With a slight change to our regular series, Community Manager Daisy interviews members of our team about their roles, interests and life before Sussex Innovation. Today she chats with Student Enterprise Manager Simon Chuter.
So Simon, when did you start working for Sussex Innovation Centre?
It was 4 and a half years ago so that would make it 2015. I was originally hired as a Sales and Marketing Innovation Advisor and I did that role for just under 4 years. I started leading and managing the Catalyst Team last November.
How did you get to where you are now?
I studied business at university and got a placement with a large multinational manufacturer of fast moving consumer goods. I was working on the Brylcreem brand as a Marketing Assistant which was really interesting.
Did you get loads of freebies?
There were actually labs downstairs where they developed the product line so we always had testers of new stuff, I didn't need to buy hair products for a long time! They also made Radox and Sanex and Ambi Pur products. The experience was really interesting and useful and positive for me. At the end of my placement year they said come back and work for us when you've graduated. I went away and did some voluntary work in Nepal between graduating and going back there; when I did go back I was Assistant Brand Manager for Ambi Pur.
The experience I had in Nepal really crystallised in me the fact that I wanted to work with the big charities, but I didn't want to live in London. I started working for an agency which meant I could work with big charities and live in Brighton. I started in an entry level role then went on to be Team Leader, Coach, Training Manager then Account Manager and ended up running my own agency. That part of the story is kind of how it links to me coming to the Innovation Centre because one of the requirements of the role was that you had to have run your own business. Mike [Mike Herd former Executive Director] put great value in that if you're going to advise entrepreneurs you need to have worn that T-shirt and walked those miles.
It was certainly an interesting experience for me, interesting being a way of saying it was quite hard at times. It was three of us running the business and I learnt a lot about my co-founders. I was perhaps unlike some entrepreneurs in the sense that I wasn't like "I need to be my own boss". I had experience for one, I had a bit of money to put into the business for two, but mostly I wanted to use the money to get a mortgage and stay living in Brighton and Hove and I had been at an earning level that wouldn't quite allow me to do that. I was like "let's spin the wheel and see if I can make it as an entrepreneur"!
After 3 years of trying we raised tens of millions of pounds for our charity partners so on those metrics we were really successful but on the bottom-line metric, which was ultimately the most important for me at the time, we weren't able to make it work. The business model was a hybrid business model that had never been brought to market before, there was a reason why it had never been brought to market before, it proved impossible to make it work!
I'd learnt a lot and had some real experience but it was time to move on, so I had to step back and look at what had happened in Brighton in the last 10 years...digital had happened. If I have one regret it's that I missed that boat. I'd spent 10 years doing something that I really loved but I didn't have that [digital] skill set. I came across an organisation called MakerClub who were members of Sussex Innovation (I didn't know that when I started working with them). It was a lovely organisation, I really liked the people who ran the company [so offered to work for them 1 day a week for free]. They were based in the FuseBox [run by Wired Sussex] and I was looking for work, so I looked on their jobs board and saw this Sales and Marketing Innovation Advisor role. Then my job was to persuade Pete [Peter Lane, Innovation Support Manager] and Claire [Claire Pasquill, Innovation Advisor] that fundraising was the sales and marketing of charities. Essentially, rather than having a product that you sell or buy, it's a concept, something that you buy into with your head and your heart...I managed to persuade them that that was true. Now I'm here doing what I do.
And what is it that you do?
I run and manage the Catalyst Team, who are placement year and graduate students exclusively from the University of Sussex. It was a concept that Mike Herd came up with and that Lucy [Lucy Paine, former Catalyst Programme Manager] made successful. The concept was that businesses need and want to access human resources but often it's quite a commitment in terms of overheads; so how about a supported, flexible. risk free way of accessing talented young people? Five and a half years later it's proven to be very successful, we've worked with hundreds of companies on hundreds of different projects and have made a real impact on those companies. We've just recruited Team 6, they start this month and will be phased in over the Summer as Team 5 "phase out", as it were. I'm busy getting ready for lots of challenges because for many of them this will be their first office job so there's some really basic stuff that I have to cover off with them early on. Slowly but surely they gain more autonomy in their role, like the current team, they know that their work is our reputation and they don't need as much guidance and support (not that they can't have it if they do, we're always there if they need it).
What's the hardest thing about your role?
I think it's going to be the bit that's coming...because I started in November the early tough bit had already been done. This is mine and Eva's first intake. Eva was previously part of the Catalyst Team before she got promoted to a Project Manager role. I refer to Eva as my wing woman and the team, who are well into their Game of Thrones, tell me that means she's like the 'Hand of the King'.
So that makes you king?
It turns out that none of [the kings] are that desirable! Eva is Hand of the King but I'm ok with not being king!
What's the best thing about your role?
I really like working with young people; it's a really interesting time in their lives to work with them. [The Catalyst Team] isn't my whole job, I also lead the student enterprise programmes StartUp Sussex and the Social Impact Prize. Working with young entrepreneurs is really interesting, they're going into entrepreneurship without mortgages and kids and responsibilities so they're a bit freer but also, in a really positive way, slightly more green. We've had some real successes through the programme as well: Books that Matter, Trim-It, Waffle.
The most interesting thing about Catalyst? I'd come back to working with young people. They're dealing with clients for the first time and having to write in a way that isn't an academic style. We do lots of training and development work with them to bring them up to speed on modern business practices so that they are able to respond to our clients' needs. That's driven me to the most pertinent part of the answer which is that the most satisfying and pleasurable part of my job is seeing them develop over the course of the year. It's amazing actually how quickly they mature and learn.
What's the most exciting member project you've been involved with?
One that springs to mind is Finder.com who were Croydon members. They moved out of the Centre some time ago now into new offices in the London Bridge area but we've continued to work with them. Sam from the current team works there 3 days a week so has a significant impact on the company and their SEO, the key focus is their content marketing. Sam is very trusted by them and has been really successful. One down here in Brighton is a company called Madgex who do the Guardian's job board as well as [job boards] for numerous similar organisations. They've asked the Catalyst Team to do relatively boring, monotonous work but it's actually really important. We're always connecting the team to the purpose of the work they're doing, when they understand why they're doing what they're doing they can see the impact of it. What we've been doing for Madgex is to research large amounts of data for newspapers and associations in various countries around the world and building a massive spreadsheet. They were so pleased with the work they've asked us to go and find the relevant contacts within those organisations. We were like "Yeah sure, of course we can" because that's generally our attitude. That's a live piece of work at the moment. You can imagine that doing that work isn't full of joy but it's going to make a massive difference to Madgex's business development.
What do you do outside of work?
I'd say outside of work my main purpose is my family. I've got 2 young children, they're 3 and 1, my daughter loves going to nursery and my son has just started walking. Other than my family, I get to play cricket on a Saturday so that's kind of a bit of "me time". That is pretty much my life these days, it's quite a change from how it usd to be but I guess that's a natural transition. Having a young family takes up most of my time!