Re-kindling the entrepreneurial fire – how established businesses can embrace innovation for growth


In 2014, Simon Devonshire was appointed Entrepreneur in Residence by the Government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills. His remit was to focus on scale-up – driving entrepreneurial spirit to a broader audience, including established businesses. It was, he admits, not a job for the faint-hearted.

Simon Devonshire was the Government’s Entrepreneur in Residence between July 2014 and August 2015. His blog, inspires people to be entrepreneurial. Simon was awarded an OBE for services to enterprise in the 2016 New Year’s Honour list.

Simon Devonshire

AT A GLANCE: Serial entrepreneurs share key characteristics of intuition and inevitability. Technology is a massive enabler of innovation and invention. Identifying your Most Powerful Action (MPA) is crucial to pursuing growth. True differentiators are inevitably and intuition.

Simon Devonshire graphic text

My remit as Entrepreneur in Residence was to focus on business growth. There’s already a huge well-spring of entrepreneurial talent that kick-starts business, but it can be lost as businesses grow.

In the business world we live in, muddling along will no longer do. Unless businesses are progressive in their ambition to grow and implement the activities necessary, then quite frankly I worry whether they’ll survive. Such activities are what we call ‘scale-up entrepreneurialism’ – introducing the entrepreneurial spirit to established businesses.

Business is increasingly like a high performance sport, unless you have the right degree of dedication and purpose, the chances of succeeding are slim.

How to introduce ‘scale-up entrepreneurialism’ to your business

That may seem like a daunting prospect, but there are steps businesses can take to embed the ‘scale-up entrepreneurialism’ approach:

  1. Eliminate fear – it has no place in the workplace. We live in an era of invention and pioneering spirit and the thing that will kill that quicker than anything is fear. If you want to nurture the spirit of entrepreneurialism, the old days of just focusing on results, commercialism and bullying have to go. Be very wary of people who manage with the stick. That culture just won’t work in this economy.
  2. Look outside your organisation. There’s enormous potential for collaboration and cross-fertilisation between small and large businesses. Small businesses often have agility, invention and innovation. Big businesses have significance and scalability. I would encourage big businesses to really think about how they can invest in and work with smaller companies. The challenge is to do it in a way that’s constructive and positive for all parties.
  3. Acquire a challenge mentality. Avoid complacency, and what’s typically called the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’. If you’re turning over billions, any innovation is unlikely to yield more than a handful of million, which makes it hard to get excited. But you have to push yourself to look for those opportunities, launch them and scale them.
  4. Create an action plan. Identify your MPA (Most Powerful Action) that will move your business forward furthest. Make it practical and actionable and ensure it’s on the priority list of your C-Suite.

Ideas into action

When I talk to businesses, they often quite quickly come up with their MPA, but it’s missing from the long list of priorities. That means it stays just an interesting idea; it’s not happening.

Yet the UK is a great centre for ideas generation. Year after year, we record high numbers of new businesses. Latest figures, for example, show that 351,000 businesses were born in the UK in 2014, the highest number since records began.1 London has become a global magnet for international talent and, from experience, it’s clear to me that the UK stands out from many other European countries for its genuine, embracing of entrepreneurialism. In Spain for instance, people tend to prefer to work in either government or big corporates, motivated by job security. In Germany people tend to aspire to work for a big corporate and they’re motivated more by prestige.

Less fear of failure

What I think makes the UK unique is that our experience, from hugely tumultuous events like the miners strikes, means we’re divorced from that idea of a job for life, so we’ve embraced a more freelance society and we’re much less fearful of the consequences of failure and much more open to re-skilling or re-training.

For established businesses, however, other issues get in the way. For example, they focus too much on monitoring the competition, or they’re afraid of diverging from their existing raison d’etre. But if we’re talking scale-up entrepreneurialism, there are some fantastic examples. In the business world, Apple stands out – people didn’t know they needed an iPhone until it launched. Now they’re selling by the lorry load.

Natural born talent

Entrepreneurism is like musicianship - anybody can learn it, but there are some that are naturally more capable. If we consider musicians, David Bowie was the epitome of entrepreneurialism. He had a gift that he was compelled to pursue from a very early age. And he was fearless in pursuit of his art as well as having a singular belief in his ability that was unencumbered by what others (his competitors) were doing. Plus, Bowie never stopped innovating; he was compelled to continue despite success. Entrepreneurialism is a natural talent that supersedes everything. If more people take that approach, the possibilities for British business are boundless. But I also think there’s a difference between entrepreneurialism generally and the repeat behaviour common to the really great entrepreneurs. It moves beyond the hygiene factors, the clichés of charisma, creativity, determination.

The true differentiators are:

“Unless businesses are progressive in their ambition to grow, I worry whether they’ll survive.”

Inevitability – they see the success of their new venture, the new thing they’re pioneering, the new technology they’re developing as inevitable. They don’t doubt it. They don’t think ‘this might be possible’ or ‘maybe in a few years’ time…’, they absolutely see it and there’s a driving force to that inevitability.

Intuition – too many businesses are obsessed with de-risking innovation through research and surveying to justify investment. But I value the famous quote from Henry Ford, which is ‘if I’d asked people, they would have asked for a quicker horse’. These are people who can read human psychology, identify points of friction and come up with intuitive solutions that are compelling to a large number of people.

Opportunity for adventure

We’re actually incredibly fortunate in that we live in a time where there’s never been more opportunity for entrepreneurialism, adventure and innovation. We’re essentially witnessing the birth of the digital economy. So we have more connectivity, more computer processing power, more open source code software, more opportunity for word of mouth marketing through social media than we have ever had at any point in history.

Technology is a massive enabler and, if I was to name one thing that’s reduced cost as a barrier to entry, it would be the availability of open source code that has slashed the cost of creating the technology to drive new ideas by a huge percentage. And all of these advances are eliminating friction in our lives.

To truly drive the growth of British businesses, we need to release these new ideas from the preserve of new businesses. By embracing entrepreneurialism as a culture that pervades established businesses across all sectors, we can enrich our lives and support economic growth and sustainability.

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