Business News Wales had the pleasure to interview Mandy Weston, COO of Welsh ICE.
Mandy Weston is Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise (Welsh ICE) in Caerphilly. She moved from an exec-level role in a VC backed corporate, to become a founder and director at the start-up centre where she oversees administrative and support services for its members. Mandy also provides a one-to-one mentoring service for new start-ups.
A proud mum of three daughters, Mandy is also the non-executive director of her family business, Wize Virtual Admin, now headed up by her daughter Cariann.
Tell us about your business?
Based in Caerphilly and part of the Cardiff Capital Region, Welsh ICE is an innovation centre that supports entrepreneurs to launch their businesses, scale and thrive. ICE is one of the largest centres of its kind outside of London, and since establishing in 2012, Welsh ICE has supported over 200 businesses to start. It is currently home to over 400 entrepreneurs and employees.
In a recent independent report announced at the Senedd, Welsh ICE was found to have generated a £13.8M benefit for the Welsh Economy. This was based on the number of jobs created by current ICE members and graduated businesses.
What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?
We felt the figures announced in the report launched at the Senedd helps us to feel a sense of reward after a lot of long hours and late nights over the last four years. We now want to find ways to work with more people across a wider area than we have in the past, and we are actively working on how we can do that. A major challenge is around the level and type of support that new ideas and businesses require, and how we can deliver continued sustainable growth.
Even though our success has shown that centres of enterprise can work in areas deemed to be less affluent, it will be challenging to promote entrepreneurship in other places. What has made ICE so successful isn’t necessarily a business model as such, it’s more about the people, and that is difficult to replicate.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in business?
I started my family business, Wize, at 45 and was a bit blasé, thinking I knew it all, but of course I did not. Given my time again I would have spent more time upskilling myself on all the tasks of running a business, which at my previous corporate role, someone else used to do for me! Tasks such as social media management, good book keeping practices and a general awareness to work on the business rather than in it, would have helped be grow faster.
It would also have been beneficial to have a greater understanding of collaborative working in a space with like-minded people as this really boosted the business. I only worked out of my back bed room for three months and felt quite lonely. You can find that when working from home you tend to cope by creating distractions for yourself, such as taking the dogs out for walks more, or watching a bit of TV. It might improve your sense of wellbeing and your relationship with the pup, but certainly won’t help your business progress!
Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently?
This is a tough question as if I had done things differently I may not have ended up where I am today. I had an amazingly rewarding career and up to a year before I decided to go alone was completely satisfied. I had no idea how exciting and rewarding running my own business would be and still feel that what I learnt from my corporate career has helped not only me, but many of the business I have helped mentor and support.
On reflection, like many entrepreneurs who started later, I only wish I had made the leap a little earlier.
What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?
From my own experience, without a doubt, be prepared to work often and work hard! That means managing work life balance to ensure you have some time for yourself and your family.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, as you can prepare as well as possible, but learn that you will make mistakes. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about, making mistakes, learning from them and moving on as quickly as possible. You have to balance not taking unnecessary risks based on a promise of tomorrow, yet be prepared to put yourself out there and challenge yourself. It’s also important to know your weaknesses and where your skill gap is, then be prepared to look and ask for help.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?
Do your research and meet lots of people relevant to what you want to do. Ask lots of questions, and remember there is no such thing as asking too many questions. This isn’t just limited to business advisers; family, friends, even friends of friends can expand your knowledge base and broaden your perspectives.
Surround yourself with like-minded people who will be positive and motivate you, whilst also help to keep you grounded. These people can exist at your business base, training courses you attend or even in networking groups – there is lots of free stuff out there, so do your research.
Another important factor is to do a financial risk analysis and don’t underestimate your personal monetary situation. Make sure you are prepared for a lack of revenue and funds in the early days.
What are your top three tips for success?
Love what you do. In the early days your passion for your service or product will be what makes people listen and what keeps you going through the inevitable tough times.
Be prepared for early mornings, late nights and working weekends – if it was easy, everyone would do it. Running your own business is not usually nine to five, so be sure to get your down time in where you can.
Surround yourself with like-minded people who will support you. It is tough going at first, but talking with someone who has been there, gone through it and survived can be a real fillip.
What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?
Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are closely aligned, the size of the country and population means that we can connect to potential partners or collaborators quickly and easily, and everyone is open for business, there’s a real hardworking attitude. But because of the size, it means that there isn’t always the scale to find people on your doorstep, but they are never far away.
What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?
We have to shout more about our successes and the great things going on in Wales. If we don’t promote ourselves as a viable cause for investment, how can we expect organisations to invest in us?
We also need to greatly improve our infrastructure in terms of travel. Quick and affordable rail and air travel will allows us to take part in more trade missions, boosting our economy and helping to take our successes global.