IN this week's SME Focus we hear from an adaptable entrepreneur who made his latest change of direction in response to the challenges posed by the recession.
Name: Mike Stevenson.
What is your business called?
Where is it based?
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
Motivational talks; creativity workshops; inspiring leadership and presentation masterclasses. We also produce marketing materials aimed at helping businesses and organisations look at how they are managed and to suggest ways in which they might get more value from their staff.
Who does it sell to?
Businesses of all sizes from FTSE 100 companies to SMEs and public services. Previous clients have included British Gas, M&S, Standard Life, NHS Scotland, SSE, National Trust, National Galleries Scotland.
What is its turnover?
£200,000 for 2013. My business plan aims to generate £2.5 million within five years.
How many employees?
One. I use an associate model to scale up during contracts.
When was it formed?
Why did you take the plunge?
It was the collision of two things - my previous business, Design Links (a volume design business with an annual turnover of £1.25m) was hit hard by the recession and I was becoming increasingly frustrated by what I felt was the lack of ambition, vision and drive in many businesses and public services. The latter was a subject I spoke about at a host of business events across Scotland. As a result, I was asked by more and more clients to come along to their business and talk to their management teams and staff. That's when I saw an opportunity to provide business and public service clients with new vision and a different way of thinking - essentially creating an entrepreneurial and leadership culture at all levels of organisations.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I ran Design Links for 18 years, working with clients as diverse as Standard Life, BskyB, SSE, NHS Scotland and a full range of public service agencies. Before that I was a founder member and marketing manager with the Wise Group social enterprise in Glasgow for nine years.
My entry into marketing followed a two-year course on the subject at Napier College. Before that I had been a wine corker, steelworker, biscuit packer, hospital orderly, community worker and hod-carrier so my background was wide-ranging. It all started with expulsion from school at 15. Then with my parents warring at home, I went to London where I ended up sleeping on its streets for over a year. I then busked in Dublin where I was noticed as a talent with a voice and guitar. Gigs in clubs and festivals followed in Ireland and Scotland. In fact, I was the first ever performer at the first ever Radio Clyde Festival at Kelvingrove Park. I also did some acting - appearing in an Edinburgh Fringe Show in 1977, becoming mine host at the Fringe Club for two successive years. In more recent times I've taken on a few walk-on parts on TV including Taggart. All this gave me skills and insights I now regard as priceless.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
It was subsidised by loans and free meals from friends. For the first 18 months I operated out of my living room with a determination to develop my profile and reputation and to spend little money. I went on the road, speaking free at events up and down the country, linking my journey from rough sleeper to entrepreneur as a metaphor for business reinvention and success.
What was your biggest break?
I read somewhere that Quest for Excellence, a training company based in England, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the Disney Institute in Florida and had organised a couple of Disney masterclasses down south. A quick phone call and a couple of meetings later I agreed to partner them in hosting Disney asterclasses in Edinburgh. We brought the Disney Institute to Scotland for two successive years, attracting some of Scotland's most influential business and public service leaders and giving Thinktastic a great platform to introduce the events to Scotland.
What was your worst moment?
A collapsed lung that had gone undetected through two transatlantlc flights finally hit me for six in spring last year. I kept going as best I could but there were times when I thought I was going to collapse. Strangely, it kicked in when I was making a speech to NHS professionals in Glasgow. It set my business plan back considerably and I probably lost about three months of momentum and business revenue.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
One day I can be working with the CEO of a FTSE 100 company and the next with a small local business. I am also fortunate that on my travels I meet extraordinary people with extraordinary energy, talents and ideas and that inspires me.
What do you least enjoy?
Dealing with needless bureaucracies and filling out forms that invariably pose the wrong questions. Tendering for public sector contracts is a case in point. A system designed to create fairness actually militates against SMEs, the very section of the economy that offers the most growth potential.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
Longer term I'd like to be able to recruit more staff to take our message to the rest of the UK and to Europe.
What are your priorities?
Write and publish the Thinktastic book; grow our creative capacity by appointing best in business associates; expand our speaking and training services into London and the South East of England; get our business model ready for expansion; create a Thinktastic movie channel to speak directly to a wider international audience.
What single thing would most help?
A single door access to investment support - it's too complex with too many sources and agencies to navigate. I am looking at funding our expansion into Europe and I would love to click on a site that directs me to the best-fit source.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
With £230 billion spent each year on goods and services across the UK public sector, I want a more concerted effort by Government to help SMEs bid for this business. More visibility around opportunities and a far simpler bidding process are essential. We simply don't have time to chase shadows. By moving the focus from scale economies to innovative approaches, I believe we will get more imaginative, localised solutions and help to stimulate the economies of areas currently marginalised.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
That fast is better than slow - especially in today's climate. We are in the midst of a global shift that'll dwarf the Industrial Revolution in scale and pace.
How do you relax?
Rocking with laughter with my girlfriend - she and I share a wonderful sense of the absurd. I also play my guitar and spend time in the pool.