Hamilton Forth’s Rachel Sim talks to Chris Moule, Head of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Robert Gordon University where he leads the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group (EIG) to build an innovation eco-system in RGU and the wider community.
Chris helped launch the Robert Gordon University Regional Startup Accelerator which takes early-stage business ideas and puts them through five-months of training, gives them access to mentors and the opportunity to access equity-free seed funding from a pot worth £250,000. The programme has seen a number of innovative ideas develop into successful businesses.
Before moving to Robert Gordon University, Chris founded his own catering business, Stir, and was the Enterprise Manager at the University of Strathclyde where he discovered his love for mentoring the next generation. Chris’ variety of experience has enabled him to not only educate the students of Robert Gordon University, but to share with them his own experiences of being an entrepreneur.
Tell us a bit about your career.
I studied Business & Marketing at Liverpool John Moores University then moved to Glasgow on a graduate training programme which gave me an excellent grounding in business, learning lots of operational skills such as people management, stock management, customer relations and budget control. This experience, working across multiple sites, sparked my interest in catering and so I decided to set up my own catering business. I launched Stir in 2000, selling soups and sandwiches to corporate and retail customers from two sites in Edinburgh. I grew the business to 20 staff, with a turnover of a quarter of a million in the second year and securing wholesale deals with clients such as Borders books. However, after three years with increased competition and rising costs, and a baby due, it was time to move on.
I began my new career in Higher Education working at Strathclyde University where I led the creation of SEN, the Strathclyde Entrepreneurial Network, with my ex-colleague Fiona Ireland. SEN built a community of entrepreneurial staff, students and alumni and provided access to training, advice and funding for starting and developing their business. Alongside my University role, I had a number of side hustles to continue my entrepreneurial journey. I have always been a frustrated entrepreneur.
For the past 12 years I have worked at Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, where I have led the creation of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group (EIG), to stimulate and foster a community of entrepreneurial students, staff, and alumni and supporting their innovative business ideas. This builds upon RGU’s strong relationship with industry and the region’s entrepreneurial mindset. I would consider myself a ‘practitioner’ rather than an academic as I use my experience and knowledge to provide practical advice and mentorship.
How did you deal with having to close your first business?
The soups and sandwiches were a quality product – freshly made every day! My vision was to build an empire and becoming the next Pret-a-Manger however, unfortunately I had to close the business after three years due to the high costs of running the business and to focus on my family life (baby number one was on the way). It was a personal low point as I had worked hard to develop the brand, had investors interested, and happy customers, but the lessons I learned from the experience were invaluable to me both professionally and personally. It made me who I am today.
In hindsight, I am grateful now to have had that experience at a young age as it taught me how to manage many aspects of a business, particularly the importance of building a strong team, and I am fortunate to have assembled an incredible team at RGU.
How has the entrepreneurial landscape and mindset changed over the past 15 years?
Working with young entrepreneurs I have seen that Gen Z are less driven by profits and commercial success and are increasingly passionate about people and the planet. In addition, young people are embracing new working models, as the gig-economy rises, such as freelancing and ‘side-hustling’ instead of seeking part-time employment. This is great as it is giving people more time to focus on their innovative ventures and motivation to create a successful and lucrative business.
A further development I have noticed over the past 10 years is an increase in young female entrepreneurs. When I began working in the Universities the innovation courses and entrepreneurship groups were particularly male dominated, but there has been a shift towards a more equal landscape in recent years. Innovative ideas have also started to come from a much more diverse landscape which is welcome. In RGU we have worked hard to democratise entrepreneurship so that it is drawn from all backgrounds and subjects from architecture to health, creative, digital, food, and tourism.
What proportion of the ideas being put through the Accelerator programme have a tech focus and how has this changed over the years?
I have been impressed with the number of people coming through the Accelerator programme who have excellent technical skills and are able to use these to execute their ideas well. Using Apps and web business startups are always popular. Tech is now being embraced by all sectors, with a significant increase in use in the creative sector and food and drink – sectors which are prevalent in the North East of Scotland. In fact, the RGU Creative Entrepreneurship course is often oversubscribed each year demonstrating high demand. Some of the business ideas going through the current Regional Start Up Accelerator are completely reliant on tech, such as Blockchain, drones and Cryptocurrency businesses – all of which have been popular over the last year.
What similarities or trends have you noticed in the businesses or ideas which are successful?
There is a huge advantage to having a team behind a business or idea. It can be lonely starting a business – its better as a ‘team-sport’ and throughout the Accelerator programme we encourage participants and different teams to work together, share ideas and work with mentors. Often people on the outside looking into a business can spot issues or opportunities that those entrepreneurs miss as they have tunnel vision. There is a saying that the ideal business team is made up of “Hackers, Hipsters and Hustlers”. Hackers are the “techies” responsible for developing the tech for a business, hipsters focus more on focus on design aspects, while the hustlers manage the sales, business development and marketing responsibilities. This can often be a winning combination of skills and mindsets!
What does the Aberdeen and North East business landscape look like at the moment?
Aberdeen is going through a transition, a renaissance, and there is a can-do attitude throughout the region that has been hit hard by the pandemic. For years, graduates were likely to get a well-paid job in the Oil & Gas industry. But energy transition and the pivot to a focus on Net Zero the landscape has changed as have the skills-set.
RGU are currently working with Opportunity North East, the City and Shire Councils and other regional stakeholders to help drive local economic growth. This year’s Regional Start-ups Accelerator programme was open to anyone with an AB postcode and is funded by the Scottish Government’s North East Economic Recovery and Skills Fund (NEERSF). Opening the programme up to anyone within the North East region has allowed us to develop an even bigger variety of business ideas from a more diverse range of entrepreneurs.
Aberdeen is often referred to as a village where everyone knows everyone and that creates a great sense of people working together to share ideas, contacts, and opportunities, creating a communal sense of confidence in the region, and helping to nurture its talent. This collaborative approach is helping the city recover from the economic downturn and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Do you believe young people have enough opportunities to be innovative and should they learn about innovation in the classroom from a young age?
Innovation needs to be integrated into the classroom as young as possible. The younger we are the more creative we are, that’s why it takes a three-year-old 20 minutes to get out of the door and the school education squeezes it out of us. This topic is explored in the brilliant Ken Robinsons’ TEDTalk. Stimulating people’s creativity and imagination from a young age is key to maintaining and developing these skills in later life. EIG do a lot of work in RGU based on the design thinking methodology that is a catalyst for creative thinking.
What advice would you give to a tech entrepreneur starting out in Scotland?
Firstly, is to have the passion and drive to “make it happen”, no matter what barriers are put in your way. Whether the business is a success or not it will be worth it as you will learn so much from the process. It’s not the destination – it’s the journey.
Secondly, talk to and get to know your customers. Without them you don’t have a business; the business must be developed around your customer, and not your product or your idea. Be customer focussed – NOT product focused. There is no point making a product or service that nobody wants, so get to know your customer, their pains, their desires and curate your innovative idea to develop something which solves their problems.
Finally, it is rare to have a Eureka moment, focus less on coming up with the most unusual, inventive idea and instead how you can adapt, add to and build upon what exists to improve it.
We have to know, what was your favourite soup Stir offered?
It had to be the Sweet potato, chilli and chicken soup – it had a bit of a kick to it. I still make it for my family. It was delicious and was the most popular with customers. Although the Cullen Skink was also award winning and made fresh every day by the team of Chefs.
Finally, if you could invite two people to a dinner party (living or deceased) who would you choose and why?
I have been asked that a lot over the years. It would have to be Martin Luther King and Kenny Dalglish, two very different guests. Martin Luther King inspired a movement of civil rights across the USA against a backdrop of persecution and hate. He remained honourable and inspirational, demonstrating integrity and forgiveness in the face of racial prejudice. He was also a great preacher and orator. Kenny Dalglish was my childhood hero. I have always been a Liverpool supporter and watched ‘King Kenny’ as a young boy. He was an intelligent player and great goal scorer for Liverpool and Scotland, and played in some of the greatest matches of all time.
Chris recently gave a TEDx Talk in Aberdeen discussing Recombinant Innovation and where new ideas can come from. You can watch Chris’ talk here.
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