Denis Oakley

Denis Oakley

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Former startup founder and experienced advisor & mentor

Denis Oakley is an experienced advisor and mentor who has worked with startups for over 20 years, and mentored over 1500 entrepreneurs in this time. Having founded his own startup in the mid-2000s, Denis has a passion for business model innovation and helping founders tailor their business model to accelerate their value proposition and disrupt the competition. His background in engineering allows him to grasp complex products quickly, helping startups to adopt a customer-centric approach using lean methodologies. Denis joined the Connectd network to find opportunities to share his vast knowledge and experience with early-stage startups on the platform and grow his portfolio of NED roles.

Joining Connectd gave me the opportunity to work with an awful lot of very high class startups and entrepreneurs with a huge amount of talent. And so far, it's been an amazing experience.

Q&A with

Denis Oakley

What is your experience of Connectd?

I came across Connectd last year, I met one of your founders on LinkedIn, and we had a chat and I thought, this is great, I really want to do this. I got stuck in the UAE last year but when I got back to the UK in August, and I got out of quarantine, I had another look at a Connectd and it still looked just as good. I joined Connectd, and then the question was ‘What do I do? I've never applied to any jobs as an NED. What do people want? Do I send my CV out to them?'. I then reached out to a number of startups through the Connectd network. And it was absolutely wonderful; they just kept on coming back to me saying, ‘Denis, you're really the right person that I want to work with you, this looks absolutely amazing. Let's work together'. So Connectd to me seems like an amazing platform to be going forward with. Joining Connectd gave me the opportunity to work with an awful lot of very high class startups and entrepreneurs with a huge amount of talent. And so far, it's been an amazing experience.

What was the process for finding organisations you wanted to work with?

I'm totally cross-sector, so it's really about finding startups that I know something about. For example, one of the startups is working on nutrition; I know an awful lot about triathlon and endurance sports and I felt that there was a fair amount of value that I was going to be able to bring there. I also try to identify the startups who've got a great business model, and who've got a sense of success. When I filter, I have a look at the website, I try and figure out what they're doing there; I also look at the founding team and whether they look credible, because I want to work with people who are going to succeed. 

Then the most important thing for me is, when I get on a call with the entrepreneurs, are they coachable? I have almost 30 years of startup experience and I want to have that knowledge and experience fully utilised. I want founders to be able to avoid the mistakes, the errors and problems that I experienced, accelerating them further and faster - that’s a match made in heaven.

Generally, the startups on the network have been of a pretty high quality and I've enjoyed every interaction that I've had with them. The founders are professional, they're articulate, they're passionate. Generally, they've got great business models, they're very clear about where they want to go. And above all, every single one that I've dealt with has been coachable.

What are your growth plans as a non-executive director?

My non-executive director growth plans fit in with the rest of my business, which I see as three parts. Firstly, there's the business model innovation - I'm writing a book on that - and that's really important, bringing together the last 15 years of my work. On the other side there is working with the startups, the entrepreneurs, in which I do a lot of pro bono work and that’s absolutely a huge amount of fun. And then finally, the non Executive Director roles, working with startups as they grow and being able to help guide their strategy and especially their business models. How are they going to be the startups that survive out of the often dozens or hundreds in their sector with very similar business models? How are we going to get them to survive and get out into an IPO into a trade sale or exit or whatever the founders are looking for?

I want to work with founders and entrepreneurs at every level as an NED, being able to challenge them by asking, ‘Why are you thinking that? What are the best ways can you validate that? Can you provide evidence that this is going to be the right way forward?’. I’ll look at that evidence with them and use that to construct very robust growth growth plans. 

That's what I'd really like to do and, over time, I see myself working quite closely with four or five startups as a non-executive director. Honestly, people say that work is hard but this is the most fun I've ever had and I'm so enjoying doing it, especially thanks to Connectd.

Which three words would you use to describe Connectd?

This is a bit of a challenge! Everybody I've worked with at Connectd has been really warm, they've been supportive when I've reached out with a problem, needed advice or highlighted something important. I've been listened to, I've been cared about and my ideas or thoughts have been taken on board. I know for sure that not everywhere takes the same approach and there's a huge degree of professionalism. 

What we're trying to do as NEDs and advisors is not just give people advice, but to give people the best advice, so I really really appreciated the absolute wringing that I had, in order to become a non-executive director. I was asked questions and I was challenged, as people are used to the right calibre of those advising the startups on the Connectd network - that gave me a huge amount of trust in Connectd and in working with them.

The final thing is that they are approachable. I went off to the Institute of Directors, thinking about becoming a non-executive director through them and I thought ‘I don't really fit in here. I don't wear a suit and I don't wear a tie, they're not like me’. I've spent the vast majority of my life working with entrepreneurs and we understand each other. So that approachableness and the inclusivity of the startup ethos is, I think, really important to Connectd.


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