. There is a time to talk about action, and there is a time to act. Good teams require both counterweights, but if this was going to happen, that leap needs to occur. So when we decided to set up the incubator, we decided to do the right amount of talking about it, and the right amount of action. That meant moving fast. One saying that has really taken hold in the community is that good ideas are a dime a dozen, its execution that matters.
The key members of the project were either already working with us on a consultancy basis or are involved as key advisors to our clients and incubated companies. The whole concept started, in truth, due to the number of businesses who were asking for support over a longer period but had no cashflow to get it. Within the team there was a clear agreement that we could and wanted to support these businesses and that a shareholding model would work to deliver it. This worked for two reasons. Firstly, there’s no movement of cash for space and support under this model. Not until there is value that we work together to create anyway. Secondly, that this really allows us to embed within the business. We don’t come on board to advise, we come on board to roll our sleeves up and deliver. This isn’t a key differentiator between advisors and our approach, it’s one that gets the best feedback too.
The whole idea started towards the end of May, by September we had our space and all contracts signed. Throughout this, getting the right space was probably the trickiest part of the entire venture to date. FUEL Studios, where we are today, offers a truly inspirational space. Working within the confines of COVID has been tricky and they’ve done a great job.
I make no apologies about the fact that I mention we are privately funded. We haven’t managed to muster any of the grants available to start-up companies through the usual channels – that is not to say that businesses shouldn’t apply for them. In fact, we are working actively with some of our community members to receive some, we hope that it comes through. The reason to be explicit about this is to outline just how important the support is that we have received from other private companies, who truly focus on driving support into the start-up scene in Norwich.
Our first partner on board was the incredible Farnell Clarke, who took the time to get involved and understand the overall mission of where we are trying to get to. Having Rebecca and Ben in the office really adds an excellent dynamic, and we appreciate your support and coming in to be an active part of the community.
When I spoke with Carole and Charlotte at MAD-HR, they wanted to support instantly. The energy and support that they give was no more on show than at our time next to each other at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce B2B event. We are genuinely grateful for the time they have given us and look forward to the plans we have for 2022.
A big thank you also has to go to the UEA and their business support program. As many of the founding members got their MBA from the UEA, and the fact that they themselves have supported the project, we are ever so grateful for the connections and support that it has offered.
After we went full steam ahead into the project, we made an agreement in terms of the community. Revenue from desk spaces would come a distant second to ensuring that the community we build is the right people. Desk revenue was never imperative for the project, but it would always support investment into community.
It was the same way in which we worked with sponsors, ensuring the right fit was key to what would flow through the entire community we are trying to build. Incubation and the incubator space means sharing your experiences, your time, your energy building a business. It also means that for most of your day, people within that shared space become as close to you as family. You can see them as much if not more. So, we had to get that right. I am proud to say that setting the standard high for our community is paying dividends. It is clear and obvious that we have got this right. Being selective may have meant more days with less people, but that critical mass is really becoming evident in the conversations and meetings we are having now.
We are delighted to have some incredible businesses within the community, from climate change to cultural impact, from web3 to AI, from upcycling to educating. It is the diversity and drive of experience and expertise that has created such a diverse community and 2022 will continue to build on the shared experiences and collective outcomes of those within the space.
One of the big successes towards the end of the year, was our incubator meetup. Hosted on the first Tuesday of the month, we look to invite non-community members to meet and chat over lunch. This is followed by a meeting for the founders of each business within the community. This allows founders to be open and honest in a safe space about the challenges and wins they have faced in the previous month. How we can support each other and as an incubator and community, what we can do to improve.
With a community, you must take the time to thank those who have made it possible. With that in mind, I want to put out my heartfelt thanks to John, JJ, Kate, Mark, James, Matt, Tim and Rebecca. Your input has really created a solid foundation for this community to built on. We wouldn’t be where we are today without your support, input and guidance.
Incubated Company Wins and Upcoming Companies
In terms of incubated companies, we have a wide range of companies within the space, including retail and FMCG with Gorilla Juice and Pinball Bazaar, EdTech with Readingmate, Tech with Forest of Memories and Origin Hope, and Education with Tech Educators. We look forward to announcing some more in the new year, which we have been working on over the last few weeks and in some cases months. Through this period, we have had some incredible wins:
- Three companies completing SEIS or commercial sales negating the need for raises.
- Readingmate agreeing an incredible partnership agreement, increasing school signups and app downloads.
- The Forest of Memories opening its first site with many more in the pipeline to begin to scale the team.
- Tech Educators agreeing an incredible, first of its kind bootcamp agreement, which is currently under PR embargo (something I have learnt about recently!)
We were delighted to host two great events even through COVID. The first was the Cambridge – Norwich Tech Corridor event, talking about the issues of perfectionism. Then there was the inaugural Tech and Beer event in Norwich. Events were always meant to be a cornerstone of community building. One of the core reasons for us to choose FUEL studios as our home. Unfortunately, COVID put an end to the Tech and Beer Christmas party, which felt like a massive blow. One thing that is for certain, events remain a key cornerstone of building our wider community and we hope to deliver many more in 2022.
Looking forward to 2022
We are really looking forward to kicking on in 2022, and there is an abundance of things that we think already will allow us to do that. We are really pleased to have closer connections with NorDev, who have already been supportive of the Tech Educators model for training new tech talent in the East of England. We will be working closely with Langham Recruitment, not only for the upcoming coding bootcamps, but also as an advisor for our companies on their recruitment needs. We will soon be announcing our PR partner, who will offer support and guidance to our community during our all-hands meetings and supporting with the work in raising our profile throughout East Anglia.
We will be working extremely closely with a new web3 initiative, ETHAnglia, especially as I am involved as a community manager for the project. I really have high hopes for what the future of the internet could be utilising web3 protocols and hope to see many of you in attendance to some of our upcoming events. Web3 is so much more than just speculation and decentralised finance. I cannot wait to be involved in demonstrating that.
In consultancy as in business, there are fundamentals that you can learn through experiences such as an MBA, and I wouldn’t be without mine. However, being at the bleeding edge of something with so much promise, be it new businesses or technologies, I feel is the best continual professional development. I guess as I said above, I am more comfortable being a doer, rather than a talker. Getting hands on is at the core of our consultancy work, our incubation, and my personal involvement within this space.
So for now, with thanks…
As always, I have rambled on. hope that this has been a small insight into the year we have had. Thank you all for all your support, I won’t name names, but you will all know who you are and how you have helped.
All the very best, to you and yours in 2021.