As a long-time entrepreneur and investor, Paul Vickery knows what it takes to turbo-charge a start-up business. Now, he’s hoping to help LYTT do just that as our interim chief executive. He talks about long career in start ups and why he’s excited about the future of the company.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I studied engineering, but like a lot of people at the time I was seduced by the investment world and the opportunity to have a very international career. Then, about 12 years ago, I wanted to see what it took to start a company from scratch. Turns out it’s really hard! One of my first experiences was with a solar photovoltaic company, called Oxford PV. Since then, I’ve worked closely with both Oxford and Cambridge Universities to develop new business ideas, including a company called Silicon Microgravity, which is where I first met Prad – one of our founders. The start-up journey has become quite familiar to me now and the three companies I was involved in before LYTT have raised £150 million.
And how did the connection with LYTT come about?
I stayed in touch with Prad and eventually worked with him and Tommy – our other founder as a consultant in early 2018, when LYTT was only a distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) project. I helped them with early business planning, looking at potential markets, basically trying to work out if there was scope to build a company. That role became more formalised the following year when I joined the board as a non-executive director.
You’ve now become our interim CEO – can you explain why interim?
I’ve learned over my career that management teams are fit for purpose at different stages and my sweet spot is helping start-ups get established. That means I’m here to do two key things: create a cool business plan that attracts lots of money and to bring in management who can do a better job than me at the next phase.
As well as creating a business plan and recruitment, what else are you helping the team with?
My role is all about helping LYTT grow professionally and commercially as quickly as possible. That involves getting the foundations in place and making sure we have the funding we need from bp to build those foundations. We need to recruit more people, but if you do that without the right structures it can be a recipe for chaos. I’ve seen it happen.
What are the challenges?
Finding new, like-minded customers, maintaining our focus, trying not to do too many things at the same time. Start-ups, by definition, start with a blank sheet of paper, which means the whole world is available to you. But if you try and do more than one thing at a time, you will probably fail. We’re talking to a lot of companies right now, so the other challenge is figuring out which are the few that we can work with at incredible depth.
LYTT was the founding resident in bp’s Launchpad incubator business. What is it like to work with a big multinational when trying to build a start-up?
That was one of the things that intrigued me about working with LYTT. With its enormous breadth, bp offers access to a range of markets, I have never seen a start up with so many opportunities on its doorstep. But, of course, BP’s a big corporate and we need to find a way of marrying that with our start-up attitude. I think Launchpad helps bridge that gap. I see them as door openers, helping us navigate this complex business, finding the right people to talk to and supporting us when we want to move at pace.
The great thing is that BP, compared to so many other corporates, is very friendly to start-ups, partly because it has a culture of curiosity and fairness (many corporates have neither) and partly because energy companies are used to co-operating - often with competitors - to get things done. It’s also willing to get involved in field trials and pay for them! And because data is a precious commodity for an energy company, it has really pushed us on ensuring we have software which is secure and scalable, which puts us in good shape when we talk to other potential clients. BP is a very sophisticated buyer of software products – it knows what excellent looks like - and the fact that our software is widely deployed in BP, quite rightly, gives us enormous credibility.
What are you looking for when you first consider helping a start-up?
Good chemistry with the founders. Every start-up journey will hit difficult points; it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster, with great ups and downs. If you don’t have great chemistry, the relationship will break in those difficult moments.
What is it you love about working in start-ups?
Finding star quality, identifying something with enormous potential and then turning that into a business. You will probably have to change the business plan along the way – what the start-up world refers to as pivoting – which creates its own challenges, but that journey is always exciting.
How easy is it to help others pivot if they’re personally invested in an idea?
In the start up world you’re often working with geniuses – and it’s their baby! My job is to bring my commercial experience and weld that to their genius. Ultimately, it comes down to trust. I do find myself saying, whether it’s an opportunity or a threat, ‘I’ve been here before, this is my recommendation, trust me.’ You start with the chemistry and the trust comes with time.
It becomes a positive loop – from my point of view trust is built as the technical team starts delivering on the promises the business has made. That demonstrates value to customers who give you positive feedback, which I can take to investors, which gives us more funding to develop the technology to the next level. The Board of Directors is also important – a lot of people assume this is just about good governance and a supervisory role but I have often found that a good Board can evolve into a high performance team, starting with building affinity and trust to the point of being able to take risks – its not just the management team that are on a roller coaster.
Finally, why are you excited about the future of LYTT?
LYTT has already helped bp realise hundreds of millions of dollars in production value, which is amazing. I’ve seen very few business cases in my lifetime where the return on investment is that large.
We’re also talking to other energy businesses because bp is keen to see the technology deployed, but the heart of this company lies in its pattern recognition technology, which is transferable into other industries. The trick is to find the companies who are start-up friendly, have a strong business need and the budget, LYTT has the makings to become a very profitable business.
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