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Tom Guy

Managing Director, Etc.

When it comes to building startups from within, you’ve got to have faith…

As we jump head first into the Christmas period, it would be rude not to take the opportunity to write about the one and only George Michael – wouldn’t it?

Don’t worry… as easily as I could give you an 800 word monologue about why Last Christmas is the best festive jingle of all time, I’ll resist the urge for today. Instead, I want to talk about how George Michael has been an unexpected guiding light for me when it comes to building a startup from within.

If you’ve followed my blogs over the past few years, you’ll be familiar with my journey working across big corporations to build startups like Hive, Vodafone Smart Tech and now Etc., the startup incubation hub at BT Group. In case you missed the headlines – I talk more about my weird and wonderful journey through product in a previous article here.

Today, the team at Etc. are busy building startups in categories adjacent to the core broadband and telecoms business, using BT’s size and scale to supercharge growth in areas ranging from healthtech to fintech, EVs and drones (to name a few).

Whether we’re working with the NHS to explore new digital solutions, or piloting innovative ways to repurpose green street cabinets with the ambition of bringing EV charging kerbside for everyone (more on that at CES 2024) – we’re always focused on how we can combine the agility and speed of a startup with all the beautiful parts of the BT mothership to create new opportunities for the business and amazing experiences for our customers. Using this combination of startup agility and corporate scale, we create, amplify and invest to create truly disruptive solutions.

The model, similar to strategic investment in a startup, is based on leveraging the assets we have from within the Group, where a startup is provided with not just a cash investment but access to tech, customers, partnerships, the infrastructure to truly scale and support from the investor as well. By offering access to investment and assets, businesses are able to tap into contacts, insights and broader strategic opportunities.

So where does our national treasure George Michael come into it all?

If I haven’t completely lost you yet… here are the three principles that I have our former Wham! hero to thank for when it comes to building startups from within:


When a product is in its most nascent stage, it can’t be held to the same level of scrutiny or the same processes as an established product or category that has years of market sales data and product development behind it. To really work, product teams need to be given the space to try out new ideas, fail and try again. Mistakes need to be made so that we can test, learn and iterate as we build to make the best possible product.

That process of iteration and giving products a retro is even more important at this early stage – assessing a product’s viability in different situations and being willing to change plans based on learnings is one of the most key parts of startup success.

People also need to be given the freedom to explore new processes and ways of doing things. A corporate might be used to certain legacy processes and systems, but these won’t always work for nascent businesses – it’s not a one size fits all. Our business processes are our building blocks, so having the freedom to explore new tools and ways of doing things is essential to create the best foundation for a new product.

Pray for time

No matter how open corporates are to startup thinking, they are ultimately built with a focus on their core products. Building something new and different outside of that core creates a lot more hoops to jump through, and to make sure that they can be nurtured and ultimately grow, you need time.

In those first few years, it’s so much more important to think about investment to prove and disprove your hypothesis and customer problems to solve than pure revenue returns. Otherwise you will kill the idea too early, or the idea wont flourish into the full opportunity. Think about it – even ‘overnight’ startup success takes a number of years. Time is essential.

Most importantly… you’ve got to have faith

Having the time, freedom and space to allow your product to grow is all a critical part of the journey, but ultimately whether a startup from within fails or succeeds depends on the support of the whole business.

The real benefit that startups get from using a strategic investor to grow their business is that it gives them a unique set of assets that they can sweat.  Approaching growth from this angle might mean that revenue comes in over a longer period of time, but it also might lead to a bigger and better business. Having faith in making those decisions and sticking with them through the product development cycle, and prove out stages is essential to securing that long term success.

If the board, investors and internal teams all speak the same language and continue to show faith at every stage, that’s the first stepping stone and a very strong foundation to build any idea from.

So as you’re getting your tinsel out for the tree and blaring out “Last Christmas” for the festive season, think of popping another few of George’s classics on your playlist. Who knows, he might just help you create the next game-changing business of 2024.