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Giving a leg up to start-ups: An interview with Tech Nation’s Parveen Dhanda

On the eve of TechDay, the UK’s largest event dedicated to technology start-ups, we spoke to Parveen Dhanda, Head of Growth Programmes and Late-stage Lead at Tech Nation, a Government-backed network that helps nascent companies and entrepreneurs reach for the stars. She spoke to us about the state of the current UK tech start-up scene, the challenges in scaling, and why getting your team right is essential.

Can you start by telling us how you arrived at your current role at Tech Nation?

I’ve worked in the tech industry for over 20 years, having started off working for some large ICT vendors, over the years I moved on to software and services and then got involved in the digital side of things. I started a business in 2006 with some other founders, and we specialised in IT migrations for large corporates, governments and so forth. I did that for over six years, and then to be honest I was at a bit of a loss what to do next. I’d just completed my executive MBA which specialised in entrepreneurship and growth. Then I got involved in setting up a coworking space for a university and the idea behind that was to bring together academics, students, alumni and industry, together in one space. From there I moved on to working for an incubator for the university, which was commercializing deep tech

I then moved onto managing the Tech nation’s Future Fifty programme empowering UK’s top digital companies to scale.  

What will be the focus of your TechDay talk?

My focus will be on scaling and sharing key insights from the companies I support on their lessons of scaling. The way we support our companies is through a number of different programmes from early, mid, to late stage. We bring in key experts who have either scaled a business or have specialists providing advice. We heavily focus on peer to peer learning across all our programmes.  

How would you characterise the current tech start-up scene in the UK? What is it getting right and what could it improve upon?

It’s very buoyant. Tech Nation recently did a report on the number of unicorns here in the UK, and in terms of late-stage companies, we’re certainly leading the way in Europe. You’re seeing more fast-paced movement, especially in scaling companies. I think the challenges will be finding talent, so that’s one of the key concerns.

Could you touch upon the methodologies that you use in deciding what advice to offer start ups. Is it always bespoke or are there certain core principles that you endorse that are universal?

With all of our programmes it’s very much bespoke. The idea is that we ask them what their challenges are, and we then group those challenges. So, typically, depending on what stage you’re at, your challenges will be around investment or hiring, scaling operations. And we cover those topics across all our programmes, but targeted to the audience.

It’s also very much about understanding where they are in their journey. With some of our programmes, we provide a bit more of a concierge service, where they share specifically what challenges they have and we’ll either connect them to the right people or provide advice to them. We’ll sit and do open hours with our  partners, depending on the topics they’ve picked.

Also, what’s very important to us is peer-to-peer learning and this is something that the founders very much value. During those peer-to-peer sessions we actually ask them, what do you what to cover? And that will typically be led by an attendee.  

What are some of the biggest mistakes start-ups typically make when scaling up?

I think one of the challenges is getting your team right. At what point do you throw lots of money at it? The companies we support have a lot of funding – just the Future Fifty alone have raised $6 billion since joining the programme. There’s a lot of easy money, and sometimes the tendency is that you then throw a lot of resources at it, without really thinking about the strategy. Why are you doing this? What do you want to achieve? I think it’s really important for founders in particular to be quite grounded and really understand what it is that they’re going for. And make sure that they communicate that to their team and to the company.

On the topic of getting your team right, is there any specific advice that you offer start ups relating to their recruitment policies?

It’s a challenge. What I’ve been noticing is that if you’re scaling really quickly, in the early days you bring people in that are more of a cultural fit. And this is still important while you’re scaling, but then when you get past that scaling, the challenge is moving onto the next stage. Are those individuals right for that stage?

I think it’s important that you really focus on your onboarding process to make sure that you’ve got the right fit. That process is really important.

Turning to the so-called Internet of Things category, what do you see as the challenges that are unique to this particular technology sector?

The programmes I support are sector agnostic, but one thing we’re now looking at as an organisation is creating more specialised programmes for sub-sector verticals. This year we launched our first sector-specific programme, for bridge-stage Fintech startups, with three more sector programmes planned. We know that each sector has its own challenges.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, that whole sector has been around for a while. Again, talent is a real challenge in those areas, and you’ve also got to think about where these technologies are coming from. Are they coming from the universities? And if so, do they have the opportunity to spin out?

What role can government itself play in encouraging innovation in the tech sector beyond what it already does?

We need to ensure that universities are equipped, but also incentivised, to innovate. If you’re looking at how we specialise as a nation in terms of digital, we need to be looking at what the UK is very strong in, and doubling down. AI and robotics are big areas of potential growth, and we are world leaders in Fintech. Incentivising universities to encourage more innovation on campus, and collaboration with industry, is a great opportunity.

At Klevio, one way we are attempting to scale is by co-locating in Slovenia and harnessing our existing links with the country (our co-founder is Slovenian) by tapping into its talent. Would you say this is a growing trend?

Yes, quite a few of the companies I support have some of their developers based in Eastern Europe. The feedback that I’ve received from them is that it’s not necessarily because it’s cheaper, but it’s also about the skills and talent in these countries, making it simply quicker to hire.

Finally, can you tell us what you hope that companies, participants and visitors get out TechDay?

For me, like any other conference, it’s first and foremost about inspiration, Where conferences really help is to get yourself out of your daily grind, because we’re all very busy. I want people to be inspired, for them to learn something, key takeaways that they can then use for their day to day job. And of course, build some great connections too.


Are you attending TechDay tomorrow? There’s still time to register for a Free Fast Pass here (link) – use the code “LDNFREE” and come see us at stand number 229!

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