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Guest Blog: Stuck in the middle...

I am the CEO and founder of fashion technology company, Metail, a fast growing global scale-up. Our intention is to build the UK’s first truly impactful global consumer play, and be the best way to discover, share, shop and wear fashion through digitising the world’s clothing market. I believe that disruptive technology is the way to get there.

Luckily this is a vision shared by others, and I’ve certainly felt blessed in our ability thus far to hire truly world class talent.  It’s the most humbling part of being a founder – getting great people to come work for you – and the greatest joy of coming to work each day.  Netflix was right in their famous culture deck, when they said that the biggest motivating factor for people to come to work each day is to work with ‘stunning colleagues’.  We have super talented and experienced people in our senior executive team that have come to work for the mission - certainly not the money.  And great engineers that now include 13 PhDs.

At an entry level, we have also found many hungry purpose-driven young ‘athletes’, though I also found the ‘millennial’ conundrum to be real.  To generalise: their frame of reference is different to mine; they are proverbially allergic to ‘shit sandwich’ style constructive feedback; demonstrate an urgency to move upwards that is often divorced from an awareness and development of strengths and weaknesses, and have a seemingly constant attraction to the ‘greener grass’. However, as I myself spent no longer than 11 months in each of my first 5 jobs, I neither begrudge them nor believe that management techniques can’t be adapted to relate with and develop them better. The great thing is that I do feel that this generation is even more ‘purpose’ led than the last, which makes start-up/scale-up culture attractive to them. And the itchiness to move on, which I also demonstrated in my youth, can be strongly linked to the ingrained institutional norms of moving through GCSEs to A-Levels to a degree every 2-3 years.  A company still needs to motivate and develop and, by and large, we at Metail have kept the best of the ‘millennial brood’, which I like to think proves the adage that the best people stay with the best companies.

Metail now employs over 60 people and since our inception ten years ago, we’ve seen more than 100 people pass through the doors and suffered considerable growing pains along the way. I found the jump from 30 to 60 exceedingly painful as the business moved from a ‘family’ to an organisation and needed to transition the comms, culture, structures and processes accordingly to enable subsidiarity to drive the business and avoid bottlenecks and the risk of drowning in complexity.  But we got through this common challenge amongst fast-growth companies.  It’s painful, but a rite of passage.

So, what do I have to complain about? In going from 30-60, the key challenge that became clear was that the gap between senior management and the team started to stretch to breaking point and, where a relatively flat structure previously existed, the need for middle management suddenly emerged.  It is then, at this point, that I believe many in the industry come unstuck. Experienced managers adept at driving execution become mission critical, and we just can’t find or hire them. People who know how to scale and work with large customers as clients and can drive the next level of quality and efficiency. The problem here is that the profile of this group means that they are inherently more risk averse than your typical start-up/scale-up employee, and can command healthy salaries with lots of corporate benefits in less risky environments where they can usually see a clear path to the next big job.

So why work for a scale-up like us?  Interestingly, it is much easier in the US as companies at scale-up stage raise much higher amounts of money, are therefore capable of providing competitive remuneration packages, and most people will know of people who have done very well out of options.  Conversely, I have to confess that I still don’t know anyone who has made options money working for a start-up getting to exit. It is a major challenge that is restricting the ability of the UK’s best tech start-ups to scale into global champions and massively restricting growth speed.

In an uncertain world of Brexit and Trump, we need to lean in even harder and showcase better our fast-growing companies.  But maybe the only impactful thing I can do to help fix this is to turn Metail into one of those global champions.  However, the sector also needs more role models of successful corporate switchers speaking about their experiences and the satisfaction of working for companies achieving great things at speed and positively disrupting the world.

Would appreciate comments and thoughts? How can we convince you, talented managers, to join the fourth revolution being driven by the UK’s scaleups?

Tom Adeyoola is the CEO and founder of Metail, which is creating exciting new ways to discover, share, shop and wear fashion by digitising every garment and every body. An Economics graduate from Cambridge, Tom’s career has spanned all forms of new media, from Sportal to 3 and most recently as Head of Gaming at Inspired Gaming Group. He’s even managed a ‘Jazz-funk-hip-hop’ band called Bussetti. Tom is hugely passionate about disruptive technology and startups and is the inspiration behind the government’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). Tom is also a patron for the creative industries incubator MeWe360 and Non-Executive Director of both social innovation start-up ‘Do Nation’ and award winning personal wellness technology scale-up Chiaro, whose first product is the life-changing “Elvie”.