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How to scale up: Six strategies from the 2023 WIRED Trailblazers

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This year's WIRED Trailblazer leaders share their six strategies for successfully scaling a business, from planning the leadership team of the future, to preparing for international expansion.

In October 2021, Joni Rautavuori, an experienced leader in scaling complex automation businesses, arrived for an interview at a manufacturing facility in Blyth, Northumberland, a short drive from Newcastle. His mission: to become the new CEO of Tharsus, and unlock the company’s next phase of growth.

For Rautavuori, it was the company’s profound mission that drew him in: “Tharsus’ purpose is to deliver technology that matters”. Having created technologies that have transformed some of the world’s biggest businesses across a myriad of sectors, this was a mission Tharsus was well and truly delivering on. And, for Rautavori, “After two decades in corporates, this was the kind of company I aspired to nurture and grow.”

Founded in 1964 by three steel workers who won the football pools, they seized their good fortune to create a welding and fabrication business—and Tharsus was born. Almost 60 years later, it now serves as the critical link between technology design and volume manufacturing by transforming groundbreaking ideas and innovations into scalable, manufacturable products. From advancing “just in time” robotic logistics for Ocado, a global grocery tech giant, to enabling clinical laboratory bench automation for Automata, a tech company that supports life science labs, Tharsus is a global leader in robotics, advanced manufacturing, and complex electro-mechanical assembly.

Tharsus’ growth story mirrors a wider trend observed in the UK. Numerous homegrown companies are scaling up thanks to a similar kind of carefully managed, incremental progress that can fly under the radar. In a world where a dominant Silicon Valley narrative lauds the headline-grabbing, meteoric rise of unicorns, organisations that are exhibiting long-term success, clear strategic goals, and a well-thought-through path to profitability are under-celebrated. Yet these businesses are resilient and adaptable in the face of challenging environments and changing conditions, with the ability to sprint rapidly when the moment calls for it. More camels, perhaps, than unicorns. And they are a powerful driving force within the UK economy.

For the second consecutive year, the WIRED Trailblazer Programme, in partnership with HSBC UK, has recognised and celebrated outstanding mid-sized enterprises. This year, 90 enterprises have been meticulously chosen as Trailblazers, showcasing the rich tapestry of businesses across diverse regions in the UK. Some, like Tharsus, boast a rich history dating back decades, while others identified for the programme are newer entrants. But all of them are pioneering products and services that create benefits for people, communities, and the planet.

So, what’s the secret to successfully scaling a Trailblazer business? We asked some of the leaders at the helm of these companies to share their insights and their advice for others…

A substantial portion of your future leaders are already in your organisation—your job is to work out who they are.

Mark Logan | Chief Entrepreneurial Advisor to the Scottish Government

1. Watch out for ‘inflection points’

Mark Logan, former Skyscanner Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Entrepreneurial Advisor to the Scottish Government, observes a familiar pattern when scaling a business. In the early stages, growth is relatively smooth. More people deliver proportionally more outcomes, and established ways of working are able to scale accordingly. But beyond 30—50 employees, organisations start to experience what Logan calls “inflection points”. These are junctures at which the operating structures and processes that previously worked so well are no longer fit for purpose. Decision making stalls, productivity slows, and people become frustrated.

These inflection points are not one-offs and, in Logan’s view, you can expect them again as your workforce hits new milestones of around 100, 200, 400, and 1,000 heads. Alongside using headcount to predict inflection points, Logan also recommends taking regular “temperature checks” of top talent within the organisation—engaging with people to understand their feelings and frustrations.

Getting through these inflection points is critical to growth, and it requires the adoption of new operational structures and processes that optimise for the needs of the larger organisation. When working out how to optimise, it’s important to recognise that best practice might not come from within. Logan advocates looking outwards, identifying best practice from others, and adapting tried and tested approaches.

One company currently refining its operational processes is Cambridge GaN Devices, a WIRED Trailblazer and Cambridge University spin-out developing and commercialising innovative gallium nitride transistors and IC technologies. Co-founded by Dr. Giorgia Longobardi and Prof. Florin Udrea in 2016, the company now operates across five locations across the world, including Taiwan, Europe, and the US. For Longobardi, revisiting decision making processes, and devolving more of them, has been an essential enabler of growth. Having appointed departmental heads across domains from marketing to HR, her latest move was to recruit a COO. As she explains: "Now that we are experiencing a growth phase, a COO will play a pivotal role in our next stage, alongside our VP of Finance, who will support us in scaling and expanding our global footprint. Our current focus is on crafting a well-oiled operational machine.’’

2. Identify and nurture your future leaders

When planning the leadership team of the future, leaders can often fall into the trap of underestimating the potential of their existing talent pool. As Logan points out: “A substantial portion of your future leaders are already in your organisation—your job is to work out who they are.” This approach not only offers attractive career paths for existing employees, but reduces the number of costly external hires recruited into senior positions.

David Craig, CEO of Sheffield-based Iceotope, a provider of innovative liquid-cooling systems for servers, recognises the benefits of growing talent from within. He considers it an essential element of Iceotope’s growth strategy. According to Craig, talent-spotting requires a mix of strategic assessment and intuition. “Look across your workforce and ask, who exhibits curiosity by asking questions? Who engages in thoughtful problem-solving? Who can be trusted to get stuff done? Who has that unmistakable spark in their eyes?”

Once you've pinpointed these employees, Craig says there is a next crucial step: granting them agency and autonomy. This entails establishing well-defined roles, delegating decision-making, providing the necessary resources to fulfil their responsibilities, acknowledging their initiative, and periodically adapting the levels of autonomy based on their performance. As employees gain the freedom to make decisions and take measured risks, they become more engaged, and your organisation becomes increasingly adept at tackling challenges. On the flip side, neglecting to empower employees may lead to poor initiative, disengagement, micromanagement, and high turnover rates.

I would advise leaders to be more creative about their funding mix. There are excellent debt instruments available that provide the capacity to increase revenue and grant funding to support the development of products and propositions.

Dr Andrew Woods | CEO and co-founder, CATAGEN

3. Consider diverse sources of funding

Scaling companies have to contend with evolving circumstances both internally and externally. For leaders of these scale-ups, significant opportunities and challenges can emerge at pace, requiring agile thinking and rapid decision making. At these times, pivots are made, new directions are taken and products and services evolve.

The route that a company has taken in funding its growth and expansion can have a significant impact on what decisions are made and by who. Some funders will give leaders autonomy in decision making and others will expect to have their say. Choosing the right funders, with the right priorities, is a decision that demands careful consideration rather than a rushed commitment.

In 2016, Marie Burrows and Jamie Burrows co-founded Vertical Future, a globally-recognised vertical farming technology and data company on a mission to improve both planetary and population health. After two years of primarily self-funding the business, they became profitable. However, with business expansion came increased operational costs, requiring a critical injection of capital. Yet, despite venture capital (VC) interest, they opted to secure their upfront investments from family and high-net-worth individuals who shared their ambitions. This provided both financial fuel and the autonomy to realise their vision of developing market-leading technology and data solutions without the high-pressure, short-term expectations often tied to VC funding. “We turned down VC money early on in favour of passionate, patient investors,” says Burrows. “It wasn’t easy, but we wanted to retain control and properly invest in developing our own tech stack.” These early decisions paid off. In 2022 they secured the largest funding round in Europe for a vertical farming company and, in 2023, they completed a Series B with a 3x increase in valuation, despite tough conditions in the capital markets.

CATAGEN, a clean-tech company based in Northern Ireland, has deliberately sought funding from diverse sources as a way to maximise returns and reduce risk. It has secured investments from experienced individuals and combined this with money from government grants, debt instruments, and income generated from customer revenue. This strategic approach is led by the CEO and co-founder, Dr Andrew Woods, who strongly believes in retaining decision making control and maintaining a clear understanding of the reasons for pursuing investment. As Woods observes: “Too many businesses take on too much equity investment too early, which can force a trajectory and an exit that aligns with other people’s agendas, rather than the entrepreneur’s vision. I would advise leaders to be more creative about their funding mix. There are excellent debt instruments available that provide the capacity to increase revenue and grant funding to support the development of products and propositions.” Today, CATAGEN stands as one of Northern Ireland’s highest-revenue-generating tech companies, and has recently secured a proportion of the UK government’s Net Zero Innovation Funding Portfolio to drive emissions reduction and home-grown energy.

4. Expanding internationally? Don’t fail to prepare…

International expansion can be a game-changer, but it’s a high-stakes endeavour requiring meticulous planning, research into the new geographies, and significant resource commitment from those leading the charge. Timing is everything, as premature expansion can introduce serious problems.

David Ward, CEO of Oxford PV, a global leader in perovskite solar technology, is no stranger to the challenges of international expansion. His experience in VC investment has given him a front-row seat as multiple businesses have sought to expand, and he has seen recurrent company missteps. These include hiring costly in-market sales and marketing teams that lack the technical expertise to effectively sell the products, as well as founders burned out by travel trying to support those international teams, subsequent neglect of the home business, and overlooking cultural differences that can affect product-market fit.

“European companies generally do a pretty poor job of initial international expansion, as they tend to underestimate the differences, especially in the US,” says Ward. “Customers want to feel like they have local support. As a dual-citizen I often refer to my American passport at meetings with US clients because it builds confidence that we understand the market.”

In their pursuit of global expansion, Transcend Packaging, a pioneering sustainable packaging firm from South Wales, recognised the risks of going it alone. Instead, they opted for a strategic partnership with ITOCHU Corporation, a major player in the pulp and paper industry in Japan. Together, Transcend and ITOCHU are working to prevent billions of single-use plastics from ending up in landfills each year, with the shared goal of making a substantial impact on the sustainability of the packaging industry.

This partnership, rooted in a mutual commitment and vision, will enable Transcend to elevate its current product offerings and expand its market footprint across Europe, Asia, and North America. Simultaneously, ITOCHU, dedicated to driving innovation in the eco-friendly wood-fibre materials sector, is poised to gain substantial benefits from Transcend’s proficiency in material innovation and its well-established client base, including major brands such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.

Channing Nuss, Transcend’s co-founder, emphasises the lesson they’ve learned from this: “When scaling up, the desire to expand your product range and market presence intensifies. Going solo carries significant risks. We found the ideal partner in ITOCHU, given their alignment with our vision and commitment to revolutionising the packaging industry. For those embarking on expansion, I strongly encourage considering a partnership approach.”

There's no quick fix for navigating the challenges of expansion and ensuring success. To get it right, you need to: hire the right people in local markets; maintain a strong home business; seek out strategic partnerships, and research, research, research.

There are only a handful of people who can be a founder, and drive a company from the beginning to the end.

David Ward | CEO, Oxford PV

5. Cultivate relationships to unlock opportunities

Business success stories often feature an element of luck—being in “the right place at the right time”—but more often than not, lasting success stems from persistent, long-term efforts to cultivate relationships with customers, suppliers, backers, peers, and even potential acquirers. In the end, business revolves around people, and building networks and cultivating relationships is an essential part of longer-term success.

James McIlroy, founder and CEO of EnteroBiotix, a microbiome therapeutics company based in Scotland, is working to harness the potential of the gut microbiome in combating diseases, including cancer and IBS. Its groundbreaking work means it has had to acquire the manufacturing capability to develop drugs based on microorganisms—a form of drug development that is not commonly addressed in traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing processes. In such a specialised field, maintaining a close and collaborative relationship with medical regulators has been pivotal to securing swift approvals, and to scaling the business. “Manufacturing has been a bottleneck in microbial therapeutics,” he says. “But we’ve secured the resources to take control of the supply chain and develop in-house manufacturing and analytical capabilities. To achieve this, we have worked hard to build a strong reputation with the regulator through being transparent, communicative, and delivering on our promises.”

Opportunities often come without warning, yet they flourish when trust and meaningful connections have been established. Vertical Future’s most significant early investment came after a four-minute meeting in a Tapas bar, for example—but this followed years of diligently building relationships across London’s restaurant community.

So, creating networks should be an integral part of a business’s growth strategy, not a task to tackle when time allows.

6. Select the optimal leader to drive future growth

Accounts of successful scale-ups often centre around the “founder story”—the remarkable journey of a visionary growing an idea into a billion-dollar enterprise. However, founder CEOs rarely spend decades at the helm. Burnout is all too common, entrepreneurial passion can lead to boredom once a business is well established, and the practicalities of managing HR, operations, and sales don’t suit everyone. “There are only a handful of people who can be a founder, and drive a company from the beginning to the end,” says Oxford PV’s David Ward. “There is no shame if you are not the right person to take the business further. And the rest of us have to realise that we’re part of the journey, we’re servants of the company overseeing the next phase.”

In 2021, Tharsus underwent a pivotal change when its founder, Brian Palmer, made the decision to step aside from his day-to-day leadership role. Having led the company successfully for many decades, Palmer realised the importance of appointing a new CEO with the expertise and determination to navigate Tharsus through its next growth phase. This phase is centred on a five-year plan to be the preferred partner for the design and volume manufacturer of advanced manufacturing, robotics, and complex electro-mechanical solutions. With two decades of experience in growing complex automation businesses, Rautavuori proved to be well-suited for this. Furthermore, this change has enabled Palmer to focus exclusively on his passion: innovation—the very reason he founded Tharsus in the first place.

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