Sean Reel is a serial investor with a passion for early stage companies and an advisor to a number of Venture Funds. Sean’s phenomenal career saw him hold senior titles at Boots, IPC Media and Haymarket; he has also delivered a number of business exits including sales, IPO and MBO. Sean was selected as a Judge for Richard Branson’s Voom Investments and mentor for our own Inspiring Innovator of the Year Awards. Private Life caught up with Sean to discuss his journey to success and his unending passion for supporting young entrepreneurs.

“Great investments combine the best people, the right funding and innovation to solve real problems.”

PL: Tell us a bit about you. How would those closest to you describe you?

Hopefully, they would say I was passionate, helpful and driven to make the world a better place. Also, they would say I must have a time machine hidden somewhere that enables me to work on so many projects.

PL: What drives you in your passion to help and inspire young entrepreneurs?

Society depends upon jobs, families and innovation. Young entrepreneurs will be responsible for 60% of future jobs and will be the largest source of solutions to the problems we all face on this planet.

PL: What did you learn from working with Richard Branson and the other Judges on Voom?

By analysing the investment approach of Richard and other successful investors I have come across the same critical question they all wish to understand. “Why is the entrepreneur pursuing this business idea?” Digging below the surface of this question helps clarify if a real problem exists, how committed they will be; and if they are in it just for the money. As, financial reward is not always enough of a motivation when the going gets tough.

PL: You have invested in over 50 early stage companies; what have you learnt from this?

Great investments combine the best people, the right funding and real innovation to solve real problems for a profit. I made many mistakes in my early investments and have learned to use a series of five key questions to filter the opportunities. But the one that most successful investors really want to know is; why is the entrepreneur doing this business venture?

PL: Which was your favourite – and why?

That is really difficult, but if I had to choose – it would be Smart Hydration as it will help save 11,000 lives a year and in the future will help us all have the right hydration; especially when we are ill.

PL: You are an advisor to a number of Corporate Funds – what do they look for in young businesses?

Most Corporate investors are looking to find a business that can help their companies to avoid being disrupted by embedding the innovation and pace that start-ups have in spades.

PL: You have experienced a flotation of your business and been involved in an MBO – what should entrepreneurs look out for?

Many options now exist to fund growth or provide an exit. If you decide an IPO is the best route then it is critical you have a deliverable plan that creates demand for the shares well beyond the listing day.

PL: What areas do you see as potential growth opportunities for young entrepreneurs?

Alternative protein, Augmented Intelligence, smart contracts, novel uses of waste plastics, clean water, AgeTech, Smart Grid/Batteries, Alexa Skills. It is critical that the young entrepreneurs find real problems in areas that can solve a problem for at least a billion people.

“The key differences are attitudes to risk and willingness to endure.”

PL: What areas are you investing your time and money in at the moment?

Most of my time is spent with Smart Hydration (eradicating dehydration in care homes and hospitals) as we are close to launching in a Dementia Care home. I am also busy helping Grid Edge (AI/Smart energy spinout from Aston University) prepare for a growth capital fundraising.

One of the companies that I expect to spend more time with is Nuchido; which is developing technology that reduces/restores the impact of DNA damage to improve ‘healthspan’ (the proportion of a person’s life that is lived in good health). This is certainly an area where we all share an enlightened self-interest.

PL: You are involved in a campaign to reinvent the world of philanthropy; what should we know before giving?

Better Giving is a campaign that we will be formally launching early in 2019. The mission is to help charities convert more of the money we give them, into action and help reimagine the charity sector for the next generation.

Before giving to any charity; I would suggest you consider three questions:

  1. How much of your money will be converted into the action you wish to support? Note: Research has shown that some of the ‘best’ charities convert less than half.
  2. How transparent is the charity about how it will use your money? Can they link specific actions to a donation?
  3. Can you provide the charity and other donors with feedback on how your donations made a difference?

My overwhelming recommendation is to continue giving while the Better Giving community launch tools and share best practice to help make giving more efficient; after all we donate £72 Billion in the UK.

PL: If you were starting a new business today – what would you do differently?

First, I would get the idea in front of a real customer as soon as possible. I spent four years trying to convince Royal Mail that it needed to launch StampsbyText (replacement for physical stamp). The customer kept saying no, but I kept trying.

Secondly, fundraising options should include customer funding, crowd funding, debt as well as the usual routes. No one path of funding suits all businesses. Get some advice and follow it.

Finally, only work with those you really trust. You do not have to agree (in fact that is sometimes very helpful), but ask the question – would I give them the key to my house?

PL: How does the mind-set of an entrepreneur differ?

The key differences are attitudes to risk and willingness to endure. A famous miner once spent his family fortune mining for gold. Sadly, he ran out of money. He contacted a local mining machine salesman, as he had some machinery left in the mine that he wanted to sell.

The salesman bought the equipment and thought that the previous owner had spent so much money getting so far that he should continue mining the claim. So, he also bought the mining rights. He mined for two days and hit one of the largest finds of gold in USA history. The lesson here is – you are very close – keep going.

PL: You’re mentoring Lauren LeFranc of the Little Coffee Company and winner of this year’s Inspiring Innovator of the Year Award. How’s that going?

Lauren showed in her original pitch that she was driven, had identified a niche and had also encompassed the broader social impact of her business. I am focused on helping her use my network of contacts to validate and develop the business. Luckily, her samples of True Blue Mountain Coffee are going down very well with potential partners, investors and customers.

PL: How important is it to build a network?

Building a strong network can help with almost every element of your business. The critical element is to remember that you should always try and support others in your network; without necessarily expecting a reciprocal favour. If you help others; they will recommend you, support you and give advice when needed.

PL: What’s been your biggest success?

I was Sales Director during the AOL/Time Warner acquisition of IPC Media for £1.1 billion and also helped a Royal Charity raise £50m. However, the one area that means most is where I have been able to invest in early stage businesses. These will create jobs and solutions for the challenges we face. I enjoy seeing these grow and succeed.

PL: Who has influenced you?

I have been fortunate to have benefited from some amazing mentors and shared the Board with some of the titans of industry including Lord Heseltine, Sir David Arculus and Professor Kevin Morley. My role models also include those who expand all our ideas of what is possible including Madonna Buder (The Iron Nun), Elizabeth Blackburn, and Charles Eugster.

PL: How do you balance/juggle it all?

Over the last few years I have reprioritised my time and been investing more time in my health and wellness. This has led me to ultra distance running as a way of giving me time to think as well as improving my fitness. Critically, my efficiency has improved as I have focused periods of thinking (rather than just doing) and also my energy levels and endurance has improved; which are critical for any entrepreneur.  ■