Personally Speaking - Anyone can be an entrepreneur in Staffordshire

First published in The Sentinel on 16/07/22

Personally Speaking – Anyone can be an entrepreneur in Staffordshire

James Routledge: Founder of Sanctus and entrepreneur-in-residence at Staffordshire University 

Growing up in Stoke I didn’t have many business role models. One friend’s dad took work calls on loudspeaker in the car, talking about P&L, cashflow and balance sheets. Another had a business card. 

I’d heard stories about John Caudwell and mobile phones. “Business” though, was a black box. ‘Entrepreneur’ wasn’t a career option on the forms at school.

I felt like I had to leave Staffordshire to broaden my horizons and find a career. I left for Sheffield for University at 19 where I met George from Lichfield whose dad had started a commercial kitchens business. I was as close to the entrepreneurial spirit as I’d ever been, and I was inspired.

At university, through a spark with George, I became fascinated and obsessed by entrepreneurship. The idea that I could start a company and build something for myself and for others, compelled me. It challenged me creatively, intellectually and felt so impossible that I had to try it. 

I’d grown up in a cultural environment where it was implied that I’d be lucky to get a job. A “job’s a job”. I never fully bought that and believed we could all have better. The dream of starting my own business was a chance to prove the voices in my head and other people wrong.

George and I started a business at university and tried to get it off the ground for the next four years. It was a social network for sport, and it failed. We went from Sheffield to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London in search of customers and investment. We made some progress, but the business was never viable. We shut it down. 

In the aftermath of that failure, I struggled with my mental health. Borne out of that period of anxiety and mental health issues, I created another business, with a social purpose and big mission. The mission was to change the perception of mental health and inspire people to express themselves, so they can belong in this world.

I founded Sanctus six years ago, with George. Two Staffordshire lads building a mental health coaching business in London. Now with 100 customers, £5m investment, a full-time team of 30, 50 coaches and a business that is good for the world. 

At 18, in my part time job at KFC at Alton Towers going to ‘up ‘Castle’ on a Friday and ‘Town’ on a Saturday, if you’d have told me I’d create an impactful business with another friend from Staffordshire who I was yet to meet, I wouldn’t have believed you, nor thought it was possible. 

In 2022 though, it is possible. I believe anyone can be an entrepreneur and create a business that can support themselves, their family and the world around us. With a laptop, phone and access to the internet we can all do it. We need support, some resources and most importantly a belief. We must believe that anything is possible.

That with grit and passion, we can create. 

The startup and entrepreneurial community in Staffordshire is alive. This county has a long tradition of creative entrepreneurship. From Wedgwood to Coates, the Shannahans to Emma Bridgewater. We have a rich history and entrepreneurial DNA that lives strong. 

In the last 40 years, we have seen an economic and industrial decline that’s affected almost every family in some way. My family talk about the days when everyone worked on the pot banks and industry thrived. I can take a walk through Stoke and see what’s changed, closed down pubs and factories that are a withered memory of what was once a thriving industrial heartland. Our core industries have died or moved away. New companies must be created where they once stood. 

I’ve been working with Staffordshire University and the Peter Coates Foundation on the launch of a new initiative that can be the catalyst for a regenerated entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem in Staffordshire. 

We have created the Peter Coates MSc in Entrepreneurship that aims to teach aspiring entrepreneurs the core skills needed to create a modern day, high growth venture. The Peter Coates Foundation are providing full bursaries to support people from all economic backgrounds alongside access to investment capital for businesses with high growth potential that want to make Staffordshire home. This course, the bursaries and investment are seeds from which we believe great companies and a thriving startup ecosystem can flourish. 

This is the beginning of a resurgence. A community of Staffordshire entrepreneurs, investors and innovators are coming together to support and nurture the next generation of creative entrepreneurs. All with the same shared mission. Breathe life into startup, creative and digital industries in the area. Create companies, missions, jobs and hope. 

The launch of the this Entrepreneurship MSc is a brilliant start and creates an opportunity for people, where one didn’t exist before. Funding from the Peter Coates Foundation creates access and levels the playing field. From here, we can grow. We need a vision, and we need hope. I see both and we’re just getting started.