The Big Interview: co-founder of business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark

Lucy-Rose Walker is chief entrepreneuring officer at Entrepreneurial Spark, which has helped more than 1,700 businesses across the UK to get off the ground
. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Lucy-Rose Walker is chief entrepreneuring officer at Entrepreneurial Spark, which has helped more than 1,700 businesses across the UK to get off the ground . Picture: Ian Rutherford

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Lucy-Rose Walker knows what qualities are required to be a successful entrepreneur. The co-founder of business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark says that for fledgling firms, mindset and behaviour are “pivotal to executing effectively”.

This realisation is key for the development of the venture known as ESpark. A six-month programme for people wanting to start or grow a business, Walker says it removes all “physical” obstacles, for example by offering a free desk and wifi.

But “it’s actually the psychological barriers that are the ones that will stand in the way of somebody creating a successful business,” she says. “For us it’s about the enablement support that we give people, and that’s really our one-on-one time where we’re able to deep-dive on them as an individual and entrepreneurial leader – what is standing in the way in terms of them moving the business forward and how can we help them to achieve that?”

Walker’s degree in psychology has therefore proved highly relevant. “I’ve always had a fascination with people and what drives them to do what they do,” she says, adding that she has fused that with the world of start-ups, which she entered while a student.

Working for an e-commerce business at an early stage in the dotcom bubble, Walker says it dawned on her that the start-up sector “was all driven by your thinking and your own ability to be resilient and persistent”. Combining this with her degree choice “really led me to where I am today”, she states.

After graduating and before joining ESpark, she worked across a variety of “quirky” ventures, including as sales and marketing manager for a tartan affinity credit card that looked to target the millions of Americans with Scottish connections.

Walker describes this as “an interesting opportunity” that enabled her to travel around the US, but says it ultimately showed that while people may want to tap into their Scottish heritage, “that doesn’t translate into them actually spending money”.

She then helped develop a board game called Scottish Quest, that took her across the start-up journey including creating a prototype, having it manufactured and then selling it to the public.

This was followed by a spell as project manager at tech start-up network Connect Scotland, helping firms seek investment and a valuable experience in light of her current role.

Her next position was operations manager for The Gathering 2009, but while the event attracted 47,000 visitors, it resulted in a loss of about £700,000 of public money. Walker says the venture “was obviously mixed in terms of successes” but offered “a big learning journey”.

After moving into tourism consultancy, her attention then fell on where she wanted to focus her own efforts. “I had a broad skill set that wasn’t in a particular niche as such, but I knew my dream was always about helping other people turn their dreams into a reality… so I delved a bit deeper into that and realised that I wanted to coach and support people.”

In a nod to her psychology roots, she moved into life and business coaching, but on hearing about ESpark, “I just knew that was where I wanted to be”.

It started in 2011 after former policeman Jim Duffy identified what he saw as a vast opportunity for a “disruptive” business accelerator programme. And in what Walker describes as a life-changing moment, he asked her if she wanted to be involved as a company or instead work with him on the accelerator itself.

She initially volunteered for three months, taking on the title of chief solutions officer, and she acknowledges that everything she had done professionally before joining ESpark provided insight and credibility for advising entrepreneurs. It let her “empathise with people when they’re going through that rollercoaster of a journey”, she says.

Now a network of 12 “hatcheries”, its initial growth was backed by Scottish entrepreneurs Sir Tom Hunter and Ann Gloag, and a key moment in its development came after teaming up with Royal Bank of Scotland to roll out across the UK.

Its Edinburgh site formally opened in February last year in the state-backed lender’s headquarters in Gogarburn, in its former “executive wing” that once housed the offices of disgraced chief executive Fred Goodwin.

Walker says RBS’s desire to join forces tapped into ESpark’s desire to reach as many entrepreneurs as possible, and it is set to launch its largest hub yet, in London, this August.

In the accelerator’s 2017 Impact 
Report published last week, as well as revealing it has helped 1,700 businesses across the UK to get off the ground, it said 85 per cent of the total are still trading, with 3,152 jobs created by its entrepreneurs.

The study is evidently a proud moment for Walker, who says the extent of ESpark’s support is “just phenomenal”. She adds: “You always have a vision and aspiration to dream big and want to create a huge offering for entrepreneurs and reach as many people as you possibly can but you never quite know the [stages] that you’re going to go through to get there.”

In terms of helping entrepreneurs, she says sometimes they need to be introduced to one of its partners like KPMG Enterprise or Dell EMC, and its focus overall is “how do you accelerate somebody and help them in a way they wouldn’t have been able to do if they were sitting in a living room on their own”.

She also highlights that ESpark has no “agenda” and doesn’t take equity, “so for us the entrepreneur is at the heart of every decision we make and everything we do. We’re not doing it because we want to make some money further down the line, so it’s easier to give that unbiased opinion.”

Its coaching also sometimes helps budding entrepreneurs realise that such a path is not, in fact, the right one for them. That “for us is equally a success”, Walker says.

Walker took the “chief entrepreneuring officer” seat in June last year, and Duffy said when he announced at the end of last year his plans to step down from ESpark this summer that she will take ESpark “stratospheric”.

Her role has seen her transition from operational to strategic level, which has inevitably curtailed her one-to-one time with entrepreneurs but she has her ear close to the ground.

It is now looking after more than 3,000 entrepreneurs a year, with staff across the UK numbering 40 and set to exceed 50 in a couple of years.

After recent news that a specialist financial technology hub backed by the UK and Scottish governments will open in May at ESpark’s Gogarburn site, Walker highlights other plans for the accelerator including more virtual support projects after a pilot in the Highlands & Islands.

It has also tweaked its model to ensure it is “dealing with entrepreneurs at the right stage with the right support”, and Walker details a key ambition of hers as ESpark’s sustainability as a social enterprise. “As an entrepreneur I need to think about the future, and the fact that we need to look at commercial revenue,” she adds, flagging a post-programme support network as a potential source of income.

But she also stresses that with ESpark a start-up itself, it is essential to focus on its core delivery, and must practise what it preaches about not getting “carried away with the new shiny things”.

Walker also downplays the need to create “unicorns”, classified as tech businesses valued at more than $1 billion, to follow in the footsteps of high-profile Scottish success stories Skyscanner and FanDuel.

She instead has a different take on such an ambition. “It would be great to create a ‘unicorn’ from all of the businesses that we have worked with,” explaining that this would comprise £1bn worth of investment. “That would be fantastic.”

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