Mark Onyett

It takes a lot more than just cash to build a business from scratch, and that’s why Blenheim Chalcot hopes to nurture entrepreneurs throughout their whole journey, guiding them from the early days as a startup through to the epitome of success as a scaleup.

Founded in 2004 under the mantra ‘we are venture builders, not venture capitalists,’ Blenheim Chalcot sets out to build companies, as opposed to just fund them. The firm, which is headquartered in London, also has a northern presence with offices in Nottingham and Manchester.

Following a career in engineering, strategic consulting and a stint as an executive at Capital One, Mark Onyett, partner at Blenheim Chalcot, and two of his colleagues set up their own business called TDX, a technology and analytics business that operated in the debt and credit management space. This, Onyett said, put him in good stead to help founders build their companies from the ground up.

“We went out and really tried to sell anything to anyone that wanted anything to do with credit, we had 14 versions of a business plan, I think. We had a grand vision about what we wanted to be, but the reality was that on day one we had absolutely nothing other than what we’d learnt at Capital One,” he told Tech City News.

It took Onyett and his colleagues a year to make some money, which they then invested, eventually going on to sell the business for an impressive £200m in 2014.

“We started it with peanuts. We put effort and sweat into it and grew it to over 400 employees in a bunch of different countries,” Onyett reminisced.

Venture building

Now completely focused on Blenheim Chalcot, Onyett said the firm is much more interested in producing sustainable business models, rather than just ‘quick win’ ventures.

Somewhere in between a VC and an accelerator or incubator, Blenheim Chalcot, in return for a majority stake, provides startups with desk space and access to its legal, tax, tech and marketing expertise to help them flourish.

“So it means entrepreneurs can just focus their time on the important stuff and the business, and not stress about all the silly little things,” Onyett said.

Whilst the firm receives a few pitches a week, the selection process varies depending on circumstances.

“We’re hands-on which has its pluses and minuses, we’re a pain in the arse some days and we’re helpful other days,” he joked.

Execution

But, despite its simple investment strategy, Blenheim Chalcot is unsurprisingly strict when it comes to selecting which tech startups to back and isn’t swayed by hype.

“Everyone talks about big data, everyone talks about machine learning … most of it is utter b******s,” Onyett brazenly stated.

“Both of those have tremendous power of application, but fundamentally, for either to work, you’ve got to figure out how you’re actually going to execute on that. How are you actually going to use it to make real decisions that make a difference?” he challenged.

Startup founders, he added, need to be balanced: “I think fundamentally you’ve got to be both incredibly creative and optimistic, but at the same time very brutal about whether you’re kidding yourself.”

Pitching

To Onyett, people are just as important as great ideas when it comes to deciding on the businesses to support.

“You really do back people. Obviously they’ve got to be bright, but are they adaptable and resilient enough to be able to get to where you want to get to?”

He went on to stress the importance of startup founders having an interested and inquisitive team behind them. In terms of core positions that need to be filled, Onyett highlighted the significance of having a good chief technical officer (CTO), but admitted these can be difficult to find.

Like founders, Onyett suggested CTOs need to adopt a two-sided work ethic: “I think you want a CTO to be a combination of reasonably visionary but also stubborn about how they’re going to build their vision.

“So they need to be a good architect laying out a strategy, but on the other side, they need to be willing to take care of the boring details.”

Nottingham

Finding individuals to match specific requirements is a challenge, and Onyett doesn’t believe the tech skills shortage is limited to London: “In both Nottingham and London, tech hiring is our biggest recruitment challenge.”

However, he went on to say once talent has been accessed by firms, retaining team members in Nottingham is easier.

“I think my view on London, and our experience in London versus Nottingham, is it’s sort of easy-come easy-go,” he said. “I could probably find you someone quicker in London, but I’d probably have to pay them more and the chances are they’d leave sooner.

“If you move to Nottingham, maybe you’re at a slightly different life stage, maybe you’ve got a family and kids, and so you’re quite happy settling down and doing something for a while, whereas in London you move around a bit more,” he explained.

Aside from talent retention, there are many other benefits to setting up a tech business in Nottingham. The less-occupied tech scene in Nottingham makes it easier to get your voice heard, and Onyett joked “if I put my hand up in London and say ‘I do tech’ everyone goes ‘oh yeah great, tell me something new’.”

Creating a tech hub

Blenheim Chalcot’s latest development in the Nottingham tech scene is its new building.

“We just bought a building in Nottingham, but what we’re doing is we’re going to let out a whole floor of that to be startup space. So people can come and co-locate with other tech startup companies and create a bit of a tech hub for Nottingham,” Onyett explained.

While he’s confident the future is bright for Nottingham’s tech scene, Onyett said it’s still got a way to go before being recognised as one of the UK’s key tech hubs. In the meantime, Blenheim Chalcot is keeping its door open for promising tech teams all across the UK.