Jonathan Slater of Capslock: “Be patient when developing your team and management board”

Be patient when developing your team and management board. I’ve had 2 non-exec Directors and 1 Co-founder leave because they weren’t a good fit. Thankfully, it happened before a bunch of legals were signed. Try and implement a ‘trial period’ when hiring Co-founders or NEDs before you sign on the dotted line. As a part of […]

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Be patient when developing your team and management board. I’ve had 2 non-exec Directors and 1 Co-founder leave because they weren’t a good fit. Thankfully, it happened before a bunch of legals were signed. Try and implement a ‘trial period’ when hiring Co-founders or NEDs before you sign on the dotted line.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Slater.

Jonathan is the Founder CEO of Capslock, a British EdTech start-up tackling the cybersecurity skills gap and disrupting the status quo of education. Back in 2014, he graduated in Nuclear Engineering but lasted just one year informal employment before resigning and starting his first business. After a pre-seed funding campaign, Capslock is due to close a c£500k round after receiving offer letters from several institutional investors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Much like the readers here, I’ve always been entrepreneurial, from selling chewing gum in school through to creating and selling hairbands to finance university (yes… hairbands).

After graduating in Nuclear Engineering, I started my employed career as a Recruitment Consultant, which lasted a total of 12 months before I decided to go self-employed at the age of 23. It was a transition of fire, as I ended up in a legal battle with my old employer as I left. They refused to pay my £16k commission! It made my wait for the first self-employed invoices very stressful. I knew I wanted to go it alone from an early age, I knew I could be far better off self-employed and making my own decisions.

At 24 I started an equestrian subscription box business with my partner and achieved a small exit 2 years later.

And then at 26, I started a boutique recruitment consultancy with a Co-founder. We scaled to 4 employees and an office. Unfortunately, my Co-founder pulled out and this led the team splitting in half, leaving me as a sole leader of 2 employees. We didn’t do too well, and we eventually wrapped things up and got out alive. I learnt so many lessons at a relatively young age. I’m somewhat skeptical about ‘leadership skills’, but I feel my early ventures allowed me to pick up nuisances of what makes a good leader and how employees, or those you work alongside, react to certain actions you take. My main takeaway was the requirement to set the example, work hard and stay visible.

Going back to recruitment, it is certainly one of my strengths, but the sector of recruitment consultancy was not something I was passionate about. I wanted to get deeper into the problem we were trying to solve, and this led me into education and training and how we could innovate to plug vital skills gaps, instead of just moving people around and taking a fee for the privilege.

Fast-forward a couple of years to 2020 and I’m 29, the Founder here at Capslock and around 4-weeks away from closing a £500k pre-seed rounds.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Sure, let me start with the problem.

Right now, there are 1.5bn global workers who need to re-skill by 2022 to stay employable. We’re in this crazy innovation age, where the skills we need in the economy are subject to rapid change and jobs are being displaced by advances in technology.

Employers are struggling to hire tech skills too. They’re either really expensive, or they’re just not available at all. In Cybersecurity, for example, we’re short around 3.5m professionals and cybercrime is a 6tr dollars loss to the global economy. It’s the same story with Developers, Data Scientists, Cloud & Network Engineers, UX/UI Designers, and so on. We need more talent.

We can all see this, and so can the 1.5bn workers who need to re-skill. They’re all open to changing their career to stay employable.

So, this is our opportunity. How can we enable the global workforce to re-skill at scale and at speed to ensure the world continues to innovate at its full potential?

Enter Capslock…. We’re a Founding team of 4 and we’re building intensive re-training programmes around specific skills gaps in collaboration with employers. We deliver these programmes entirely online to ensure scalability, and we completely remove up-front costs.

Instead, we invest in students who want to re-skill.

Much like an equity investment, instead of charging tuition up-front, we take a share of the student’s future income for a set period of time once they graduate and earn over £27,000.

It lowers the barriers to entry and it aligns our goals as the educational institution with that of the students. If they don’t land high-paying jobs, then that’s directly reflected on our balance sheet.

This alignment results in a programme that is entirely focused on ensuring employment outcomes. We include mentoring, career counseling, and 100% dedication to students, so we can stay in business.

Students can launch their new tech career in just 4 months and they don’t pay a penny until they land a high-paying job. They can learn from anywhere with Wi-Fi with live, instructor-led classes and receive one-to-one mentoring support whenever they need it. It’s a powerful value proposition, and that’s reflected in the thousands of pre-launch applications we’ve had to date.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had this idea back in 2019, and it’s taken exactly a year to put a team together and get to our first investment offer letters. In that time, there have been a few mistakes, but none I regret. But here are a few things which have happened;

I bought a typewriter and spent two hours typewriting a letter to the former Director of GCHQ, asking him to be our chairman. This got completely ignored…

For around 9 months, I wasn’t too good at explaining our venture and value proposition. This can be evidenced by this eternally present ‘Pitch Deck Clinic’ video with Anthony Rose from SeedLegals:

I initially thought we’d need to raise £140k to get this off the ground, but turns out our initial pre-seed round will be c£530k. Always raise more!

I pitched this to a VC partner back in 2019 and his response was “This is a service business, no one will ever go near this”. It crushed me.

We initially called this venture ‘The Academy of Cyber Security’ but it was terrible for press releases and copy. Please, make sure you choose a snappy name.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’m fortunate to have 3 amazing NEDs who have been immensely valuable to me as mentors. An experienced CFO, a former top tier VC Investment Director, and an Air Vice-marshal from the RAF. I always felt I was punching way above my weight, but not recently, I’ve grown so much and feel confident as a future CEO.

I’ve also got 3 Co-founders and a ‘Non-exec Digital Director’. I’ve learnt more in the last 8 months than I have in my entire life, and it’s all down to the team by my side.

We also had 2 very early NEDs who were rather useless and offered zero value, despite cracking resumes. Do be careful who you bring on board and do not develop your management team too early.

Our first NED was JP, the Air Vice-marshal who spent 35 years with the RAF. He’s also a ‘Senior Directing Staff Member’ at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Back in 2019, we used the Royal College as a pitching place to recruit our founding team. When you invite people to a Royal College in Belgravia Square, London, surrounded by national embassies, they sit up and take notice. We’d then take our guests for the best Beef Wellington in London at the exclusive Caledonian Club, or for drinks at the RAF Club. Although that’s not our personality now (accessibility and inclusivity being our priorities), I really did enjoy the ‘swankyness’ of the whole affair.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

When talking about disruption, I associate this with positive change. The world we live in now is advancing so quickly. Advances in technology bring about new opportunities, new business ideas, and new areas to create value.

Delivering a 16-week university-style course online 10 years ago would have been almost impossible, but now, especially after COVID, it’s expected.

When I think about disruption, it’s about doing things better, in quite an obvious way.

When talking about innovation though, it’s not so obvious. An example there would be innovation at SolarCity (Now Tesla). When surveying someone’s roof for a solar panel install, you’d expect Tesla to whip out a drone, but Elon’s very proud of his giant selfie stick with a camera stuck on the end.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Be patient when developing your team and management board. I’ve had 2 non-exec Directors and 1 Co-founder leave because they weren’t a good fit. Thankfully, it happened before a bunch of legals were signed. Try and implement a ‘trial period’ when hiring Co-founders or NEDs before you sign on the dotted line.

Don’t be a solo Founder. Get a team involved, share your equity generously. Unless you’ve got patentable, cutting-edge, super-secret tech, give your equity away to people who compliment your skills or are just miles better than you.

This is a journey you want to share with others, and if you ever exit, you don’t want to be the only one celebrating. The team by my side now are also my very good friends, and I’m so grateful for that.

Sell your idea to your customers, before it’s ready. I think Tim Ferris is the one to thank here. Test your idea and product-market fit before you invest significant time or resource. Make a landing page and see how it does.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re going to close off this next funding round and re-skill 80 people in cyber security from January 21– April 21. Our ambition is to become a global tech re-training academy. If you want to change career, we’re there for you. We can help you start a new career in cyber security, cloud engineering, data science, software engineering, etc. By 2023, we want to be re-training thousands of students a year.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

You simply can’t beat Y Combinator’s Start-up School & their associated podcasts.

If you’re a first time Founder especially, this content is Goldust. I’ve discovered that being a Founder of a scalable, disruptive business needs a well-educated, focused mindset. It’s something you have to learn, being a Founder.

How to scale, how to find product-market fit, how to test your idea, how to build a team, how to fund raise, the legals of fundraising, the legals needed in a start-up, the list goes on. You need to know this stuff well enough so you can hold a credible conversation and get people on your side.

When I started this venture, I had grand visions of an in-person, university-like campus which, in hindsight, would never get investment and likely never get off the ground today (Especially with COVID). Educating myself on how to be a modern Founder resulted in a viable, investable business with a fully-fledged founding team behind it.

And just as a bonus, here are the top three audiobooks which have been most useful as a Founder;

Venture Deals, 4th Edition
 A-Z walkthrough of an investment round.

How to win friends and influence people
 An instruction manual for being nice and likeable, invaluable.

Think & Grow Rich
 Without good mental health, everything else is 100x harder.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

”If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to.” — Stephen Covey

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Hmmm, tough one. I think I’d remove the concept of ‘countries’. Here in the UK, many people are ‘proud to be British’ and it’s the root cause of so many problems.

Or maybe I’d cap individual wealth to £1bn and remove shell companies entirely. There’s too much inequality in the world, and it scares me that the divide between the top 1% and the rest of the world continues to increase. If you haven’t read ‘Panama Papers’ I highly recommend.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Jonathan Slater (Founder)

Jonathan (Founder) with Ian Patterson (NEDD)

Founding team 
 Dr. Andrea Cullen, Lorna Armitage, John Philliban, Graeme Parker

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