Business

Ignite CEO: a mentor who has done it all

  • Ignite Bermuda: Sean Reel (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
  • Ignite Bermuda: Sean Reel (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
  • Ignite Bermuda: Sean Reel (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Entrepreneur, investor, corporate suit, competition judge and mentor for Richard Branson’s Voom Pitch programme — Ignite Bermuda executive director Sean Reel has done it all in a business career spanning more than three decades.

Now 54, Mr Reel this week began sharing his expertise with the 17 aspiring entrepreneurs selected to participate in Ignite, the island’s first privately-funded business accelerator.

The intensive six-month programme is designed to enhance the island’s ecosystem for start-ups and small businesses by providing entrepreneurs with access to a formalised network of mentors and advisers, and developing an investor network to match-up with start-ups.

Organisers says the programme will teach entrepreneurs about cultivating the right mindset and the most effective behaviours to unlock their entrepreneurial potential.

The customised-for-Bermuda curriculum is presented in partnership with British-based consultancy Entrepreneurial Spark. From 2012 to 2018, ES accelerators enabled more than 3,800 businesses to turn over £651 million, raise £255 million in investment, and create more than 8,000 jobs, all underpinned by an 87 per cent survival rate for the businesses.

In his corporate career, Mr Reel worked in sales/marketing with UK retail giants Boots before joining London-based IPC Media as sales director. The company was bought by AOL/Time Warner for £1.1 billion. Mr Reel, a shareholder, was in his early 30s. “I should have retired then,” he chuckled.

Mr Reel has floated two companies on the London Stock Exchange, represented UK Business to support the British ambassador in promoting inward investment from China — and for the last decade has primarily been an investor/entrepreneur. He has invested in 53 early-stage start-ups, and has mentored the chief executives of those companies as they progressed. One company, smart-energy business Grid Edge, has a valuation nearing $10 million.

“What really interests me with those companies is that there are a lot of big challenges that face the world — and entrepreneurs are well-placed to solve them,” Mr Reel says. “In the case of Grid Edge, the problem they solve is that big buildings are bad at using power. Grid Edge uses artificial intelligence to teach buildings how to reduce their CO2 output by 20 per cent.”

While the focus is often on entrepreneurial successes, Mr Reel said he has learnt that failure should not be viewed as a problem. “It is a feedback loop,” he says. “When you have your first knock as an entrepreneur it’s tough and sometimes you have to pivot the business. It’s about using those knocks as feedback so you know when to pivot and when to persevere.”

We asked Mr Reel about the Ignite programme, and his experience as an entrepreneur/investor.

What is the most important thing you have learnt in your entrepreneurial experience?

I went through the Ignite training recently, and I learnt that I really wish I had something like this when I was a young entrepreneur. The biggest challenge people have today is time. When you are building a new business, time is the thing that will kill you the quickest. As an entrepreneur, there are ten things that you could do — but only one will make your business succeed. I also learnt recently, reflecting, that businesses operate on a number of assumptions. For example, a home delivery business for food makes assumptions about the way that Bermudians act, purchase and behave. If you don’t know what those assumptions are, and test them, then you are likely to fail.

So, “make sure that the dog will eat the dog food”?

Yes, the essence of business is to get that right. The last thing is: if you believe it is, or you believe it isn’t, you’ll be right. It’s about mindset.

What will the entrepreneurs in the Ignite programme learn?

They will take away a different perspective on themselves, and their businesses. They will take away a tool kit and approaches that have been successful for thousands of companies already. And they will have a new network of like-minded people and supporters to aid them on their journey.

What do you expect of the entrepreneurs in the programme?

They have to bring their ‘A’ game. The selection process ensures that we have the right people in the boot camp with the right mindset to grow both personally and in their businesses. Of the 181 people who applied, we interviewed more than 100 of them.

What do you consider the most important trait for an entrepreneur?

I was originally thinking about belief, or perseverance, but I have seen that work poorly for people as well. You can persevere too long as an entrepreneur, I have done that. I mean pure perseverance without the ability to learn when to pivot. If you have some assumptions, test them. You don’t have to build a whole ‘Uber’ to see if a taxi app will work.

What is the quality of the submissions that Ignite received?

Awesome, truly awesome. The breadth, the diversity, the ideas coming to fore as well. As an investor in the UK, I get to see hundreds of entrepreneurs. Bermuda can be proud of its entrepreneurial spirit and its entrepreneurs. The impact on Bermuda in terms of jobs, confidence, entrepreneurial spirit and the diversity of the economy — that’s where I see the impact of this cohort coming through. We have everything from people with an idea, to people wanting to scale up an already successful business, across a broad range of sectors. We have participants from the creative, online, fashion and hospitality sectors — there is a whole breadth of businesses.

What is your reaction to the programme receiving 181 applications for the first cohort?

That is phenomenal when you think about the size of Bermuda. Originally, there was some concern whether anyone would apply so to actually have to close the gates early is very impressive. It says a lot about Bermuda. Within 24 hours of the programme being announced, we had 50 applicants. People want this, there is a hunger for entrepreneurial opportunities and there is support from the business community, from both companies and volunteers, who have come to the fore around this programme. It has been amazing. We are blessed to have some really great people working on this. We interviewed over 100 applicants — by asking them about their businesses, we have already prompted some people to think differently, and act differently, which will lead to a ripple effect for Bermuda. Even the process of applying for this programme helps entrepreneurs to form their ideas.

What does that reaction to the Ignite programme tell you about Bermuda?

When I look at Bermuda’s history, I go back to the design and development of ships — Bermudians designed the “Concorde” of its day. The fastest ships in the world came from Bermuda, and I think that spirit lives on in Bermuda and Bermudians. In relation to the investors and companies already on the island, everyone wants them to succeed. Sixty per cent of jobs, not just in Bermuda but globally, are in start-ups. They don’t come from the big corporates that already exist.

What does entrepreneurship contribute to an economy?

If you go to lunch, buy groceries, get your suit cleaned, or purchase flowers for your wife, that required an entrepreneur to plan, purchase and invest. All of those businesses are predominantly small businesses. An entrepreneur had to invest, build teams and build the business to make your life better. It’s the invisible mass market. If we took it all away, the world would be a poorer place.

What is the potential for entrepreneurism in a market this size?

We need diversity in our economy, and I think the Ignite programme will help encourage that. We could solve some very big challenges for Bermuda from the entrepreneurs in this cohort and future cohorts, and create jobs, diversity and security.

Any final thoughts?

I have got a huge passion for this. I am at my best and my happiest when I am working with entrepreneurs and seeing them succeed.