The current economic climate in Bermuda is challenging for start-ups, but they are vital for creating jobs and sustaining the island’s economy. Veteran businessmen Don Mackenzie and Neil Patterson decided to change this by establishing Ignite, the island’s first privately funded business accelerator and an organisation tailor-made for helping Bermudian entrepreneurs realise their business ideas.
“In Bermuda today, with the banks not lending, if you haven’t got access to capital, where do you go?” asks Neil Patterson, chairman of KPMG in Bermuda. “Could we create a facility for people trying to launch a business where they could go for networking, support, education and also to try and raise capital?”
He and Don Mackenzie, chairman of New Venture Holdings, established a charity that would not just provide a physical office space for entrepreneurs to use but also a business curriculum and access to mentors.
“The whole thesis behind Ignite is to get a large number of start-ups together,” says Mackenzie. “We’re an accelerator so we provide physical space, curriculum and education, mentoring and access to investors. Many entrepreneurs think they want money. That’s the end game. More importantly they need a safe space to get help on an individual basis, to help them build out their skill sets and to get mentoring to help them figure out what they need to do next.”
Instead of “reinventing the wheel,” Patterson and Mackenzie partnered with Entrepreneurial Spark, which runs the largest free accelerator programme in the world, including 16 entrepreneurial hubs throughout the UK.
“They have the intellectual property, the curriculum, all the selection criteria, so we wanted to leverage all of that,” says Mackenzie. The programme has however been customised for the Bermuda market and Ignite worked with the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) to do this.
The next step was to find an executive director who was not just a career entrepreneur but who also had experience in mentoring start-ups. British businessman Sean Reel fit that criteria and joined Ignite in April.
Each programme runs for six months and the first one began in May. The original plan was to start with 15 entrepreneurs, but the demand was so high—181 applications within the first 10 days—they expanded to 17 businesses in their “core programme” and 40 in a “light programme,” helping a total of 65 “cohorts” as they are referred to.
“What was impressive to us is not only do we have an amazing number of entrepreneurs in Bermuda but we have incredible quality,” says Mackenzie.
They established the light programme because, Patterson says, they felt it was important “to keep people involved and encourage them even though they didn’t make it into the full programme. We’re running events around key things like how to make a pitch and they’ll be involved in some of the mentor and investor open nights.”
The selection process encouraged all levels of personal and business experience: “We’re not looking for people necessarily with the business degree or who have got a business up and running. We want passionate people with a great idea, no matter what background they come from, who we think will make a good entrepreneur,” says Patterson.
“We’re either going to take companies who are pre-revenue to revenue stage, to validate their business. We have a number of companies that are more mature businesses. What we’re trying to do there is to help them with scale,” adds Mackenzie.
They also have what he calls “functional diversity.” Some are creative, some more analytical. Technology, retail, tourism, health and wellness sectors are all represented. Some cohorts are in their 20s, others are on their third careers.
Ignite’s core programme begins with a two-day boot camp followed by a series of events and workshops related to all aspects of starting up and maintaining a successful business. They will also have support from their own “business enabler.”
“Boot camp is two days of very intensive reflection, learning and personal development as well as business development,” says Reel.
Ignite has had a lot of support from the local business community, including Argus who donated and furnished the hub space at 12 Wesley Street. KPMG are providing staff to help with finance, Conyers Dill & Pearman will do a legal session and the Bank of Butterfield will explain how to apply for a loan. Other events include a session about the psychology of being an entrepreneur and seminars on leadership and business ethics.
Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely existence and Mackenzie says the programme is designed not just to get support from experienced business people, but also from each other. “Our cohorts are learning that if they share and collaborate their ideas with other entrepreneurs, there are opportunities for them to create new revenues.” Ignite has even had a contract signed between two cohorts, adds Reel. “It was for event services. One is doing a tour business and the other provides event management.”
“If you look at traditional start-ups,” he continues, “seventy-six percent of them will fail. We’re in a situation where we can get over 80 percent of our cohorts to success. For us, it’s about the opportunity to create jobs.”