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The Pandemic & Me: Northstar Ventures

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

In this edition of The Pandemic & Me series, we caught up with Rick Charnley, Investment Manager at Northstar Ventures, a VC firm, supporting businesses in the North East through early stage investment and advice.

As Investment Manager, Rick looks for companies and founders of startups and scale ups in the North East to invest in seed round funding. Post-investment, he works with these companies at board level, advising and connecting founders with other services and products to help close gaps within the business and to encourage growth.

Footprints Consulting: How have you had to adapt to Covid-19?

Rick Charnley: At the beginning of Lockdown last year, we went fully remote overnight with everyone working from home. We’ve had to look at how we can work better with what we classed as background technology and embrace the communication channels that we didn’t have the need for pre-pandemic.

The office is now open as an option if you want to use it but the biggest change that we’ve made is now, all meetings are online.

FC: Have you had any challenges communicating effectively with colleagues or clients?

RC: We’ve tried to do a lot more team based activities to keep morale and motivation up. We used to have a team call once a week to catch up but now we have one every day, which means we’re actually communicating better than we ever have been.

The challenge has been more on the friendship side of work from a communications perspective. We’d normally be speaking to people across different departments when we’re in the office but that doesn’t happen online. We’re attempting to bring a more social side to remote working if we can, by having a non-work online event once a month or so for some light relief, but the conversation isn’t as natural as it would be in person, so it’s something we’re actively working on.

FC: Do you think it has changed the way you do business?

RC: Yes, we’ll be more remote going forward. We’ll definitely need the office for team links but now we know we can function well remotely, I think we’ll see more of a 60/40 split between home and office working.

It is really about balance. Having online calls is certainly a better use of time than meeting face to face, only because you take out the travel time but there is still very much a need for face time both in meeting clients and spending time with colleagues.

For me personally, adapting to home working has allowed me to adopt certain behaviours that I might not have done before and going forward, it’ll be more about what level they’ll stay at.

FC: Have Northstar been helping their business portfolio through the pandemic or have most of the portfolio been strong through the storm?

RC: We only have a couple of businesses related to the hospitality industry so most of our portfolio have been okay. For those who have felt the brunt of it, they’ve adapted so well that we’re confident they will come out the other side stronger than before.

We invested more into our portfolio to provide a boost through the pandemic and many have accelerated on. There are still a lot of opportunities for businesses, especially those in tech, as our reliance on technology has only deepened across industries since the pandemic so it’s a good time for tech businesses.

FC: Do you think the pandemic has been more difficult for smaller businesses or has it brought good opportunities? What changes have you seen businesses make to adapt?

RC: The key to any business survival is agility and being able to adapt quickly, and this is certainly true of how to act in a pandemic. Smaller businesses are usually in the stronger position to react quickly and pivot accordingly.

A lot of our businesses furloughed staff as a reaction to the situation at the beginning and then rapidly un-furloughed them and started to recruit as they assessed the opportunities as it went on. Even in the event and hospitality industry, we’ve seen an increase in takeaway and outdoor and online events, which has helped keep these businesses afloat. Some have pivoted their product positioning to take advantage of new market opportunities.

Those quick (and reversible) decisions have been essential to the success of businesses to ride out the storm, which isn’t always possible for big companies, but is usually something small businesses are used to doing.

FC: How are you coping with the cross over of business and personal life?

RC: Ha! Well we had a baby in February, so it’s been fun!

A big adjustment in itself of course but it’s been so good not having to commute after I’ve finished work. I can just log off and see her straight away.

That being said, it has been difficult to adjust to not having any time to wind down. Having the time to process your thoughts before getting home was an under-appreciated benefit of the commute!

FC: How do you stay motivated while working from home? Do you have a strict routine or do you just break when you need to?

RC: I generally don’t have a strict routine but I do try to break when I need it. Business and personal life is blurred at the minute so I have to remind myself not to feel guilty if I’ve taken a few minutes away from work during the day. I’ll probably be emailing at 11pm anyway so a break in the day is okay.

Finding that balance between life and work is a must for staying motivated while working from home. Everyone is in the same boat so don’t feel bad about it!

FC: What have you surprisingly missed about “the old ways”?

RC: I really miss coffee shops. I’m still a coffee addict at home but it’s not quite the same as having one out and about.

I also miss bumping into people walking around Newcastle. It’s the great conversations that you wouldn’t normally have if you hadn’t bumped into them that I now miss.

FC: Is there anything you wouldn’t go back to?

RC: Travelling around the country. I used to travel a lot for meetings, usually I’d try to fit a few in to make it worthwhile but the odd cancellation or last minute rearrangement could see a 2 hour trip for a one hour meeting - I won’t be doing that anymore! If plans change, I’ll rearrange to do it remotely instead.

FC: What advice can you give start up/scale up businesses right now?

RC: It’s a difficult situation for everyone at the moment but my best advice is to make decisions quickly and go with them. Speed is of the essence. The biggest thing that kills businesses in any situation is the inability to make decisions, not the actual decisions themselves. Don’t be afraid to make the wrong decision, you can always change it, just make a decision and act.

I would also say keep as much cash in the business as possible! Take credit holidays, get bounce back loans, take whatever you can when it’s available. Cash is king.

FC: What do you think the future of working will look like? If changed at all.

RC: For office workers, I think it’ll be a hybrid of home and office working. People might not want to commute necessarily but I think we all miss aspects of the office so I expect to see it return in some form.

The fear of home working has always been around trust, but we’ve seen that software has enabled that and it is more about work culture and less about who is sitting at their desk at 9am. The challenge is creating a suitable work environment at home for those in the early part of their career. This will need a new way of thinking about shared office space.

The pandemic has proved people don’t need to be in the same room as each other, but you do need a good working environment to be able to do this long term.

FC: Has the pandemic brought any unexpected opportunities for Northstar?

RC: Naturally, some businesses are doing better during and since the pandemic and the opportunities to invest in these businesses are accelerating.

What we have also seen is far more approaches to our companies from potential acquirers, with some companies needing to accelerate their digital strategy.

FC: With so much uncertainty still on the way we’re going to come out of Lockdowns and Tiered systems, do you think we have to find the “new normal” and if so, what do you think that looks like for Northstar?

RC: Yes, I think we need to accept and embrace change. We need to be adaptable and focus on the positives and make the decisions that we can do now. Of course, minimise the risks but we can’t control a lot of what that “new normal” is, so making decisions quickly and moving with it is where we need to get to. That should be the “new normal”.

FC: Is there anything about running a business that you just don’t think can be replicated online? And how are you adapting to it?

RC: Tech teams and product teams seem to generally embrace working from home but sales teams do really struggle with it. 90% of their job is being told “NO” so the buzz from the office and encouragement from teammates is vital to their motivation and enjoyment at work.

The main thing that the pandemic has brought to the forefront is the need for businesses to invest in a comms and engagement strategy with staff. Recreating the enjoyment and collaboration that happens in the office for all employees. Those little conversations that we took for granted in the office and make up the work culture, don’t happen anymore. And it’s not just the social side of work that is difficult online but also onboarding and relationship building has also been affected.

In Lockdown, we’re all work and no play and it’s an important part of the enjoyment of your job, which isn’t so easy at the minute. It brings about a lot of mental wellbeing challenges, so engagement is a very important part of going forward.

FC: Are you feeling optimistic about the future or are you weary of the pitfalls?

RC: I would say cautiously optimistic. We obviously need to look at what the impact of the pandemic is going to be on businesses going forward and we also have the impact of Brexit looming.

Part of our funding at Northstar is from the EU, who are committed to this round, but we will need to see what that will look like after the commitment period is over. Fortunately, there are several models already working in the UK that could also work well for the North East. We need to make sure that whatever model we adopt, it is able to provide a local feel for local businesses, so that it is what we’ll be looking for.

Plus, we’re seeing more growth investors looking at the North East. VCs from all over the world are interested in the region so that is a huge opportunity and certainly many positives to look forward to.

FC: What’s next for Northstar?

RC: Well, we’ve just launched a seed fund with the North East universities, which we see as the pillars to growth in the region. As part of that, we’re working on how it all can feed into a much bigger opportunity for the region – watch this space!

Plus, we’ll continue making sure that our innovation fund is supporting new companies and our portfolio; helping them reach their goals and visions to become a reality!

Thank you so much Rick, we're very excited about the seed funding with our region's universities and watching the successes that will come out of it. Great to hear that your portfolio is holding strong and heeding your advice to make decisions, and quickly.

Still more to come in this series, looking at businesses' experiences across a spectrum of sectors and what the future holds as we move forward in new circumstances. Keep your eyes out for the next edition.

What is the best advice you can give businesses right now? What adaptations have you made to cope during challenging times? Let us know in the comments.

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