We met in the stylishly-furbished Cafe Noir in Edinburgh’s West End on a bit of a dreich Wednesday in Scotland’s capital. Adam Brown had just finished the latest instalment of his leadership training with ‘Gearing for Growth’, which he credits with his significant personal growth as a business leader over the last year.
It’s certainly a far cry from the confines of the University of Strathclyde office where Adam and the team had spent many, many hours perfecting their concept in the hope that one day they could spin out of academia and into the world of business.
At TalentSpark we work with a whole host of inspiring young businesses, many of whom have spun-out of one of our great institutions. There are a number who have had commerciality in mind from the very start and there are others who were more focused on exploring academic hypotheses and happened to find themselves in uncharted territory with a ground-breaking solution.
Adam and the team at Strathclyde University had a foot in both camps. As their Chief Executive Officer for the last three and half years, Adam started as the Operations Director and has helped grow the company since 2009. So, we wanted to find out about Bellrock Technology’s journey and Adam’s own personal growth from university student and tutor to business leader.
Who are Bellrock Technology
Bellrock Technology began life at the University of Strathclyde in 2009. It was the brainchild of Professor Stephen McArthur whose industry-focused research has developed a range of advanced diagnostic software over 25 years. Working with Adam, he led work to develop artificial intelligence that would make it faster and easier to deploy predictive analytics for industry decision makers.
After developing their business proposition, the team won Converge Challenge in 2011 before successfully spinning out and starting to trade in 2012. Since then it has been a continual journey of development for their core product, Lumen®, which has since been granted patents for the unique AI that powers it.
Stephen, now Bellrock Technology’s CTO, and Adam’s vision is to eliminate manual data analysis for everyday decision makers. In short to speed up and improve decision making, first for energy utilities, whose challenges they know well, and then for other sectors that experience similar problems.
Find A Great Mentor
The first step on Adam’s journey to CEO was enlisting the help of a special advisor. Someone whom he could trust and could help guide his decision-making.
Most of us have had that go-to person who has given us a bit of guidance and support over the years; a mentor who has pointed you in the right direction. In a small business, especially one that has spun out of university, according to Adam there is the need for not just an experienced voice, but someone with significant commercial experience.
Adam teamed up with Scottish Enterprise and received some invaluable support from a number of advisors. However, Adam credits much of his and Bellrock’s success to the company’s original Chair, current non-exec and co-founder, Gordon Short.
According to Adam;
“Gordon kept everyone’s feet on the ground, but more importantly helped us to make the uncomfortable decisions. Gordon was adamant that Bellrock Technology needed to get the product out to market as soon as possible.”
Adam and his team were used to applying rigorous scrutiny through the academic peer review process and expected to follow a similar process to developing Lumen®. Whereas Gordon, with his commercial background, knew the best forum to test your product was in the market.
“Gordon encouraged us to take that leap of faith and start the company. He reassured us that our MVP could be commercialised and improved over time through ongoing lean agile development. He also highlighted how much easier it is to secure investment when you have established demand for your product.”
With their academic background, Adam and his team were used to pushing the boundaries of what was possible – to challenge the norm and to find ground breaking solutions. However, they sometimes found that while these were of interest, they didn’t always tally with commercial demand from the market.
“We were solving problem 10 when the market was still grappling with problem 1”
This gap between what is possible and what is required became obvious when Adam and his team started to test the product with potential customers. As he points out;
“If your ambition is to lead a successful company, you have to create a product for which there is demand. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we were guilty of emphasising Lumen’s long-term benefits over how it solved customers’ day-to-day problems immediately.”
Build the right team
Adam was keen to stress just how important the right team has been to the success of Bellrock Technology at every level of the business. One of the main reasons they have enjoyed successes as a business is the team they have built.
Stephen, Gordon and Adam are the company’s founding team and are still integral to its growth and development. But building a trusted operational team who deliver every day, is also vital. As Adam has grown in his role and focused less and less on the day to day work he has learned to completely trust the team on the ground to deliver – which they do.
The third and equally important part of the team is your board. Adam heaped high praise on the value of his board and the role they have played. The strong network that comes with the right members, the commercial experience that provides timely advice, and the additional support offered has been invaluable to Bellrock Technology’s success.
Find your culture
By his own admission, this was an area that Adam was unsure of how best to proceed. It wasn’t that the team didn’t have a good culture, it just hadn’t really been formalised.
“I was all for having a great culture but didn’t want to instill one artificially. In research, we saw the best ideas form when people enjoyed their work and teamed up flexibly. We wanted a similar culture of trading ideas, tackling problems together and supporting each other to develop within Bellrock Technology.”
When you have so many competing priorities as a CEO it can be hard to devote the time needed to develop the culture you want. But the practical experiences of growing a business and trying to attract the right talent, not to mention the Gearing for Growth sessions with Kirsty, have highlighted the importance of having this.
One of Adam’s next challenges is how to maintain and evolve the culture that the team at Bellrock have worked hard to create. The business is growing and expanding with ambitious plans to tackle markets in other countries. They are keen to keep the relaxed atmosphere with a flexible working environment while maintaining their high levels of productivity – not an easy task, but one Adam believes his team can achieve.
Don’t fight the change
Now that Bellrock Technology has been trading for six years, working life for Adam has changed quite dramatically. His transition from academic to business leader began in 2012 as he moved from Research Assistant to Operations Director. When he started out his focus was very much on product development, customer project management and solving the complex challenges faced in commercialising Lumen®.
However, as Adam’s role morphed into CEO, his responsibilities changed – as did his day to day role within the company. No longer was he working in the business, he was working on the business. This isn’t an entirely easy concept to come to terms with when you have been so involved in product development, but Adam took a very philosophical approach to the change:
“I like to solve problems and at Bellrock we use technology and logic to overcome challenges. That’s how we’ve built our business. My latest challenge is understanding how to grow the business and how to lead our team”
So, while it’s not a complex technical problem, it is certainly a challenge with a multitude of solutions and no clearly defined path. As the business has grown, so the balance of technical to management has tipped considerably in favour of the latter – something Adam has embraced rather than fought.
Many technical specialists find that transition difficult, but, as Adam points out, if you adopt the same problem-solving attitude to management you can find similar satisfaction.
This is where Gordon’s guidance again ensured that Adam sought professional advice in the form of ‘Gearing for Growth’. Kirsty Bathgate’s leadership program for CEO’s has given Adam a solid grounding in, not only understanding the vagaries of business, but also in the softer leadership skills required within the modern business world.
So nowadays it is far less product development and management and it is far more stakeholder development and management.
Adam will be the first to admit that his journey from academia to business leader has not been an easy ride, but he has relished in every opportunity and experience.
At every step he has learned something new, but it’s his belief that every spin out should:
– Find the right mentor
– Think commercially from the start
– Build the right team
– Create and believe in your own culture
– Not fight the change
These steps will help the next generation of university entrepreneurs to a successful spin out and help our economy flourish with some talented business leaders.