Do you care how happy your receptionist is? If you don’t, you should. Their smile may indicate whether you’re on track to succeed or fail.

After 25 years of growing businesses, Mark Thackeray says his biggest takeaway on the difference between success and failure is whether companies have the right people on board.

As a serial entrepreneur, Mark profitably established six companies and generated over $200 million in acquisitions in a strategic advisor role. In 2010, he had turned his attention from IT to cleantech investment. But the market had hit a rough patch, with venture capital investment in cleantech dropping by nearly 50% from $19 billion in 2005-2009 to just $10.9 billion from 2010-2013 in the aftermath of the financial crisis

Now, with sustainable investment and cleantech on the rebound, Mark has put his green techpreneur hat back on.

Today, his ethos lies in helping organisations grow: “People tend to use me as a sounding board to do commercial due diligence on a project. You come up with an idea, write a basic business plan, and send it to me. I rip it into a thousand pieces. If there’s anything there, I help you rebuild it, and if there isn’t, I’ll tell you why it’s not there.

“If I can help make the world a better place, in whatever form, by helping organisations grow – that’s what I want to achieve. It’s not about money for me anymore.”

In turn, he hopes that businesses across all sectors will learn that cleantech is here to stay: “We’ve got to understand that if we do not embrace cleantech, then the world’s going to be a far worse place. And if just one person fails to get involved and understand what the world can be, then we’ve lost out. Because we’ve all got to be in this together.”

Here are his insights on finding the best-fit team for your greentech enterprise. 

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What are your top tips for hiring the right people for the job?

CVs don’t tell you much

The CV doesn’t tell you much, except the basics of what that person thinks they’ve put forwards and created. It’s more about getting a rapport and building a relationship with people because when you’re building a startup, these people are your family.

Give them a little test around the type of work you want them to do. For example, if you take on a sales director, ask them ‘how would you sell this?’ ‘what would your pitch be?’ Make sure you give them a deadline, and that they do the work on or before the deadline. You’re getting married to these people really early on, so get to know them before you commit. And once you’ve committed, have your employment contracts and shareholder agreements in place.

You’ve got to have passion in business

I was working in a healthcare company as an Executive Director, and I turned around to the Managing Director and said: ‘would you rather have 100 people who aren’t being paid very much, who aren’t motivated and driven, or would you rather have 10 people, highly motivated, highly driven, and very highly paid?’ He said, ‘as long as they do the job, I don’t care.’ That was the wrong answer. You’ve got to have passion in a business.

If your determination is there, it goes a long way. If your passion is there, that also goes a long way.

Everyone matters

No matter how big you are, whether you are the chief executive of a 500 or 5,000 employee business, you’re only as weak as your weakest employee. You want your receptionist to be highly motivated, highly professional because that’s the first front shop for your business.

Businesses often fail to go down and have a real look at what’s happening in their business. One thing I believe made me successful is that when I go into a business, I ask everyone questions – whether it’s the person stacking a shelf, the manufacturer, or the sales director. They’ve all got their own feelings about what’s happening in the business. No one’s better than anyone else.

Don’t read too much into past experience 

The reason a lot of SMEs fail is that they’ve got the wrong people who don’t really know what they’re doing. They’ve been taken on because they worked in the right place, or for a competitor business. That’s not what’s going to make someone successful. It’s really knowing that they’ve got the passion, the determination, and the energy to make success happen. 

If you hire a senior employee expecting them to replicate the same success they brought to their previous employment – you may be disappointed.

They may have had the right branding, the right market conditions and the right team behind them that made them successful. They didn’t achieve success on their own. A person’s worth as an individual is likely not what you think it is, and changes in their personal life may have an effect on them. Will they have a longer commute? There are so many factors that influence a person’s performance that we often don’t think about.

What was your biggest business mistake?

My biggest mistake was getting involved with people I didn’t know well enough. I failed to put together commercial shareholder agreements and exit strategies in case those people that looked great, didn’t quite work out – then you have a problem exiting those people from the business which takes your time, effort and energy.

Which five ingredients are critical for success?

Passion. Determination. The right product. The right time to go to market. The right people.

Do you have a favourite quote?

Always take a positive from a negative. Whenever you do something wrong, you can take something from what you’ve done wrong and learn from it.

What helped you get through lockdown?

Keeping fit. Going for long walks with my dog. Looking up holiday destinations. Trying to keep positive.

Is there a principle you follow in business?

Treat people with respect and dignity. No matter how many times people come to you with silly questions, always have humility.

……………….If Mark could time travel into his future he’d be involved in space exploration: “I think that space exploration is the future. I’ve felt that for 20 years. For a lot of other people, it’s about making money. I don’t see space exploration as a way to make money. I think it’s about expanding horizons and learning from some of the things we pick up on the way.”

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