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Three things I’ve learned from leading a global innovation program | EU-Startups

For the last three years, I have been honoured to lead Boeing’s accelerator program as the Programme Director for Aerospace Xelerated, managing a portfolio of 40 companies (and counting!) across different technologies, regions, and maturity levels. 

To date, I am proud to share that our portfolio companies have raised over $200 million in additional funding – well beyond Boeing’s initial £100,000 investment into each of them – whilst creating 200+ technical and high-skill jobs internationally. Our teams have worked with a diverse network of partners & mentors to make this a reality, including Tawazun Council, Etihad, GKN, Emirates, KPMG, GE, PWC, Frazer-Nash, Chevron Technology Ventures, EasyJet and many more.

Through my work over the years, I have learned a lot about what entrepreneurs and startups need to succeed and some of the pitfalls they need to be aware of to avoid failure. In this article, I´ll share a few things I have learned while running our global innovation program and working with startups, investors, and corporate and government partners.

Having world-class tech is great, but people are everything. 

It’s not just about what you are offering but who you are. What I mean by that is you could have the best idea since sliced bread, but you need to have the right people behind that idea to make the business succeed. The individuals who possess good character, creativity, and the resilience required to overcome obstacles are the ones who turn great ideas into reality.

Investing in good people also helps to build a sustainable company culture. A positive and supportive work environment attracts top talent, encourages employee retention, and enhances overall productivity. 

Likewise, I have witnessed entrepreneurs with incredible IP lose investors, partners, and clients because of negative behaviour and treatment of others, such as being discriminatory, rude, or inappropriate. No one wants to work with, work for, spend time with, or introduce people like that.

At AX, we take a human-centric approach that prioritizes the quality of the leaders and the teams because we know that with the right investment, guidance, and support, motivated people can attract the right talent thus turning a good idea into a major success – even if the technology or product is not initially perfect.

Timing and patience are crucial to success.

Timing and patience are of critical importance in the startup world. Overnight success is rare and often fleeting. Gone are the days of 2–3year exits, often times it takes a decade. Building a thriving business takes time, energy, and resources. An even harder pill for many entrepreneurs and investors to swallow is that you could have the right tech solution and business model, but not the right timing.

Timing is critical because it determines whether your product or service meets market demand. Too early can mean a lack of infrastructure or consumer readiness, while too late can mean intense competition or a dated offering. A well-timed startup capitalizes on emerging trends, technology, and consumer needs, increasing its chances of success.

You can influence timing, but be conscious and aware that if it’s not the right time, it can expend significant time, energy, and resources to force it. 

The best way to help push things along is to ensure that you connect with the right stakeholders. Nurturing relationships with the right partners, customers, and investors requires patience. It takes time to build trust and credibility, which is critical for sustainable growth. Rushing can jeopardize these relationships.

Find a champion and cultivate your relationships 

One of your most important stakeholders will be your champion. You know someone is your champion when they are advocating for you behind closed doors, and pushing your success even if and when it doesn’t benefit them. Your champion will be your advocate and change agent who can help you get an honest lay of the land to navigate challenges better and take advantage of opportunities to develop and succeed in your endeavours.

The road to success and maturity for startups and entrepreneurs can be long and challenging. For example, the aerospace industry can seem opaque and difficult to penetrate. At Aerospace Xelerated, we help to break down barriers by giving our portfolio companies access to a network of champions within Boeing and other partner organizations who then provide mentorship, make internal and external introductions to prospective partners and clients, and help them navigate business challenges and opportunities.

We often think the champion is the most senior person or decision-maker within an organization. Not always. There are catalysts and change agents in every group. Usually, it’s the person who has the trust and ear of key decision-makers within your target customer organization or audience and understands the appropriate opportunities for collaboration or integration of your proposed solution, regardless of their seniority or title. This can mean it is the longest-tenured person, the most intellectual person, or even the individual across all the groups preparing briefings and meetings. Your champion is the person trusted with getting things done and one that succeeds.

It is crucial to nurture your relationship with your champion. It helps to get to know the genuine person behind the title, understand one another, and build a relationship of trust and respect. People are people at the end of the day, and we want to know we are working and collaborating with the right ones.

Investing in diversity and local talent is key

I claimed to share three learnings, but in reality, there are far more… Therefore, this one is a bonus. To build startups that can scale globally, leaders should invest in building teams that hire locally while fostering diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Teams that embrace diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, knowledge, and ability, help companies to promote fresh ideas and improve motivation, engagement, job satisfaction, profitability, and productivity. Hiring locally is also vital as it allows companies to tap into native knowledge, insights, and personal networks crucial for success in local markets.

Closing Thoughts

Over the years, I have learned that a major part of the success of any venture ultimately hinges on having the right people, timing, and support on your side.  Those leaders who focus not only on innovation but possess positive, patient & resilient characters will be able to navigate challenges, nurture mutually beneficial relationships with others, and garner the support needed to succeed. 

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