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Founders Diaries: Stephen Newton on the best lessons coming from experience

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According to Stephen Newton, founder and managing partner of Elixirr, the company invests in and consults with startups and large corporates that have the potential to disrupt an industry.

“Our team advise across everything from strategy, innovation, operating models, through to regulatory compliance,” he told Real Business. “The creative side of our firm goes hand in hand with our consulting business.”

But before finding success with Elixirr, Newton started – and failed – three other businesses. This fuelled his passion to support and empower entrepreneurs. Here he explains how the business got underway – and how he hopes to keep growing it.

Founder: Stephen Newton
Company: Elixirr
Website: www.elixirr.com

Your legacy

Our vision is to be the best consulting firm in the world. Ambitious some might say, but I’ve never played for second place!

Your business model

The consulting side of our firm advises some of the world’s leading brands across the end-to-end value chain. We plug them into our global innovation ecosystem and introduce them to the most relevant emerging new technologies and startups to address their business priorities. We then help them make change happen (the hard part!).

We aren’t just advisors, we get our hands dirty and build businesses. It’s totally different to the traditional consulting model as we put our money where our mouth is and invest in our clients’ businesses.

The deal we’ve put together with Thomas Cook Money is a great example of this. We’ve agreed with the CEO that we’ll work with him to build a brand new company that aims to disrupt the holiday money market. We’ll share in the rewards and we’ll share in the risk.

How do you measure success?

For me, it’s about delivering tangible value for our clients. As a consultant, if you’re not doing that, what are you doing?! A client just yesterday said to me that the Elixirr team cared more about her business then her own team did – and that for me is the right measure of success.

Growth plans

We are very ambitious as a firm. The US is a big strategic focus for us right now, and we’re growing fast – the market is responding very well to our approach.

We are reactive to our markets. People ask me when I will go to Asia, and when I say I don’t know they wrongly assume I don’t have a plan. If my client wants me to be in Asia, I will be in Asia. That is how Elixirr will build geographically. We will never take the “build it and they will come” approach.

The US wing of Elixirr grew out of our innovation ecosystem. Meanwhile, in Africa, Standard Bank [the largest bank in South Africa] was among Elixirr’s first clients – and as a consequence, we spent a lot of time in Africa working with them. Because of that, we ended up working for all the major banks in South Africa, and we became a well-known brand.

Your biggest technology boost

We don’t really rely on technology for the sake of technology – often I think it can introduce unnecessary process and bureaucracy into a business, which is the opposite of Elixirr! That being said, we do benefit from technology. I’d say communication tools are the most important because we’re always geographically spread.

In five years

We’ll be almost 15 by then… and there’s lots more to be done! We’ll probably be in another geography, maybe 2-3 times as large. I think the consulting industry as a whole is starting to change and it’s ripe for disruption. That’s why we exist! It’s the smaller, nimbler firms like ours that are gaining real traction.

If I am a CEO of a large business, I can hire super smart talent. Intellect is not a differentiator. What they cannot hire is entrepreneurial talent to help them grow their businesses as by definition, entrepreneurs are unemployable.

Your highest point

Not a penny of Elixirr’s revenue comes from me anymore. For that reason, I think the firm will still exist when I’m gone. 

Your lowest point

I started and failed three businesses before Elixirr. One of the lessons I’ve learned along the way is that consensus is no way to run a business. Sure, everybody has to contribute their opinion but someone needs to take the call once they’ve listened to everyone’s views.

What would you tell your younger self?

Make your career decisions based on purpose and passion, not money. I’ve sometimes been swayed by money but looking back, I’ve realised those were the bad decisions! If you’re driven by purpose, that’s when you’ll achieve the most and be most happy.

Your policy wish list

I get frustrated with the sensationalist public view that capitalism is responsible for the sad failure of businesses like Carillion. Could it be instead, that procurement processes and management mechanisms are at the heart of all performance issues when engaging the private sector to deliver public services?

You get what you pay for. When you focus government purchasing decisions on the popular strategy of going with the lowest price, you get unprofitable contracts. This results in poor service, unhappy taxpayers (users of said service) and, at its worst, failure of the businesses concerned.

This subtlety appears totally lost on the vote seekers who choose to blame the private sector in pursuit of furthering the popularity of their political ideology. I believe this is irresponsible. The business community should not stand by and allow political grandstanding to overshadow reality.

Your biggest piece of advice to other entrepreneurs

You have to find the right environment to allow yourself to explore the entrepreneurial energy that you have. That doesn’t necessarily mean starting your own business, it could often be taking an entrepreneurial approach within a corporate career. Just follow your passion.

Guilty pleasure

I’ve just got my pilots license and instrument rating, so I’m having a lot of fun flying at the moment!

A day in your life

I always start my day with some form of exercise to keep fit. Usually, it’s cycling 34k to the office! Then every day is different – it’s why I love what I do.

On your reading list right now

I read, but I believe your best learning comes from experience. I’d always recommend getting your own experience rather than interpreting the lessons of others. I’d advise anyone to just have a go, make stuff happen.

On your watchlist right now

Good Will Hunting. It’s such a great movie that shows that intelligence isn’t everything, it’s all about the experience. And that is so true – some very important life lessons in that film.

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