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Inspiration came thick-and-fast at EntreConf 2023, the first real-life, in-person incarnation of the fast growing entrepreneur’s conference that’s sure to become a business favourite

Live event 10am-5pm at Watershed 2023

On a hot – some would say too hot – day in Bristol’s waterside Watershed complex, best know for its cinemas and creative technology offerings, MediaClash hosted its first in-person day of keynote speeches, interviews, panels and interactive sessions aimed directly at entrepreneurs, following two virtual EntreConf events launched during the lockdowns of recent years.
To say it was a triumph would actually be to undersell it, as unlike so many business conferences this was all thriller, no filler – honestly, even the dullest of the sessions was not dull at all – and thankfully free of both marketing jargon and out-of-control egos. Instead, a range of confident, capable people from local businesses of all sizes, and those outfits that seek to support them, talked about successes earned, lessons learned, business philosophies and real-world disasters to a rapt, engaged audience of peers.
Hosted almost entirely by MediaClash CEO Greg Ingham – sporting an interesting harem pant-meets-jogger ensemble (in a room where shorts outnumbered suits, and not just because of the heat), and with a voice that admirably refused to give up – the event started with a challenging, inspiring bang and built up to a late-morning climax, and then served up another in mid-afternoon, these courtesy of a pair of show stopping talks from company big wigs truly at the top of their games. Finally, late in the afternoon, the conference brought us down gently with some more philosophical musings.

To begin, a new take on that hardy perennial: the experiences, challenges and successes of women in business. Sahar Hashemi OBE, founder of Buy Women Built – an initiative designed to get us proactively supporting female created businesses – certainly got many present thinking, not least through some telling stats: we’ve 30 per cent fewer female entrepreneurs than comparable economies like the United States and the Netherlands, which is costing our economy around £200BN a year. Something we need to fix, and Sahar had a number of practical steps to help do just that.
Next up, a piece on Funding the Dream with Graham MacVoy of Wake the Tiger, the striking Bristol-based visitor attraction (think an amusement park, but not quite). This was full of intriguing visuals and some equally striking opinions: “I dress up for no-one any more,” he told us. His Saturday-at-the-beach sartorial stylings haven’t stopped him attracting admirable levels of backing, however. On a similar theme, he was followed by Alex Lloyd, a Partner at law firm Burges Salmon, who gave us The Entrepreneur’s Playbook: Lessons Learned on the Path from Inception to Exit.

These talks all took place in a large, airy, slightly greenhouse-like room called Waterside 3, but we now retired to the happily air-conditioned cinema at the other end of the building for a talk from David Faulkner-Bryant of The Visa Office on helping start-ups get crucial staff into the country, before the first of the main events: a keynote conversation between Greg and Nigel Toon, founder of Graphcore, the Bristol-based international builder of the hardware needed to run AI programs, and now a genuine ‘unicorn’ business (a term describing privately held startups companies valued at over $1bn).
Graphcore sees itself as a feisty disruptor, albeit a giant one, and Nigel’s thoughts on AI and the future it will usher in were (perhaps inevitably) exciting, frightening and confusing all at once. Not bad for a business idea hatched over dinner at Bath’s Marlborough Tavern not so many years ago. At least one fear was put to bed, though: there will be no Singularity any time soon. “That’s bollocks,” said Nigel, emphatically.
There followed a panel of four from Link Stone Advisory, British Business Bank, Growth Lending and Unividual, all talking about the art of funding entrepreneurs in a talk titled Seed to Scale.

Phew. Time for lunch – perhaps inevitably, a somewhat rushed and chaotic affair, and one of the few elements of the day that needed a little work going forward – and a bit of networking before the afternoon sessions began.
They did so with Ebba Lepage and Dylan Samuel from Lombard Odier talking B Corps: what they are, and whether it might be a good idea to become one. (The consensus was “probably yes”, and though it’s highly rewarding, and not necessarily easy, “it’s not as arduous as it may seem”.)
Giving Greg a short rest, Elly Rowley of NatWest hosted a sister piece to the session that had kicked off the day, but this time looking at the barriers of entry to entrepreneurship for ethnic minorities rather than women. Intriguing examples were given by Latoya Adlam of Kitchen Cosmetics, a beauty brand, and Poku Osei of Babbasa (a Bristol social enterprise designed to support under-represented young people) in Meet the Trailblazers, where we learned of the need for broad shoulders, and the dangers of assuming too much: Black fronted, with a Black workforce, and using ancient African remedies for inspiration, Latoya nevertheless found herself with a 72 per cent white audience, and so in a quandary. Should she subtly reposition her brand accordingly?

Next up, the centrepiece of the afternoon was Greg’s talk with Zillah Byng-Thorne, ex-CEO of international (but traditionally Bath-based) media giant Future, magazine specialists suffering badly on her arrival, but which she grew from a market cap of around £27m (and no profit being made) into a £2bn company. Honest about her failings – “what I think of as straight talking can be seen as blunt,” she said, while one tale of a management bonding session gone dramatically wrong was eye-opening – and clear about her strategies, in which the power of a clear message repeated regularly loomed large, Zillah cut both a more impressive and more vulnerable figure than many expected, with her insights and experiences truly a highlight of the day.
Following Zillah, David Kelly of Bath-based Storm Consultancy hosted a panel with reps from the likes of Meshii WiFi and Farleigh Performance, to talk about the power of collaboration, a free-wheeling chat that took in the different types of personality you get in business, and how they can complement each other: one risk averse, the other a risk taker, for example.
Finally, Stay Hungry by Dimo Dimov of the University of Bath – the professor being a star of previous virtual EntreConfs – rounded things off on a refreshingly different note, less practical and in-the-trenches and more free-thinking and intellectual. The experiences of Ernest Shackleton (long a favourite of motivational speakers) made an appearance, but then so did Jeff Bezos – and Marcel Proust.

A solid and pleasantly unexpected end to an absolutely jam-packed day, then, one heaving with roadmaps and ideas, and sure to establish this event as a valued staple of the West Country business scene, with an appeal that could actually stretch much further afield than that. And we haven’t even mentioned the other elements, such as various short networking opportunities, and the announcement of the shortlisted finalists for the second ever EntreConf Awards.

Words by Matt Bielby
All speaker insights can be found here. The full speaker line-up can be found here. All photos from the day can be found here.
Please get in touch if you wish to be involved in EntreConf 2024.