Chris has multiple entrepreneurial roles. His main day-to-day job is as Chief Commercial Officer of Flare Bright Ltd, which is a machine learning based drone company, which over the 3 years Chris has been involved has grown revenues to £1m and grown staff from 3 co-founders to 15. He raised a £500k seed round during the start of lockdown and is about to raise a £1-2m Series A.
Chris is also Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Oxford University Maths Institute, sits on the EPSRC’s Strategic Advisory Team for Mathematics and is a member of the main learned body for maths, the London Mathematical Society. In other scale-up businesses, he is the Chair of Strata Financial Services Consulting, a £5m turnover company and a Strategic Advisor to Mercury SL, a VC that aims to take majority stakes in smaller businesses and help digitise them, and a Director of the Paras 10 Ltd. He is also Chair of the Finance and Investment Committee of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Charity (£13m under management and £1m turnover) and a Trustee.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
After a maths degree at Oxford, I joined the British Army as a Parachute Regiment Officer. The Paras are the innovation and entrepreneurial arm of the military, and this go-getting (and sometimes aggressive) thinking has shaped his view of business subsequently. After an MBA, I was seduced by the investment banking trading floor world but even there was focused on intrapreneurial activity and set up new business lines for Barclays Capital and Lloyds. This naturally led to me eventually doing this myself and I’ve realised my “sweet spot” is scaling businesses from a few people to over 100…this is all about putting in the first structures and creating creative order out of chaos, without killing off any of the founder energy. It is this constant challenge that has made me an entrepreneur.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I quite like the definition of entrepreneurship as focusing on growing organisations enough such that you are getting other people to do all the work! I think this works for a nurturing entrepreneur who is focused on people growth and corporate structures and is a definition which works with scaling a business. I also think there is definition that is simply about mindset – trying out new things, willing to buck trends and having a steely-eyed focus on very well-defined goals. I think this also works well with the idea of a Paratrooper-entrepreneur: the ethos of a paratrooper is that when you jump from your aircraft with minimal equipment you simply have to get on and make the most of the situation you find on the ground. There is no jumping back to the safety of the aircraft! As the situation changes, you constantly test and adjust along with it. And with limited resources you have to be creative with what you have and use anything and anyone you find on your route to help you. I think this mirrors the start-up entrepreneurial journey well.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The drone idea was developed by two co-founders who brought me in to commercialise it. I realised it had potential before I started and hence was paid in equity rather than cash until we’d started making money as a company (so for the first 12 months I was there). The machine learning approach had just been started then, and I realised that was the key to this all. Having had conversations with the key people in this space in the UK and US Governments, and with the main industry players (all of whom we’ve done business with now) it is clear that this company has plenty more potential.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Doggedness – Determination – Discipline.
There are a host of entrepreneurial skills, although most can be bought in from other employees. But it is the relentless drive from the top, and the pushing forward when in the depths of despair and a downturn that makes one entrepreneur successful and another fail. Hence the focus on doggedness and determination. Discipline complements this well as there are many distractions in start-ups and having focus and discipline means you avoid these and spend time on the business, and the core aspects of the business that are going to help it grow and succeed.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Empowering others and seeing an entrepreneurial spirit grown in other people.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
It is the smaller organisations, with unsung leaders that I get inspired about. Particularly in the charity and social enterprise sectors. These are just as entrepreneurial (and often more so due to resource constraints) as any for-profit business. And doing anything that helps make the world a more palatable place to hang out is a great thing to do, in my opinion. I mentored someone focused on a social enterprise trying to get us all to measure our personal impact on all the UN sustainability goals – this was (and is) a huge challenge, both in terms of actually measuring it but also getting anyone to do it. That is the sort of thing that inspires me.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
What could you do to make this the most important institution globally? And what can I and my network do to help make that happen?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Lots of things! One of my favourite experiences is turning round Lloyds Bank’s London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sponsorship after the Global Financial Crisis and by taking a totally different approach, ensuring it had a positive ROI. And having lots of fun whilst doing this!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think I should have started something myself when I was younger. I think the willingness to make errors, to fail and have the energy to bounce back makes for a better entrepreneur. I make less mistakes now due to experience, but I probably grow businesses a bit more slowly and cautiously than I would have in my younger days. The net effect of that is I’m more likely to succeed, but less likely to be running a unicorn!
How have you funded your ideas?
A mix of grants, equity and own-funding to get things going. But a focus on gaining customer revenues asap.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
DASA (the MOD’s Defence and Security Accelerator) have been amazingly generous, helpful and useful for the defence sector. Funding innovation in this sector is an insurance policy for all of us and gives us the peace of mind that we’re unlikely to get invaded or attacked anytime soon. DASA does a great job in this regard.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford itself is vibrant, full of energy and ideas. You can almost taste the intelligence as you walk around, which is the fuel for most high growth entrepreneurial start-ups. The drone company I work for is only 30 mins from Oxford, but just over the border in Bucks but this is also a good place to grow a business – plenty of space; affordable (for the SE of England) and full of talented youngsters who will help the business succeed and take it to the next level.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I think the various uni entrepreneurial sites have great resources. The British Library Business and IP Centre is also quite useful. With the internet to hand, you can watch and learn on virtually any entrepreneurial subject, and from some of the global leaders who have done great things in this sphere, for free provided you have the time. But there is no substitution for simply setting something up and giving entrepreneurship a go.
Any last words of advice?
Go for it. And if you’re involved with maths, come speak to me.