EVEN the most highly successful business people advocate the benefits of coaching and mentoring on the basis that it gives them access to new ideas and ways of thinking – and the last few months have certainly given everyone food for thought when it comes to planning for the future and communicating with colleagues.

For Darren Pirie, head of entrepreneur proposition and experience at Royal Bank of Scotland, making the bank’s much-lauded Accelerator programme fit for purpose during the coronavirus pandemic has been a priority but not problematic. “We’ve been testing our digital proposition for the last few years so it wasn’t a case of making one big change all at once although we did have to move quickly,” Pirie explains.

“We work with customers in locations across the country so we’ve always had that flexibility there to give them what they need away from our 12 entrepreneurial hubs, including the two in Edinburgh and Glasgow,” he says. “When we started the Accelerator, it was with a very physical proposition and while people will always want to have that face-to-face interaction there are times and circumstances that make a digital proposition appropriate.”

Now is one of those times. “Pre-Covid, we had started having some group coaching sessions on Zoom so we were ready to react quickly and shift everything to the digital proposition,” Pirie points out.

“The response from customers have been hugely positive and, for some, beneficial in that they’re not spending precious time travelling to a hub.
“Our focus will continue to be on digital support, coaching and learning while we are unable to use our hubs.”

Using a digital model also means that the bank has been able to increase the number of available spaces for businesses to participate by 25%. “Normally we accept 900 onto the Accelerator programme but when Covid-19 came along we realised that moving to this new model would allow us to open it up to more – we have just over 1,100 on the latest programme,” Pirie explains.

“Understandably, not everyone has been able to commit to the current programme because of what’s going on and some other reasons and we’re really encouraged that most people have been in a position to stick with it.”

Royal Bank Accelerator is a fully-funded six-month programme for entrepreneurs with high-growth businesses who are looking to scale up while the new Business Builder programme, also fully funded, is tailored to early-stage start-up entrepreneurs or even businesses looking to change direction.

“Business Builder uses digital learning such a webinars and online workshops and provides access to a closed Facebook community where participants can share ideas with their peers and get support,” says Pirie. “We’ve already had over 3,000 registrations across the UK and that’s growing – and you don’t have to be a customer of the bank to join.”

The bank, he continues, “does a great job” when it comes to helping individuals find the right mindset. “That’s really important when it’s time for a business to change and move into the next stage of its development,” says Pirie. “Some people find it easier than others, of course, but for other it’s about finding the confidence to take a leap into what is often the unknown.

“That’s what the Covid-19 lockdown has done – it’s forced people to think on their feet, be agile and come up with new solutions, often in a very short timeframe.”
Prime examples of this agility, he suggests, are those in the restaurant and hospitality business who have pivoted to a home-delivery solution. 

“Some businesses will choose to continue with this service as another layer of income in the future but in the meantime, it allows them to engage with their customers and keep their brand alive,” Pirie points out.

“Covid has brought with it a whole new set of rules for businesses and many obstacles which may not be overcome, notwithstanding the tough decisions and ambiguity around timescales, so being able to support Accelerator businesses via a digital model means they can keep moving forward.”

All the same, physical contact will have a big role to play when it’s safe. “People naturally gravitate to wanting to meet people,” says Pirie, “and that will come back but at the moment the flexibility of our digital Accelerator model is working really well and slots in to the bank’s strategy of being an organisation built on purpose.

“We’ve also reprioritised roles to help us cope with the changes Covid has brought and that has meant upskilling our teams to make sure they are equipped in the areas they are needed, and we are working to support our business and commercial banking teams. What we’re also seeing during lockdown is people planning ahead and coming up with new ideas for their business or thinking about starting a new business – it’s given entrepreneurs time to really think.”

Meanwhile, the pillar of Accelerator – coaching – continues apace. Everyone on the programme is allocated a manager with whom they can discuss their goals, aspirations, business growth and strategy. “That’s happening via Zoom and they can also talk about business growth,” says Pirie.

“Covid may have put the brakes on a lot of aspects of business but it hasn’t stopped the enterprise and entrepreneurship that is going to emerge in the future.”


CASE STUDY: Amanda Gillard, Adopt An AED 

FOR NHS paramedic Amanda Gillard, launching a business was not on her radar. However, Adopt An AED, which she set up just a couple of weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown to help increase community access to automated external defibrillators in case someone has a sudden cardiac arrest, has strong plans in place.

“It hasn’t been the ideal time to launch a business but I’ve been able to focus on building strong foundations for moving forward,” explains Gillard, who was accepted by Royal Bank Accelerator and credits the programme for helping the business get to this stage in its development.


Gillard’s vision is to establish a maintained AED within running distance of a cardiac arrest, alongside someone in the community who is trained to use it. She has secured the distribution licence in Scotland for Philips, a leading manufacturer of mobile defibrillators, and established a business model that supports communities to crowdfund to help them secure a machine for their area.

“The last few weeks have been quite full-on because I’m working full-time as a paramedic, based in East Kilbride, then devoting the rest of time to Adopt An AED,” she explains. “I’m very medically minded but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be running a business but having the support of Business Builder has helped me build my confidence and meet like-minded individuals.”

Given her busy day job the flexibility of Accelerator’s digital proposition has been particularly beneficial. “I can choose my own timeslots on different days which is perfect for me being a full-time paramedic,” Gillard says. “There were digital meetings prior to lockdown and that was really useful and, of course, there’s always someone at the end of the phone.

With the support of the bank, Gillard has the NHS framework tender for defibrillators in Scotland over a four-year period. Adopt An AED has also conducted a geospace mapping exercise to establish areas where there are no defibrillators as well as pinpoint high-risk, low-risk and rural areas.

“Ultimately, we want to help increase the chance of survival for patients and reduce response times to cardiac arrests in public places, at the same time helping communities become part of the first response process,” says Gillard. 


CASE STUDY: Gavin Neate, Neatebox

SCOTTISH technology firm Neatebox, which specialises in improving accessibility for all disabled people, is just one growing company to benefit from the Accelerator programme.

Founder and chief executive Gavin Neate, a former guide dog mobility instructor, developed a web platform and application to improve inclusion and equity for disabled people in outlets such as banks and supermarkets. 

The Welcome app allows users to notify venues ahead of their arrival and request additional support if needed.


Edinburgh-based Neate, who had a longstanding relationship with Royal Bank of Scotland before joining Accelerator and trialled the Neatebox technology in several branches, is now looking to scale up after being invited by the bank to apply for the business support programme. His Button technology – described as the world’s first smartphone-operated pedestrian crossing for disabled people – has also been supported by the bank.

A “reluctant” entrepreneur whose mission is to find solutions through “technology for good”, Neate has found the programme inspiring. “Although not being able to speak to people face to face has been challenging at times, the digital communication during lockdown has been really efficient with good-quality interaction,” he says.

“I’ve really enjoyed it and there’s been great input from people and while platforms like Zoom and Slack maybe aren’t for everyone, they do save time and money and I think in the future many will continue to use them.”

The Accelerator, Neate continues, has helped him push Neatebox into the next phase of its development. “My key message is that disable people can be part of the solution,” he says. 

“By joining us they can use our platform to let businesses know where they need to improve the services they deliver and with the Welcome app they also now have a way in which this can be achieved.”


This article is brought to you in association with RBS, Herald Entrepreneur content partner.