The hard work and rewards of being in business

This week, we chatted to Dr Theresa Simpkin. Terri is an associate Professor at the University of Nottingham and owner of Mischief Business Engineering.

I’m currently an Associate Professor and Director, Senior Leadership Degree Apprenticeship – EMBA at the University of Nottingham but I also have my own small company called Mischief Business Engineering. I started that as a means to fund my undergraduate studies and PhD two decades ago. I started off providing strategic management and sector workforce analytics consulting for business and government. Eventually I expanded out to become a registered training organisation. Now, I’m focussing on a programme called Braver Stronger Smarter. This is a suite of interconnecting workshops and seminars that leverages my research to help people and organisations come to grips with the impostor phenomenon. I’ve worked with massive global companies, governments and small start ups and charities. The informal community site is and it’s where I put my blogs and snippets of media I’ve done.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?

Managing time across all activities and still finding time to be an attentive mum. At one point I was concurrently working on my PhD, running two small companies and teaching at the university. I remember going to my son’s basketball games armed with a small library of journal articles. I’d furiously try and get some reading in while he was playing. I became skilled at keeping one eye on the game and one eye scanning the literature on social class and occupational decision making!! Managing the simultaneous guilt and need to maintain an income to pay the mortgage is tough. I empathise with all working parents in the same position. And mansplaining. That’s a constant challenge.

How easy is it for start-ups to grow in today’s business climate?

That’s a question!! I think it depends… start-ups have the capacity to be nimble to innovate and invoke fail fast, learn fast approaches that established business might not. But they may not have the luxury of financial backing or capacity to scale. There’s a real balance between creating something on a shoestring and being inventive and then getting the product or service into a space to grow.

“There’s more tolerance for start-ups in business today”

I think there’s a good deal more tolerance and curiosity in favour of start ups today than there has been in the past. Digital economies, platform businesses and reimagined business models offer all sorts of opportunities to people with good ideas that may not have been available in the past. The days of needing to build massive organisations with equally massive capital outlay to make a profit are on their way out if not gone already.

The importance of hard work and adaptability

How can businesses adapt in light of the Covid 19 situation?

While the gravity and human impact of the pandemic should not be diminished there are enormous opportunities that spring from adversity such as this. Start ups are often more able to flex and shift focus than established or bigger firms. Look at the micro distilleries who have turned to making hand sanitiser. When their pub and restaurant market evaporated, they switched to something in demand. Some of the biggest and most recognisable brands on the planet started in times like these. Think IBM, General Electric, Hyatt and Microsoft; they all emerged from and have prevailed through recessions, panics and other crises. This pandemic is shifting consumer patterns and bringing social conscience to the fore. Our societies will be changed by this and where there’s change there’s opportunity. Being open, creative and speedy is key to coming out of this crisis well.

What are the 3 most important things a small business needs to succeed?

Authenticity, resilience and capacity for creativity.

“Being in business can be hard work”

What was the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

There’s a lovely Sir Terry Pratchett quote that I think is a brilliant bit of advice.

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

(The Wee Free Men)

So, entrepreneurs need to ideate, to dream big and have a goal but all that is realised by facing up to the fact that being in business can be hard work – however that’s defined (intellectually, physically, emotionally). It says you need to keep learning to innovate and flex. And it means if you take your eye off the ball, your competitors or the next shiny thing will take your space. Sir Terry was so wise!

On mentoring…

Mentors are absolutely critical. Find one that has no interest in being nice to you. Someone who will tell it like it is and be your ‘rear view mirror’ when you can’t see all the wins you’ve achieved in the past. They are the ones who will give you an honest appraisal of your capacities and recognise your achievements if the ‘I shouldn’t be doing this…’ impostor phenomenon comes calling. One of the smartest things an entrepreneur can do is get themselves at least one mentor. If you can organise a ‘brains trust’ of several mentors, then do that too.

“Mentors are absolutely critical”

A lot of start-ups get the wrong mentor. A mentor is not your friend. Your friend will smile and tell you how fabulous you are, the mentor will tell you why you’re fabulous and how you can capitalise on your ‘fabulousness’. They’ll be objective and allow you to come to your own learning. This can be really confronting and so people may feel exposed and instead take the flattery rather than the really useful, objective support of a mentor.

Do you think business mentoring can have an impact on growth?

Absolutely. Getting honest, informed feedback and moral support is key to making the most of your mistakes and learning how to avoid them a second time. Innovation and creativity are on the flipside of failure and setback. Mentors can help people make the most of both sides and that offers enormous opportunities for growth.

“Mentoring relationships should be cultivated”

I have had several mentors in my career. Some have been instrumental and I still rely on them after nearly 30 years of knowing them. Others have helped me with a specific issue and then have moved on. Mentoring is a relationship and like all other relationships some will last a career lifetime, others will come and go when they’re needed for specific outcomes. There’s really nothing like being told when you’re selling yourself short or when you’re flogging a dead horse.

My most cherished mentor has been my cheerleader and has pulled me out of the depths of self doubt. Equally, he’s told me to my face that I’m being a royal pain and to get over myself and back to working on my goals. Mentoring relationships like that are precious and should be cultivated.

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