Hugo Tewson - Entrepreneur interview
  1. You are currently Chairman of numerous businesses and Co-Founder of the Chronic Foundation. Where did you start your career, and how did you grow your experience so broadly?

My career started in the reception of Saatchi’s. I spent a long time thinking about what I wanted to do having been in economic intelligence, and I decided I wanted to work for Saatchi. So, I sat down in reception, stayed there for three days until someone asked me what I wanted, and I asked for a job.

I had an interview with a chap that told me to leave even after I had offered to work for him for free for two weeks! Just as I was leaving his office, he got a call to say that he had won a huge contract. Following that call, he decided he would need some help for two weeks. So that is how I started – right place, right time.

  1. What was the inspiration behind your co-founding The Chronic Foundation?

We started the Chronic Foundation in 2004. I was having dinner with a business partner whom I had set up two previous businesses with and he saw me surreptitiously injecting myself and started laughing. I asked him what was so funny, and he said that “all this time we have known each other and worked together so closely, I had no idea that you were diabetic. I am too!”.

Following that conversation, we started to focus on diabetes and how people were in denial about it. We wanted to raise awareness. We ended up advising firms big and small who were in that space or who wanted to enter the space around tech support of behavioral change and helping worthy innovations.

  1. What type of Boards do you Chair and how do you add value?

I only chair boards of small, fast-growth companies or companies with potential for growth. They are all under 70 people and the smallest firm I have worked with was just two people.

How I add value? Firstly, I have a very broad network. This was strengthened when I became a Sloan Fellow of London Business School and I have also consciously built strong relationships with exceptional people who help small businesses.

The second way I help is by bringing the right teams together, both at a board level where it is really important to have chemistry and respect, but also helping management teams find the right people who are prepared for the long haul that an early stage business can often present.

Thirdly, I like to think I can be very valuable in strategy and negotiations. I have worn many different hats in my life; I have been an entrepreneur, I have co-founded businesses with a number of people, I have been a consultant, and I have been a coach. As a chair, I think I add value by understanding when to change my hat. When you are a chair in big companies there may be less flexibility, but in small companies, I believe it is appropriate to sometimes roll your sleeves up and get stuck in if there is a critical task, get involved with management at a closer level, or to coach business leaders.

  1. With exception to the coronavirus pandemic, what has been one of the most challenging things you have had to contend with during your varied career?

Without doubt the most challenging thing is seeing wonderful small companies, often with excellent ideas and an excellent team, die, or begin to die. That could be a result of coronavirus, bad debt or having insufficient funds or significant people gaps. It usually comes down to two things: “cash or talent” (to quote UK “Strategy man” Deri Llewelyn Davies). I found this particularly challenging in a health business I worked with recently, which improves the lives of children, and is having a tough time. It would be very upsetting if I thought we could not re-treat children who had experienced a life-changing therapy and if we could not scale this to reach many more children who could all benefit hugely from the innovation.

  1. How have the businesses you are involved with coped during the coronavirus pandemic, and what contingency plans have they put in place to ensure survival through this unsettling time?

Survival for me is about a couple of things. It about not being in denial about what is happening and meeting the reality head on as quickly as possible. A great mentor of mine once said, “Hugo, if you see a crisis coming bring it on early, don’t pretend it is not happening”.

I think it is also about adapting quickly. That might mean radically changing your cost structure but equally, it may be about seeing new opportunities, in new people, in new products, in new markets or in M&A activity. It is not just about cutting costs. You need to adapt to the times.

  1. You are involved with numerous Healthcare businesses. Have these businesses seen an increase or decrease in customers / patients during the pandemic?

Largely, I think the pandemic has presented a significant opportunity, especially for digital health businesses, and this is since doctors are seeing less people face to face. As they have always done this historically, it provides a great opportunity for many of the digital innovations that have been held back by conservated doctors’ old habits. We are learning more and more that doctors do not have to see patients, and that patients can become far more responsible for their own health. I was recently talking to a previous lead of health at PwC, who was saying the same thing. I have a lot of doctors in my family and although they are extremely bright, they can also be some of the most conservative people when it comes to changing habits. This crisis has brought it on and forced change.

In Chinese, the word crisis combines two words; ”Catastrophe” and “Opportunity”. I think this is very true for healthcare. Whist it has been critical and dreadful at the same time, it has been an enormous opportunity for positive change.

  1. Throughout your career, have you had much experience with selling businesses or raising funds for businesses?

Yes, I have. These have all been small, fast-growth businesses and it has been a fascinating journey. You never stop learning.

  1. How do you think the world of corporate finance might change in the future?

I think corporate finance can really help to bring about “joined up thinking”. Helping small companies better understand their business model, future customers, future investors, and possibly future acquirers can potentially accelerate a company radically. I say that with some caveats. Aligning a business more closely to its exit strategy is often about knowing the end game, having a clear picture of that end game, and then working backwards. I did a fantastic interview once with a champion salesman who outsold everyone in his sector and who later became CEO. He said exactly that.

  1. You have recently used Bluebox Velocity, what was your experience like?

Extremely positive. I have not only used Velocity once, but I have used it a second and a third time too! This is a service I have looked for, for some time, because I think larger corporate players are increasingly looking to do more corporate investments involving earlier stage businesses. I know a fair bit about this as I have worked with some large, mainly American, companies on long term programmes to look for smaller companies where they see much more value than the original entrepreneurs might have. In healthcare, this can be very important as it can mean getting a vaccine or a diagnostic out to the market quicker, and to more people to save more lives.

I think Bluebox Velocity addresses a gap in the market, especially at this unsettling time. People might want to raise funds or sell quickly, and they perhaps don’t want to pay the traditional upfront fees they were paying previously. I think the pricing is right and it has proved a phenomenal service and worked very well for me. I am very confident it will work very well for other customers.

  1. Post-pandemic, how do you think the world of business and “the way we used to do things” may change?

Far more people are going to be working from home on Zoom, etc. and I think it will change the structure of homes, and indeed, families and relationships. A short example of this is that I advise one company that had annual rent and services of £340,000. They are going to reinvest these savings back into the business. While they will provide an office with seven well-spaced hot desks and two conference rooms, they are going to invest the difference in their employees. A worker who might live in a one-bedroom apartment will be gifted the finance to rent a two-bedroom apartment so they can call it a home office. They have also investigated adding a home office into families’ gardens. It is about being imaginative and changing the way we work but possibly for the better.

I do think it is still important for teams to meet on a weekly or monthly basis and when we do meet, it is important not to lose the social connection, and not just meet about business – whether that is face-to-face or virtual.

  1. Quick fire

What was your go-to lockdown pastime? Discovering cycling and cycling to my country office four miles from my home.

When travel restarts properly, where is the first place you’d like to visit? Where I am now, my house in the Black mountains, Wales.

Three things you would take to a dessert island. A knife, the works of Shakespeare and a cappuccino machine.

Life motto. My Grandfather’s poem. “Help us to be masters of ourselves that we can be the servants of others”.