Founder Series: Helen Potter, co-founder and CEO of Potter & Potter Ltd

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Helen Potter
Helen Potter

What does Potter & Potter Ltd do?

Potter & Potter provides training for leaders, managers and front-line workers, which enables them to innovate and create products and services that customers want and will pay for. Using a proven, data-driven, systems-based approach to innovation, known as Innovation Engineering, we help people turn ideas into reality, quickly and with less risk.

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Accepted in the US as a new form of academic study and leadership science, Innovation Engineering is a systems-based approach to innovation that uses online tools and data sources to help companies innovate, improve project speed and performance, and reduce risk. With the support of the global Innovation Engineering network, Potter & Potter have brought Innovation Engineering to Europe.

What is your role there and what do you do on a day to day basis?

I am the co-founder and CEO of the company, which I started with my husband and business partner in 2015. I am client-facing and my main focus at the moment is developing our workshops and training courses, including our new Quick Start Programme. Quick Start is a three-day immersive dive into the fundamentals of Innovation Engineering followed by two months of mentoring. It teaches people how to find, filter and fast-track big ideas and bring new products or services to market quickly and with less risk.

All our courses are based on a new learning system called Cycles to Mastery (patent pending). This teaching system instills the learning cycles and thinking style required for successful innovation and is truly ground-breaking in the world of education.

What is your background?

I am the only female Innovation Engineering Black Belt in Europe and I have a special interest in enabling female entrepreneurs to innovate. I pioneered many of the tools and techniques that I teach when I was working with and being trained by Doug Hall, founder of the Innovation Engineering Network and author of Driving Eureka! I have worked in the field of innovation and new product development throughout my 30-year career either as a technical, project, or marketing manager. I gained my skills and experience in strategic marketing whilst working on the Global Brand Team for The Famous Grouse, where I added an incremental profit of £12M through innovation and portfolio expansion.

What was the aha moment that led to the company founding?

After being made redundant from my role in the drinks industry in 2015, I realised how much I wanted to share my unique experience and knowledge of innovation systems to the benefit of others. Innovation Engineering currently has over £17 billion worth of active projects worldwide, and I saw an opportunity to unlock this potential in Europe.

Why did you launch the company?

Arguably, the need and urgency to innovate has never been more important, nor more difficult to achieve. However, very few people and businesses understand how to innovate. I am passionate about showing people that with the right training and tools, anyone who is willing can innovate.

When I left the drinks industry, Doug Hall, founder of Eureka Ranch & the Innovation Engineering Institute and my mentor for many years, offered me a licence to teach Innovation Engineering. I found myself in the right place at the right time and I realised I was uniquely placed to bring Innovation Engineering to Europe.

In the business world being able to turn ideas into reality leads to sustainable growth. At an individual level, it means people can follow their passions. It’s about enabling people to make a difference.

Where did you get assistance when you started?

Doug Hall, his team and the global Innovation Engineering community have been incredibly supportive, providing ongoing help, assistance, and guidance. We also accessed Business Gateway in the early stages and they pointed us in direction of local businessman, Graham Innes, who was instrumental in developing our social media strategy.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

When we established Potter & Potter in August 2015, I was the company’s only trained Innovation Engineering Black Belt with limited experience of teaching and no clients. Since then, my husband has become an Innovation Engineering Blue Belt and I have taught hundreds of people how to innovate. We now have clients in Scotland, England, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, the USA and just last month, we landed our first client in Wales.

In the early days, we offered businesses my expertise to help manage innovation projects, effectively plugging a gap in their own in-house teams. Over the years, we have developed the range and breadth of our services to provide a suite of training options and have moved a lot of what we do online to ensure maximum accessibility.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

No, Potter & Potter Ltd is completely self-funded. After many years of corporate experience, we wanted to remain financially independent and have reinvested all our profits back into the business.

So what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

In the last three years we have seen steady growth in turnover year on year. In year four, we are on track to more than triple turnover to £150k.

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

Brexit has provided ever-increasing uncertainty in the marketplace and I’ve seen more and more businesses needing to mitigate rising costs of trading across borders. That, coupled with ever increasing competition from price transparency and the disruption that new technology brings to market, means there is a solid understanding of the need to innovate amongst the business community. Therefore, the conversation now starts, not by convincing a potential customer that they should consider innovating, but by aligning on a definition for innovation, dropping the baggage associated with the word, and getting on with training to demonstrate the power of a repeatable, proven system for innovation.

What is your target market –  Who is buying your service?

We deliver training for a range of individuals working for organisations across the public and private sectors. We are focusing our efforts on small to medium size enterprises in the UK as well as individuals in large organisations with innovation in their remit. I am passionate about enabling women to succeed in the world of business and we see a great uptake in training from women in more traditionally male-dominated industries, such as construction and finance.

The systematic approach lends itself to left-brain logical types. Our methodology is based on the systems-thinking of Dr. W Edwards Deming, the father of Lean and 6sigma, so we’ve seen a lot of people familiar with Deming warm to our approach.

What are your goals for your business?

To train 10,000 people in the UK and Ireland in Innovation Engineering.

What are your biggest current challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is that very few people in Scotland know what Innovation Engineering is and how it can benefit them and their organisation. In the US, companies such as the Wall Street Journal, Walt Disney Company, and eBay are all firm advocates of Innovation Engineering. There is huge potential to unlock Innovation Engineering in the business community here in Scotland and across Europe, which is why we have embarked on a PR and digital marketing campaign to increase awareness and understanding of Innovation Engineering amongst the business community, and show people that they can innovate, no matter what their background or expertise.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Putting into simple words the power of what we offer and the way it drives change, builds resilience and makes a positive difference. It has also been challenging finding the right balance between delivering training and managing the day-to-day running of a new business.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

I didn’t anticipate how hard I would find it marketing myself. I have a background in marketing! Meanwhile, I under estimated how deeply rewarding it is to teach others. If I’d have understood this better, I might have given up my role ‘doing innovation’ and switched to teaching earlier.

What’s the secret to good leadership?

Enabling others to operate with freedom within their own sphere of influence. Being constantly curious and having the ability to say, “I don’t know”.

Where do you see the company in five years?

To be the number one innovation training provider in the UK and Ireland. Working closely with the education sector to get Innovation Engineering on the curriculum.   

How can the Scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

A systematic way to find, filter and fast track those ideas that have the greatest chance of success is required. Entrepreneurs and startups need to fail fast much earlier in the development cycle to reduce cost and risk. Failure is part of an iterative development process and we have to accept failure as part of that process, learn and keep going.

Being an entrepreneur is tough and requires passion and resilience, and if people can be empowered to “fail fast, fail cheap” we’ll see more and more innovations coming to market.

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