Nicola McConville, Partner at Taylor Vinters

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Nicola is a Partner at Taylor Vinters, a niche law firm focusing on innovation and disruption. It is an international firm with offices in Oxford, London, Cambridge and Singapore. The footprint of the offices is aligned with its objectives. Taylor Vinters provides advisory services to a wide range of clients, from student-run start-ups with an idea who are very much at the starting phase of their journey, to companies with several funding rounds who are looking for an exit strategy.

The clients also differ in their objectives which can range from conventional profit-maximising venture capital funding to broader objectives in terms of social impact. All clients are innovative, disruptive, and passionate. Nicola was approached by Taylor Vinters about two years ago when she was a Partner at another law firm that advised technology companies in Oxford. Taylor Vinters did not have an Oxford office at the time and asked Nicola to lead the process of establishing an Oxford branch. She left her job at that previous law firm and decided to embark on her own kind of entrepreneurial journey and start something new within the Oxford ecosystem. Taylor Vinters brings a new dynamic to the way legal services should be provided and continues to grow. It is a member of Grassroots, a purpose-built hub supporting science and tech start-ups. Taylor Vinters has recently announced a strategic combination with leading law firm Mishcon de Reya which will only to strengthen its investment and offering to the eco system.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
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I come from a legal background, but I started working with and supporting entrepreneurs relatively early in my career. I used to work for KPMG in early-stage advisory services where I advised many Venture Capital funds and tech companies. I didn’t initially plan on working with early-stage and growing tech companies but was gradually lured into it. There is something about working with early-stage businesses – becoming part of their journey and steering them into the right direction – that makes it particularly rewarding. What attracted me to this job is the ability to be part of something that often begins with a few people and one idea and grows from there. It is immensely satisfying but challenging as well. I am very passionate about this area and at Taylor Vinters, we try to maximise our contribution to the wider ecosystem. Our work goes beyond the provision of legal services and we seek to support our clients on a wide range of issues in offering training, mentoring and speaking at events. This is important to us as a firm.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s easy to resort to stereotypical words such as “innovative” or “disruptive”, but I think that there are three characteristics that we observe in successful entrepreneurs. Firstly, having a vision. It is incredibly important for an entrepreneur to know what she wants to achieve and why. They should also have a good view of how to achieve this. While the “how” might change over time, it’s good to have an idea of the pathway. Secondly, being passionate. You cannot motivate other people to work with you or invest in your company if you cannot sell the idea or product to yourself. It is not unusual to come across people who class themselves as entrepreneurs and yet you get the sense that something is missing. That something is typically this passion and belief in their vision. Thirdly, tenacity. You are not going to become a unicorn overnight. Maybe you won’t become one at all, and that is absolutely fine. The entrepreneurship journey is a long one, there will be pitches that don’t secure you funding, and grants you don’t get, and people whom you previously regarded as instrumental to the success of your company will leave you. Sheer tenacity and resilience are therefore very important. The most successful entrepreneurs I have seen are those who accept the fact that they must be tenacious and resilient, yet balance that with their own wellbeing and therefore avoid burnouts. They work out the most optimal way of dealing with these challenges that come as part of the entrepreneurial journey.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
It is know your limits. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone, particularly in the early stages of one’s career. The most successful entrepreneurs I know are the ones who recognise their own limits and build a team around them that helps them realise their vision. One of the most successful entrepreneurs I have worked with had exits in three different industries and is very visionary – finer details are not on his radar. He recruited an incredibly good COO whose job was to work out exactly how these ideas were going to be realised. It’s just like with successful sportspeople who have teams around them that support them to achieve their best performance. Whilst details are very important – having the right foundation and structure from the beginning is key to success – an entrepreneur should also focus on the big picture. Don’t forget the small stuff but surround yourself by a team of people that you trust to get this delivered and that will allow you to focus on implementing your bigger vision.

What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
Any lawyer can write a half-decent set of documents and draft articles, and I also find this very satisfying. But when it comes to working with entrepreneurs, it comes down to the non-legal stuff. It’s much more about building wider relationships. Meeting the teams at the beginning of their journeys, seeing them mature and become sophisticated directors who run successful companies and being their go-to person is very rewarding.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I like Taylor Vinters because of the way they approach things which is fundamentally different to any other law firm I have worked in. I feel so lucky to work for a firm where I sometimes say to myself “I am not creative enough to be here”. We have a culture that embraces ideas and enables people to explore those ideas and perform their best ability whatever that may be. It recognises that people have different strengths and enables them to exploit those to the full for the benefit of the firm as a whole. If I had to pick a company other than the one I work for, it would be one of those companies that have seen an opportunity, taken that opportunity, and have constantly been reinventing themselves and thinking about what’s next for them. It would be a company like Google that started off as a search engine and used their resources, such as data analytics on things like health, transport solutions and the environment, to transform itself and branch out into new sectors. It doesn’t sit still and think “that’s all very well and good for today” but has visionary leaders instead that would say “we’ve built a great company, so what’s next?”.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would have a big ethics debate with Google’s CEO about the use of data and other questions around issues like taxes. Many of these big tech companies are off-shore and are therefore not paying taxes in the jurisdictions in which their services are most widely used. I would challenge him on these issues.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There have been a few. In 2007, when I was a young lawyer, I was voted the inaugural “Dealmaker of the Year” award at the Thames Valley Business awards by 300 fellow professionals. Coming from Oxford (rather than Reading like most of the attendees), not being Partner at the time, and being one of very few female corporate lawyers there, it was very reassuring to get that recognition from my peer group. Another moment is from a few years ago, when Taylor Vinters opened its Oxford Office. We had temporary offices in Summertown, and I remember walking down the high street in Summertown and thinking “You’ve done it now, there’s no going back”. Since then we have had a roller coaster of Brexit, the pandemic and the announcement of our strategic combination with Mischon de Reya with the stated intention of an IPO – it’s been quite a ride! But we have recruited, and continue to grow, the most amazing team in Oxford, truly people I regard as my work family.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
I am involved in an organisation called TechTonic which was set up to support female entrepreneurs in Oxford. Something I see time and again in respect of entrepreneurs is that women in particular don’t speak up about their achievements and often wait for someone to come and recognise them. However, if you keep your head down, no one is going to come and do this. This is why having the confidence to value your contributions is incredibly important. I recall an ex-colleague of mine saying “you are not a princess. If you keep your head down, no one is going to come and put a crown on it”, and that stuck with me.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would direct them to Enterprising Oxford. Their newsletter encompasses many resources and includes information on grants, events etc. If the start-up is affiliated with the University of Oxford, I would send them to OUI or the Foundry, since they have established support networks and accelerator programmes. It’s always worth having a conversation to see if they can offer guidance and support, e.g. with formulating a business plan or preparing a pitch. For someone outside the confines of the university, I would recommend Oxford Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) which helps early-stage companies. Oxford Innovation also covers a wide range of things including early-stage companies looking for seed funding.

Have you faced any challenges while supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
Unfortunately, it is a reality that it can be very challenging. Sometimes, the challenges don’t always come from the direction you are expecting. I have worked with female partners who haven’t always been overly supportive. There have been instances of women coming back from maternity leave who wanted to work flexibly and female Partners saying, “I was back after six weeks, why should you get a year?”. There appears to have been resentment that the world has moved on from when they were in that situation. What has been the positive demarcation, however, is the support I have received. When I first came to Oxford from London, I worked for a firm with the most amazing Partner who was very supportive and with whom I am still in touch. It’s about finding people who will back you. It’s very important to surround yourself by a good peer-group which doesn’t necessarily have to be within your firm. I set up TechTonic with my close friends, and these are the people I go to when I need advice and whose opinion I trust. Within this group of people these conversations happen multi-way, everyone is there for everyone else even though we all work at different companies. The support doesn’t have to be within your own company, and having that external support you can rely on is invaluable.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
This is an ecosystem that is moving quickly so you always need to be up to date. Firstly, to get valuable advice, you should instead speak with female entrepreneurs who have set up start-ups in the last two years and have just received seed-funding as they will have hands-on knowledge on what is happening now. Secondly, go out and network with as many people as possible. I am happy to sit down and have these types of conversations and I know that other people are as well. Networking doesn’t have to be threatening, it can be a one-to-one coffee chat in person or over Zoom. Talking to people that are high up in big organisations has its benefits but be alive to the fact someone running a FTSE100 company often has a large team around them and won’t necessarily be able to give young entrepreneurs who are in a completely different situation relevant guidance.