“In London, there are events held across the City that are all about networking to get into start-ups. As far as I was concerned, we all looked the same. Same brand trainers, jeans, hair. All men, all around 25-30. As soon as the talk was done, 90 per cent of the room swiped beers, turned to each other and targeted the person who looked like they offered the most value. When I opened my mouth, I saw people’s faces change.”
The thing is, Rich sounds northern. “I don’t have that smooth, glossy chat that people who have been processed through a posh school system do. And it’s not their fault, but I do sometimes flounder, and it can feel like the only people who make it in tech are the ones who are polished.”
Let’s face it. To get a start-up off the ground, at least at the very beginning, you need a heavy dose of capital. Few people can afford to take a few months off work to just grow their business, and those that manage it often have help living rent-free or using savings.
In some way it’s the last taboo. Two of the most successful entrepreneurs I know grew up in large houses in Highgate and had an allowance well into adulthood. One of them was then bought a flat across the road by her dad so she was able to continue to live rent-free under the guise of living independently. Without having to worry about where to find money every month, she has been able to throw herself into her work much more so than say, someone who has to work part-time at Pizza Express to make ends meet.
Richard Skellett is the owner of global technology solutions Company Allied Worldwide and the founder of the social enterprise, the Digital Anthropology Group. He thinks there is a barrier to the working class entering the entrepreneurial sector. “The obvious barriers are networking and lack of capital. One of the major issues is education and the lack of time and subject matter devoted to the real skills that are required in the old and current world in which we operate.
He explains why: “The world of the future which is arguably upon us now is even more challenging as digital, robotics, AI and the view that people are not needed.” He thinks it’s important to educate people in the skills entrepreneurs need to succeed from a young age.
Jamie Waller, founder of JBW, a debt collection service, was born in Bethnal Green. He was part of The Imps, a Hackney charity for disadvantaged children. He left school at 16 with no qualifications and started his first business, a window-cleaning round, which he sold for £6,000 soon after. He continued to start, build up, then sell a number of businesses and made his first million by the age of 22.
He thinks barriers in the start-up scene definitely exist. “Barriers do exist, for example, having a bank of mum and dad helps to not have to pay rent and food while starting a business. It also probably allows you access to some early investment. What it does not do, however, is give you the grit and determination to succeed. That’s why so many dyslexic people and people from poor backgrounds do so well. So in my opinion it’s the poor and the lower working class that have that advantage. They need to succeed.”
Waller certainly has that grit. He did anything that would make him money. He explains that when you have no qualifications your job options are reduced by around 90 per cent. “You can apply for low paying jobs or work to become the employer not the employee. I chose to become the employer. My first business was cleaning windows, my second selling cars, my third building camper vans, my fourth doing debt recovery and my fifth building technology solutions for large banks and governments.
“I am now an investor and author of business titles, including Unsexy Business, which launches on 12th September and is all about how you can achieve extraordinary success in very unglamorous industries.”
Despite his grit Waller admits he was very aware of his class background when he started out. He even worked on changing is accent. “I changed my accent from cockney to upper middle class. It took hundreds of hours, but I knew being a cockney and trying to sell services to the UK government was going to be tougher than the normal middle class competitor.”
Despite having to change his accent, he still feels it’s better to be poor or lower working class as you have to drive harder to succeed. “It is easier, especially financially, if you are upper middle class or from wealth of course. However, when business hits hard times, which always happens at some point, you need to dig deep and work your way out. That sort of spirit comes more naturally to working class people, I find.”
Andy Ayim is a product manager and investor in working class founder. Writing for Crunchbase, he says: “A typical start-up funding round start with a friend and family round of investment, followed by angel investors. Then venture capital funds a start-up from Series A to exit. However, there is a certain class of entrepreneur who is stumbling most at the first funding hurdle. The working class entrepreneur.”
The issue is the first funding round. People at the poorer end of the spectrum rarely have savings, and even comfortable middle class families might not have enough free in their nest egg to give a spare £10,000 to a child’s newest ‘hobby’ (which, frankly, is all it is until you can get it off the ground). That first crowdfunder, the one that appears on your Facebook (Help Jiminy raise funds for inflatable dog collars!!) will get off the ground much faster if you come from a family of bankers and lawyers than if your mum’s a teacher. Money talks, which is why so many successful business people come from families who are already loaded.
It sounds obvious written down, but as with all industries, the more money you have behind you, the smoother your ride will be. So how do we start enabling people from different class backgrounds to break into the start-up scene?
First of all, we need to keep talking about the diversity issue. VCs should know why it’s important to ensure those without the ability to raise money from their backgrounds get a look-in during funding rounds.
Another way to break barriers is to start eroding established preconceptions of company culture. This way people like Rich and Jamie won’t be conscious of their accents because it won’t matter anymore. Feeling like you’re different to everyone else before you’ve even opened your mouth will stop people from even trying to enter the start up scene.
More events should be focused towards minorities. Although class is more difficult to define than say, being female or a person of colour, signposting that you’d like people who identify as working class to come to networking events is a good start.
For Rich, what would have helped the most is to have a mentor. “If I’d known from day one that there were other people like me trying to make entrepreneurship work, I wouldn’t have left that networking meeting feeling somehow ashamed with who I was. A mentor who had achieved independently and could show me there are other ways to generate success that don’t necessarily depend on tapping into dad’s banking friends. More awareness that not everyone has the same background would be brilliant.”