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Interview with Kallum Russell of Acorn Enterprise

Interview with Kallum Russell of Acorn Enterprise


Kallum “with a K” Russell is the Chief Enterprise Officer of Acorn Enterprise, an organisation dedicated to growing Scotland’s start-up business culture. Kallum is passionate about marketing, small businesses and entrepreneurship. Having launched 4 businesses and had 4 jobs in the 3 years since his graduation, Kallum brings a wealth of practical knowledge gained from working on different projects.

Kallum has a huge amount of experience in helping people start their own business, as well as advising people on anticipating & overcoming a range of common problems that start ups face.

Easyspace recently caught up with Kallum for a chat:

Q1. Kallum, tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to becoming interested in entrepreneurship

Since graduating with a 1st Class Management with Marketing Degree from Heriot-Watt University in 2011, I’ve had 4 jobs, launched 4 businesses and did a stint in local radio! This has not only given me great experience and a good base of contacts, it also helped me to decide what I like and don’t like doing. Ultimately, I’ve learned that I have to work for myself.

My interest in entrepreneurship started at school after I enrolled in the Young Enterprise Scotland programme where my team manufactured and sold novelty door stops – we got to the Scottish Finals in Glasgow! I remember thinking that this was really cool and I decided that running my own business was what I wanted to do for a living eventually.

Q2. What businesses have you started, and what have you learnt from the experience?

I launched Dunfermline Talks Business (DTBiz), my first business, just four months after my graduation and it grew into a very popular networking group over the last 3 and a half years. The biggest lesson I learnt from this business was: “if you don’t value your time, no-one will”. Initially, DTBiz was free, however, by charging a small fee of a fiver, more enquires came in and I was able to attract an even higher quality of guest speaker., was the second business I launched, and was aimed at promoting local charity and community events, whilst enabling them to raise extra money. The biggest lessons I learnt here were: it’s very tough to establish a web company in such a competitive market and K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid!). I thought my concept was simple but in hindsight I didn’t explain it as best I could, a video would have really helped get across our message and explain why we were different to the plethora of other events websites.

I did some freelance marketing work but knew that I wanted to eventually build a business that was bigger than just me so launched Audacious Marketing. I enjoy helping small businesses and am fascinated by marketing and entrepreneurship. I learnt that I enjoy starting projects but am not very good at finishing them – something for which I have been branded a “firestarter” which is probably quite accurate!

The opportunity to use the skills, experience and contacts gained from my networking group and marketing business to really help start-up businesses, led to Acorn Enterprise. I subsequently shelved Audacious Marketing and merged Dunfermline Talks Business with Acorn Enterprise, to form the networking group, Acorn Talks Business, in order to focus solely on Acorn Enterprise. I learnt to go with my gut and focus on work that I really enjoy doing that will take me towards my life’s goals.

Q3. Tell us about Acorn Enterprise and how it helps people in starting their own business

Acorn Enterprise is an organisation dedicated to growing Scotland’s start-up business culture – we are Fife’s Only Business Accelerator. We provide an environment where there is no fear of failure, allowing like-minded business owners to grow and thrive together.

We promote, encourage and support entrepreneurship through three main services: the Free 20 Week Business Accelerator Programme, entrepreneurial events (e.g. Business Bootcamps) and our Acorn 3D Lab, a rapid prototyping workshop that houses our 3D printer and other equipment.

Our 3 year goal is to help 501 new businesses start-up in Scotland via our Free 20 Week Business Accelerator Programme to form the critical mass that will foster a strong entrepreneurial start-up culture.

Ultimately, Acorn Enterprise breaks down the barriers that prevent or limit people from launching a new business in Scotland by giving the new business owners, “Acorns”, we work with: confidence, connections, business skills and the clarity vital to ensure they grow and flourish.

Q4. Describe what is included in the 20 week programme that the startups you mentor go through

We provide office space that encourages collaboration and networking, an intensive, holistic programme of weekly seminars that develop and challenge (covering topics such as Sales, social media and pricing), a business mentor who provides accountability, and much more.

The real glue that makes our Programme special is the relationships formed by the 15 “Acorns” who go through it together – effectively, they are “living” together for 20 weeks. By the end of the Programme, they are emotionally invested in each others’ businesses.

After graduation, the Acorns become “Saplings” and we have regular meetings with them to continue the momentum they built during the Programme. This will help us to build a platform of 501 inter-connected start-up businesses across Scotland that have been through our Programme and have succeeded and grown together.

Q5. Can you tell us of any success stories from startups that have completed your programme?

The great thing about our Programme is that the “Acorns” are all at different stages, some are pre-start whereas others have been trading for a few years. Our Programme, among other things, seeks to develop confidence and clarity in our Acorns – i.e. where am I going with my business and is this right for me. To this end, we have some fantastic success stories.

Chris Marr, owner of Learning Everyday, was on our first Programme and his marketing business now has a couple of employees. Chris also held Scotland’s First Ever Content Marketing Conference last year and is launching an even bigger and better event this year: Marcus Sheridan, one of the top ten content marketers in the world, is speaking at Chris’s event this year and it is his first ever UK appearance!

LoCa Beverages owner, Sam Trett, who is launching a low-calories spirits company, has just secured private investment to bring his exciting new products to the market and this introduction was made via Acorn Enterprise. Sam will be launching his LoCa brand very soon so watch this space!…

When Sharon Menzies, owner of Influx Innovative Services, first joined the Business Accelerator Programme, she was ready to give up – she actually said in her interview that “we were her last hope!”. However, after our intensive 20 Week Business Accelerator Programme, not only has Sharon taken on her first employee, her sales have drastically improved and she has even registered her second company!

These are just three examples of our Awesome Saplings and we are very proud of all of our alumni – they have all made great progress and most now comment that they feel like “real business people”!

Q6. From your experience, what are the most common problems startups face?

There are a number of common challenges that start-up businesses face: how to reach their customers, cash flow, pricing, time management and how to “do all of the business stuff”.

Whilst a number of these issues are linked, I believe that a lack of confidence and fear underpins them all: not charging the price you deserve, not saying “no” to bad clients and failing to close sales.

A common phrase we here at Acorn Enterprise is, “I feel very confident in my ability to do the work I do but I don’t feel like a competent businessperson”. In other words, the business owner is good at the technical side of the business but not necessarily the business side, e.g., admin, finance and marketing, and that’s where we can help, by building their confidence and business skills over the 20 week Programme.

Q7. How important do you think having a website is for a startup business?

A website is very important for a start-up business because of social proof – the first thing most people do when they hear about a new business is to search for it online. Therefore, if you don’t have a website or a poorly constructed one, then this sends out bad signals which may lose you potential sales.

One caveat to this is that a number of our “Acorns” have successfully been trading without a website for a number of months and are having to turn work away because they are so busy! They have been relying on word-of-mouth, which is great, until the demand begins to fall, of course, which is where a website could come in useful.

Also, by having a website, they could potentially take on more work if they are able to do online classes, for example. This would overcome the physical limitations of meeting everyone face-to-face; there are only so many hours in a day and this can put restrictions on the amount of people you can see.

On balance, a website really is a vital part of the marketing of a start-up business, as it helps to develop trust and relationships with potential and existing clients and overcomes the issue of time acting as a limiting factor.

Q8. What advice do you have for startups regarding social media e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote their websites? Any advice on how people can use social media to promote themselves?

Simple: “fish where the fish are”. If your customers are on facebook, use facebook; if they’re on LinkedIn, use LinkedIn. Ultimately, you need to have social media strategy which starts by asking yourself “why?” – why should I be using social media? And what am I hoping to achieve by using it?

Using it because everyone else is, is not a good mentality. Additionally, you can tweet, post, pin and watch 24/7 but if it’s not making a difference to your business, then what’s the point? Measuring results is key and with digital marketing it is possible to do this – unlike some traditional advertising.

Content on social media needs to be engaging, relevant and useful – otherwise it’s spam, and no-one likes spam! Get peoples’ permission and use social media to foster a meaningful and personalised relationship. Social media means that we are the most connected generation ever so use this to your advantage!

Q9. What’s it like advising startups at Acorn Enterprise? Describe your typical day.

There is no such thing as a typical day and that’s what I enjoy most about Acorn Enterprise. We’re a business ourselves so not only do we have to advise our “Acorns”, we also need to look after our own cash flow, grow our revenue streams and look after our stakeholders.

We have a great team of supporters, partners and colleagues who we really couldn’t run our Business Accelerator Programmes, entrepreneurial events or Acorn 3D Printing Lab without.

In one day I can be the book-keeper, marketer, mentor, facilitator, spokesman, salesman, troubleshooter, operations director, chief tea maker and everything else in between!

Q10. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?

I’m going to embarrass my friend and co-founder at Acorn Enterprise, Jerry Alexander here. I first met Jerry when I had a few years ago and took out a virtual office at Liberty Business Centres. Every time I went down to collect my mail he would ask how my business was going and took a real interest in me – I thought it was really cool that this guy, who I didn’t really know, put aside up to an hour at a time to help me with my business.

We stayed in touch and on one fateful Summer afternoon in 2013, we had a conversation around a very important question: “what if we launched a Business Accelerator Programme to really help new businesses in Fife” – something that Jerry and I are equally passionate about. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since this chat, which literally planted the original “Acorn”, Jerry has been a real friend and mentor – pushing me beyond my limits, challenging me and forcing me to think bigger. He’s very strategic, goal-oriented, yet grounded and I feel privileged to be his business partner and friend – Jerry is a great advert for business. He’s also boss at table football!

Q11. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own online business?

Technology means that you can set up an online shop in less than an hour: buy a domain, build a site, publish it and market it. Given these low barriers to entry, it also makes it a very noisy and tough environment to be in. However, you’ve got to have the belief that the pie is big enough for everyone to have a decent sized piece.

Specifically, I would suggest that you validate your market quickly and cheaply until you gain enough traction to prove that it is a viable business. You need to have a really good strategy: technology-wise and in terms of marketing. It always helps to know people in these areas!

It’s also important that you take time to develop your own skills so that you can speak to developers with confidence and clarity – people are less like to take advantage of you if you know your stuff. With Google, YouTube and other resources, there is no excuse for not taking time to do this.

Finally, I would also add that you need time and money. For example, some people don’t realise that LinkedIn, the online business-focused social networking site, was actually launched in 2003 and not “in the last few years”! It appears that such sites are initially slow burns that reach a critical mass and explode into the mainstream consciousness. Then again, Pinterest, the photo sharing website, was launched in 2010 and has grown phenomenally well in such a short space of time. In short, the online arena is changing at a fierce pace but it provides ample opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Q12. What are your plans/goals for the next 6 months?

As I said, we have a business goal to help 501 new businesses start-up in the next 3 years so our plans for the next 6 months will drive us towards this.

We’re already having some very exciting conversations with people across Scotland interested in purchasing our Business Accelerator Programme and other products to make their organisations more entrepreneurial place to be. This should result in us having multiple locations for our next intake in September 2015 and will also mean that we will be recruiting another member of Team Acorn soon so watch this space…

Remember, from little Acorns…mighty Oaks grow!

Thanks Kallum from everyone at Easyspace.

If you want to find out more about Kallum and Acorn Enterprise, then click on the links below for more info: