Stephen Barnett, founder and CEO of Util

Photo of Stephen Barnett

Stephen Barnett is the founder and CEO of Util, a company which seeks to lead the next generation of company assessment and valuation. Util believe that decisions made by investors and business leaders based solely on a company’s ‘bottom-line’ fail to scratch the surface of the purpose, performance and value of the company in question. Util have created a methodology that seeks to better understand, measure and analyse the relationship companies have with all their stakeholders; from the environment and employees to customers and the community. They do this so that investors and business leaders can make more informed decisions and can start to push towards a future where business becomes a true force for good in the world.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I have a background in social sciences (degree) and finance (career). I enjoyed my 5 years in the city, working in London and New York, however I was forever questioning practices, structures and hierarchies and quickly realised that I was not giving my all to a job that others would have excelled in. I went into entrepreneurship firstly because I believe that my skill set is equipped for developing ideas, secondly because it’s about as much fun as you can have doing a ‘job’, and thirdly because entrepreneurship, if channelled in the right direction is about as impactful a career choice as anyone could choose.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Util Logo

Simply going from nothing to something significant. To start with an idea and bring it to a stage where you no longer have to be in charge of every business decision is the true meaning of entrepreneurship.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

Our idea is still not good enough – it keeps evolving and iterating and that’s what makes my job so exciting. I decided to raise investment because I realised that the concept was far too large for me to do justice – it was the best decision I have made all year.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

It really depends on the lifecycle of the company and for that reason the key to being an entrepreneur is flexibility. You need to be incredibly creative on day one, a wonderful salesperson on day two, a brilliant fund raiser on day 3 and a great leader on day 4. In order to nurture this flexibility your need to hone your decision making skills, must have a high degree of empathy and need to listen to people that are smarter and more experienced that you are.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

Util is about as motivational concept as I could have possibly dreamt of. Our small team of 6 people are 100% focused on building a product that can help shift the business conversation and every day we see headlines that compound our absolute focus on the job at hand.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

Zingermans – based out of Ann Arbor in Michigan, Zingermans is a grocers that absolutely excels in customer service and management. Regardless of whatever type of business you go into, these are two constants that Zingermans constantly leads the way in.

If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?

Once you get beyond 10 people how do you avoid cultural dilution? I see this as being the major future challenge of our business.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

We took ages to think up a name, and did it by consensus. This distracted us at a pivotal point in our product development and delayed Util’s launch (although we are now very happy with the name!). I am learning so much every day and unfortunately most of what I learn does not have a prescribed management textbook. I make hundreds of business, product and personnel decisions every day – I believe that success is the ability to get over 50% of those decisions right – starting a business is one of very fine margins.

How have you funded your ideas?

Boot-strapped then angel investors. We are raising a formal seed round in October.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

No. We have been beavering away on building our product. We will be engaging with appropriate competitions when the time is right. We have applied to Innovate UK for grant funding.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

Good – the access to amazing, inspirational talent.
Bad – the cost of living and the proximity to our clients – we will be looking to split between London and Oxford in the near future.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

If you are a student the new Oxford Foundry is a great place to start. Outside of the university check out the Fab Accelerator – it’s a good 12 week crash course for starting a business. There are also loads of meet ups relating to technology and entrepreneurship that are worth checking out.

Any last words of advice?

Enjoy the ride, try not to take yourself to seriously, realise that you will make lots of bad decisions and make sure that you always keep your end goal in sight.