I started Tyfy in my final year of University in 2017, when I was 21, so I’ve never really known ‘adult life’ without it. It’s always been with me, it’s just whether it was full time or part time.
For a very long time I was working in a full time ‘proper job’ alongside Tyfy, and that gave me a lot of experience in terms of business and corporate interactions – the things you don’t really get taught at school or University. In 2019, in time for New Year, I left my job and ploughed head first into Tyfy, and things are just starting to really take off now.
Both Tyfy and LadderTech are part of an overarching idea that we have that we don’t want anyone to be left alone or isolated. We as a team believe that everyone has talent and ability within them but sometimes you just need the help of someone else to realise that, and every product we produce is in pursuit of that idea.
Mentoring in unlikely places
I’ve been part of two entrepreneurship incubators in my time, so there are loads of different opportunities for mentorship, but some come from places you wouldn’t expect.
One that sticks out for me came from my friend’s dad when we first started interviewing interns. I’d never done a job interview from that side of the table – I was terrified, probably more nervous than the interviewees. He told me something that stuck with me throughout my career – “You can’t sit at that table and be ‘James’ you have to sit at that table and be ‘The Company’”. In that example he was talking about keeping in your brain what’s best for the company, but this is something I still do in pitches and meetings today. Sometimes you do have to sit and be ‘man as corporation’ which has become a bit of a mantra of mine – you’re not James anymore, you’re not Emily anymore, you’ve got to be ‘the company,’ and look out for ‘the company’.
‘Sometimes you have to be ‘man [or woman, obviously] as Corporation’
A close second actually came from being a musician and playing in bands throughout my life. There was a drummer in a band I was in when I was 16 – not very old – and he sat me down (I was the singer and I was always nervous before the shows) and he said: “You’ve got to remember that everybody here wants you to do well. Nobody came tonight for the show to suck, everyone wants it to be good.”
Going into a pitch or a meeting, none of the people who are giving you their time want it to be bad, they’re looking for something good. So that has always improved my confidence kowing that, whether they know it or not, they’re rooting for me. They want to be shown something good.
Mentors in a more formal capacity are just as valuable. I think mentors can be really good in smoothing the path, even in terms of just going through consultaions and hearing your idea out loud. One mentor who had a huge influence on me is David Park. I remember my first meeting with him, and I said “I’ve had this idea for student peer mentoring but nobody’s listening to me” so he stood me up in the meeting room, walked me round to the entrepreneurial centre’s office at the University and said: “Why can’t we talk to someone at the business school? Well why not, can you get me a phone number? Could you do it now?” We went back to the meeting room after that and he said; “D’you see what I did? I cut through the noise and we got what we wanted.”
It was so simple, but so effective. You learn attitude and outlook from your mentors as well as general business advice.
Taking the advice you don’t want to hear
I think start-ups can very regularly see the world as owing them help simply because they’re a start-up and they’re on their own. I fell into this way of thinking myself, but it just isn’t true, you have to do the work yourself (which is kind of the point) and if you start doing that then more people will be inclined to help you.
In terms of opportunities, they vary greatly. There’s huge discrepencies in terms of funding etc., but if we use funding as the example: if you turn up to Dragons Den and explain your idea, they will ask what you’ve done on your own to make it happen. If you say “Oh nothing I was just waiting for you to kick me a load of money” they’ll turn you round so quick your head will spin.
You have to make the first steps yourself, then people will be more interested in helping you.
‘A massive opportunity is being told something you don’t want to hear’
Further to this, in terms of opportunities, one mistake I see a lot of, and have made myself, is ignoring what you don’t want to hear. There is a BIG difference between being resolute in your conviction and your idea, and ignoring helpful criticism.
Regularly, you see young companies getting advice from seasoned professionals and its just not what they want to hear. So they don’t listen to it, and often they cease to exist at all. A massive opportunity actually is being told something you dont want to hear and a lot of people miss that totally.
The 3 things a start-up needs to grow
1. The first is quite cliched, but it really is about having passion or drive to succeed. There will be countless times when everybody around you – your parents, your friends, you girlfriend, your sister, everyone – will say ‘Look, this isn’t working, all the logic said it would, you thought it would, but it just isn’t’.
If you don’t have a fire burning within you which means you’re not going to let go, you’re not going to ride out those moments. Being stubborn is something I have in abundance, and it’s worked out in this instance.
‘Everybody thinks they’ve thought of everything, but you haven’t’
2. The second would be having ‘mentors’ or people who have been through the mill a bit a head of you. They will be amazingly helpful in terms of letting you know the things you haven’t thought of, because everybody thinks they’ve thought of everything but you haven’t, you never have. It doesn’t necassarily need to be something formal, I know there are places where you can pay to get a mentor, which I’m not so sure about. Obviously LadderTech does have mentors but its more specific, addressing the fact of “You don’t know everything, nor should you have to, because there’s people who can help.” However you choose to do it, definitely look for mentors.
3. Thirdly, I think it is having a team around you. For the longest time, I refused to share the workload with anyone just because I didn’t want anyone muscling in on my idea. I got lucky in that that didn’t kill everything. Here’s some free advice – 100% of nothing is still nothing.
Very often ‘control freaks’ either burn out, or get to a certain level and can’t do anymore themselves – so they can’t really grow. Emily was great when she came – she started very small and now basically runs the daily operations of the company. The trick is to share the workload with someone who really believes in what you’re doing. Someone who takes your idea, work and beliefs and makes them their own as well. Find somebody that can mirror you, if you like, just in different ways, and who is good at other areas. You need a team that mirrors your passion and drive.
Can mentoring have an impact on growth?
I think mentoring can impact growth in terms of stopping you making mistakes. The idea is always that, as entrepreneurs, you’re probably really really good at one or two things. If you’re a startup making an online florist, you’re probably really good at putting flowers together, but you might suck at accounts or web development or marketing, which is why you need mentoring to help you, that’s why we made LadderTech.
Similarly, if you get a good mentor who really supports you then thats a really good networking link. They move in their own circles and they’ve been in the game way longer than you and they will know people. So they can impact growth in a number of ways, by helping you grow your own skills and helping the company grow through contacts and links.
I’ve never had a mentor so much as I’ve had loads of them. In development terms there’s Chris Timson our technical advisor, he’s a huge asset for the tech side of things but also in the sense that he’s a businessman, he’s a few years older than me – I won’t say how many – and he’s been in the online start-up space for years. He’s been really influential in terms of learning for me, just through telling me things like: ‘You have a great product but it’s no use if no one sees it or uses it so let’s focus on that’.
‘There’s lots of different places to find mentoring’
In terms of other mentors, my Mum and Dad (who have only just recently retired) have been hugely influential in terms of stress and emotions. I was talking to my dad on Sunday and I told him I’d been working all day because I was bored. He said: “I don’t care if you’re bored, get up and go for a run or a walk, if you don’t you’ll go mad.” That’s mentoring, isn’t it? There’s lots of different places where you can find it.