16th Oct 2019 in Business

For Jenny Ervine her passion in backing start-ups is all about helping them tell their story as they build from an idea to a fully-fledged company.

Given that her background is in marketing that may come as no surprise, but Jenny understands that the story is only one part of backing start-ups.

“It’s being able to help them focus and talk about their story and refine it and get their story right, from a marketing point of view early on,” she explained. “It really helps build the business later.

“Not just having a marketing background but, having the business background and knowing that start-ups maybe come with an idea means I can support their development of their idea and harness their passion. However, many don’t know the business fundamentals.”

As well as her own JEM Marketing company, Jenny has been involved in Raise Ventures that supports start-ups and helps with investment.

“Being involved with start-ups on both sides of the table, from start-ups looking for investments and as an investor, looking for start-ups you can see there’s a real gap in the market to be able to fill that from an informal point of view.”

With her colleagues in Raise Ventures there was only one place for them to locate.

“Cathedral Quarter is the place to be,” Jenny said. “It’s an innovative, up-and-coming area with good quality office space for good value.

“There’s lots going on down here. There are start-ups plus well-established businesses in Cathedral Quarter. Everything from the seed agencies, to coffee businesses, to hairdressers, to software, to ad Agencies – everything you need.

“It’s close to local road networks, you can scoot out to anywhere around Belfast and beyond from Cathedral Quarter quite easily.”

Jenny also knows the future is bright for the area.

“The new university campus will see a lot of talent coming out of Ulster University with new ideas and innovation.”

One area has been dubbed ‘silicon alley’ – Commercial Court – where Raise Ventures is based.
“It’s one of the most well-pictured alleyways in Belfast and to be able to find this premises up here that hadn’t been touched in two years was great,” said Jenny.

It was her work with start-ups such as AirPos and Shnuggle that gave Jenny the impetus to develop further the proposition of Raise.

“From that we saw there is a real need for start-ups get help with the foundations of their business,” Jenny explained. “It can be about building the team, building the expertise, finding the gaps that they don’t know are there. Then being about to fill that with experts and marketing is one of those problems that start-ups always need help with. That’s what brought us to Raise Ventures.”

Jenny explained how that developed: “We were thinking we’re entrepreneurs and if we can help entrepreneurs from our successes and our mistakes, then we would like to run a program that’s for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs.”

The first stage of the Raise programme is working with the right cohort of start-ups.

“The idea is six companies come in and get their mentor and their advice, their office space, the connections, and get investor ready” Jenny said. “In return for that, we’re giving our time, our energy, for 6% of the company. We’re really helping them found their company, get them from idea stage to business stage. And, their successes and then we’re successful. If they’re not successful, then we’ll not be.”

She admits that for some companies giving away a stake in their company can be a frightening experience.

“It is scary. A start-up is partly about getting those cost tables right,” she said. “Getting the shareholding right early on, is really quite challenging. If you have three people around the table at 33% each, what happens when you go to get investment and you need to give away a certain percentage for certain value and everybody’s diluted and then nobody has decision-making power?

“Company law says that you have to have over 75% in some cases to make decisions as a shareholder.

“You need to get that right to make sure that it is founded correctly, set up properly, and ready for the next two or three rounds of investment to bring capital into the business.
“To build whatever product or service it is that you’re building. So, 6% isn’t a lot and we’re very, very flexible in terms of what we offer. We don’t want to hold anybody up in the next investment round. She continued: “If a good investor came in and said ‘you know, we want to invest in this company but we don’t want minority shareholders; then that’s okay too. We want to be flexible and supportive to the companies. That’s the most important part.”

“We’re very much front ending our program. The first six weeks out of six months is almost everything you need to learn about a business. But those real principles of, if you get an investor and you get a sensible deal this is what you should be looking for.

“I know in that early stage, when you’re having conversations, because conversation can take a long time to actually get investment, with us you know that you’re prepared.”

As well as the investment in start-ups, it can be the more ‘practical’ advice that Jenny offers from her own experience and background.

“It is helping with strategy, obviously sales and marketing, as well as having some finance background and being able to cover all bases and say, ‘don’t forget about this and don’t
forget about that’.

“With most of the companies, I’ll come on and help with marketing. But other areas, like, admin, governance, corporate governance, are part of what I do and what Raise does.”
And, she admits that there is a certain type of person who will make a success of their business.

“They have to be hungry, they have to be determined and you have to be resilient. You need to have passion for your product and know it inside-out and upside-down and live and breathe it, 24-7,” Jenny explained. “Having the drive to succeed and resilience and knowing that you will make mistakes and knowing that you will get 100 nos before you get a yes and being able to pick yourself up and get off the ground and go for the next meeting. Go for the next pitch.

“We’ve been at various events recently that you see the same guys, they’re still up pitching. They might have already got investment but they’re pitching for the next investment because they know it’s going to come. They’re not tired, they’re not sitting in the corner with their shoes up thinking the job is done. They’re back out there.”

And Jenny is confident that the future of entrepreneurship is safe in Belfast.

”I was making a list only yesterday of the number of start-ups in Belfast and I think I had 50 names written down on the page. And that was only off the top of my head.

“It’s amazing that there’s that kind of entrepreneurialism in Northern Ireland.”

For more information about The Raise go to raise-ventures.com

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