Simon Rogerson, chief executive of Octopus Group, left his first job at a leading asset manager in 2000 at the age of just 23 to set up venture capital fund Octopus from his living room.
Alongside his co-founder Chris Hulatt, Rogerson recalls that nobody knew what they were doing but says they knew they were working in an industry which was broken and one that nobody trusted, and wanted to do something about it.
Today the company boasts ‘a group of entrepreneurially-minded businesses’ with divisions in venture capital, energy businesses, healthcare and property.
And Rogerson continues to champion the entrepreneurial spirit across numerous sectors.
That’s why, almost 20 years later, he has decided to use his experience in growing a business from nothing to help others do the same through a new internal initiative called Octopus Springboard.
Rogerson co-founded Octopus in 2000 after leaving his job at an asset management house
Launched last summer, the programme allows employees to pitch their business idea to the Octopus founders and board members and take advantage of a four-month paid sabbatical to get it off the ground.
Simon says: ‘If you ask people why they don’t make the leap and get their own business going, quite often they claim it’s too risky, which I absolutely understand.
‘So what we wanted to try to do was to create a format that would allow people to leave with a safety net if they needed it. We want Octopus to be a company of entrepreneurs.’
But why would the chief executive of a company so happily see his clearly talented, and therefore valuable, staff leave?
There are around 1,200 employees within the Octopus Group and Simon says he would like to get to a point where three of four leave each year to do their own thing.
‘Lots of people think that’s a bit weird; when people leave some bosses get a bit grumpy about it,’ he says. ‘But I think it’s amazing to sit here and say we have a pot of money and we’d like to help our most talented people to leave the organisation and go and do their own thing.
‘That is what we want people to see Octopus as – if you are an entrepreneur or thinking about becoming one and want the skills, come here and get those skills and then go and do your own thing and we will be as helpful and supportive as we possibly can and wish you the best.
What is Octopus Group?
Octopus was set up by three entrepreneurs in 2000 in their early 20s with a belief that entrepreneurship and innovation can transform broken markets.
It has over 1,200 employees and serves more than 1.3 million customers across its businesses.
The company specialises in financial services and energy supply across various divisions including investment and wealth management, renewable energy, venture capital, real estate and technology.
The two remaining co-founders Simon and Chris were named EY UK Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2017.
‘We know what it’s like when you’re at the beginning and struggling for survival. It can be a real roller coaster, but if you want to make a difference, the ultimate agents of change in the world are entrepreneurs. To be an entrepreneur is the most rewarding thing you can ever do.’
A company of entrepreneurs
So how does it work? If an employee has a business idea, they can submit a ‘pitch’ to Simon, co-founder Chris or any of the Octopus CEOs.
If they think the concept has legs, the budding entrepreneur will then explain it to a broader group of people, including start-up experts from outside of Octopus.
If that in turn is successful, they will be granted a four-month sabbatical from their role to give them a chance to get the idea off the ground. During this period, they will receive mentoring, networking introductions and guidance from the company.
Octopus will also pay an ‘entrepreneur’s salary’ and enough working capital to help get the business up and running. In return, Octopus will take a small stake in the business.
Once the four months are up, the entrepreneur panel will evaluate the progress made and determine whether the business is ready to take off. The employee can either return to their job or set off on their new adventure.
Simon adds: ‘If you’re doing all the right things, you can usually tell by the two-month mark whether the product or service has legs.
‘Equally, you might find the networking side too draining or find out that being an entrepreneur is quite lonely and not for you. But that’s not a bad thing. If it doesn’t work out, you can come back and will be infinitely more valuable to Octopus.’
But he still stresses that people need the encouragement and confidence to make the initial leap and give their idea a go. That’s why the Springboard programme is so valuable as budding entrepreneurs know they will still have their job if it doesn’t work out.
Springboard’s first success story
The first person to go through the Octopus Springboard process and come out the other side with her own business is Karen Taylor, who until recently worked in Octopus’ HR department but is now founder of Parent Cloud, a support service for working parents.
It aims to reduce home and work-related stress and have a positive impact on employee engagement and gender diversity at work by giving access to a group of coaches and advisers. They offer on-demand, remote coaching and support as well as in-house workshops and one-on-one consultations to help families thrive.
After coming back from her second period of maternity leave, Karen started thinking about the challenges of being a working parent and in turn, the gap in the market to help them.
Karen thought up the idea for Parent Cloud after returning from maternity leave in 2018
She says: ‘I realised there was a massive opportunity to support people through the whole process of being a parent. From going to HR and telling them you’re pregnant, through the maternity or paternity leave and then returning to work and thinking about career development.’
After sharing her idea with Simon – who was very excited about the concept – Karen presented her pitch to six senior members of Octopus Group and was given the go ahead to test her product.
‘She came in and did a brilliant pitch and we all unanimously invested for a small stake in that business,’ Simon recalls.
Meanwhile, Karen spoke to parents, companies, specialists who would be keen to be involved in the business, as well as other entrepreneurs (including Elvie’s Tania Boler, who spoke to This is Money earlier this year) for guidance, while utilising everything Octopus had to offer.
She says: ‘Tania was really inspiring to talk to. And I spoke to Simon regularly to catch up and pick his brains. The marketing team at Octopus gave me lots of guidance and the developers at Octopus Wealth helped me with the website.’
Karen says having the Octopus network means having an abundant supply of support though Simon insists the hard work was down to her.
‘As with any start-up, it’s down to the person behind it all, in this case to Karen’, he says. ‘It is about getting out there and talking to customers and selling the dream. We wanted Karen to be successful on her own terms but if she wanted the help, then we were happy to give it where we could.’
The initial investment from the company towards Parent Cloud was £50,000 and Karen also received investment from a private investor. The company officially launched at the start of September and of course took on Octopus as a client too.
Making a difference
As a long-standing advocate of supporting mental health and wellbeing, Simon says it was a no-brainer that Karen’s idea would be a right fit for Octopus as both an investment and a service it could use.
‘We are very passionate about mental health so Octopus is an obvious customer,’ he adds.
‘Even if you just look at Parent Cloud through the lens of whether or not it makes economic sense for our business to use it then it’s still a yes because it means way more productivity out of our employees by helping them with any issues in their personal lives.’
Karen says having the Octopus network means having an abundant supply of support
Octopus Group already provides counselling and coaching sessions and the like to its employees via Sanctus which has been a huge success and, Simon says, has demonstrated the changing attitude towards mental health over the past five years.
He adds: ‘With Sanctus, people have responded so well. All the group talks have been booked up and people are now very open about whether they have just had a one-on-one.
‘That’s why it’s the right time to launch a business like Parent Cloud. People want to have those conversations but they don’t know where to go.
‘Demand is definitely there, you just need to talk to the companies who are forward thinking. Businesses that don’t think like that, that still think of vulnerability as a weakness when actually it’s a massive strength; that’s not reality.’
Meanwhile, Karen has proven such businesses do exist and demand is indeed very strong. For the time being, she is concentrating on medium-sized businesses within the financial and legal sectors as issues such as a lack of gender diversity are so prevalent.
‘Those are the areas struggling the most to make a difference so need our help more,’ she says. ‘Parent Cloud is not just for women, it is also for supporting dads with flexible working.
‘It has been interesting seeing the breakdown of appointments coming through and I’ve seen a lot of dads accessing career coaching sessions which I thought would be a struggle.’
What is Parent Cloud?
Parent Cloud is an online platform that provides guidance to mums and dads pre-pregnancy, after birth, returning to work and beyond with services to help improve confidence, mental health, and ultimately raise employee engagement, diversity, and productivity.
Founder Karen Taylor also believes these types of services are vital to support the retention of female staff, which has become even more critical in the context of a better understanding of the gender pay gap.
Parents can easily access a group of experienced coaches and advisers through the platform, which offers face-to-face or remote coaching, and covers a wide range of parental issues from birth preparation, breastfeeding, sleep training, nutrition, postnatal depression and anxiety, return to work and career coaching.
Karen says: ‘Becoming a parent, particularly for the first time, can be daunting and we want to be able to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to give excellent levels of care so that they enjoy this special time.
‘We can also help companies build a stronger bond with parents within their workforce enabling them to benefit from the added self-esteem, mental well-being and focus that can result from coaching and professional advice.
‘This is not just a service for mums. We also want to make dads feel comfortable engaging in discussions about flexible working, mental health and personal development.’
Employees can access specialists focusing on all different times of parenthood, offering on-demand remote support or going into businesses and running workshops.
Some also support in other specialist areas such as relationship counselling or advice on child behavioural issues.
Karen’s ultimate goal is for Parent Cloud to get out into the workforce as a household name and have employees seeing it on their company’s benefits package while making a real difference and a shift in gender diversity.
Meanwhile, Simon is excited at the prospect of other budding entrepreneurs within Octopus Group following in Karen’s footsteps. Some ideas at various stages through the Springboard process include a food business supporting and selling local produce and another involving database technology.
He says: ‘There needs to be a call to action for other companies to do these types of schemes. Give your employees the skills, confidence, network and ability to plug into it and then celebrate their successes.
‘The world moves faster than it used to. Karen has built her business far quicker than we built Octopus – maybe that’s a function of Karen or a function of us not knowing what we were doing 20 years ago. But her success feels super rewarding, even for us.
‘It would be cool for us to have a showcase on our website of all the people that left Octopus to build their own business – with Karen at the top, of course.’
Small Business Essentials
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