Something in the Water

I think we’re onto something, with TOTS.

TOTS. Turn on the Subtitles. Our mission to inspire and encourage broadcasters and tech companies in Britain and around the world to “turn on the subtitles”, by default, for children’s programmes.

Why? Because by turning on the subtitles, you can DOUBLE the literacy of the child.

“A Nielsen study of 13,000 children showed that 24% became good readers with schooling alone. But when exposed to 30 minutes a week of subtitled film songs, that proportion more than doubled to 56%.”

Inspired by the work of Brij Kothari and his colleagues at Planet Read, we think that the power of Same Language Subtitling is too good an insight to be kept in the coffee shops and pub conversations of a few of those “in the know.”

We’re partnering with the National Literacy Trust and we’re keen to speak to the decision makers at the world’s leading broadcasters and tech companies. One introduction, one share from you, reading this, could make all the difference.

Three of my favourite books are The Tipping PointFreakonomics, and Nudge. And TOTS makes me think of all three. The idea that “connectors” matter, that “small things” can make a big difference and that “default settings” can change lives.

I’m reminded of the fact that fluoride affects dental health. That by putting it into drinking water, you can improve the health of millions. The point is this – that just knowing about this connection isn’t enough. Somebody, somewhere, needs to join the dots. By 2012, about 378 million people worldwide were receiving artificially fluoridated water. By 2020, in theory, hundreds of millions of children could be having their literacy improved. Just by Turning on the Subtitles.

So why do I think we’re onto something? Because in a world of complexity, this is simplicity. By turning on the subtitles, by default, the magic can happen. A small group of people saying “let’s do this”. The flick of a switch. The push of a button. In a world where silver bullets are like unicorns, here’s a billion dollar idea which can fly.

Just imagine if, like a breath of fresh air, the BBC said “yes”. YouTube, “yes”. Sky, “yes”, Nickelodeon, “yes”. Facebook, “yes”. Millions of lives could be changed. And TOTS would be a tiny footnote in history.



In the year 2000, the great British entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe wrote The Book of Yo! One of the many people who read it was a student at Leeds University. Yes, you’ve guessed it – me. In that little book were packed dozens of inspiring quotations which seasoned the story of how Simon, inspired by Japanese conveyor belt bars, went on to found the UK chain, Yo! Sushi. To me, he was the antithesis of the boring business leader. Colourful, maverick and outspoken. A budding entrepreneur at the time, I simply had to meet him. Rather cheekily, I called his head office, asked for his mobile number, left a message, and wondered if I’d ever hear back. The next morning, I was staying with my parents when the phone rang. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pressed the phone to my ear. It was the fruity baritone of Simon Woodroffe. My breathless pitch followed, and he told me, to my surprise, that he wanted to help. True to his word, he spoke at one of my company’s first events, at nearby Sheffield University, for no fee. Several weeks later, as a thank you, I asked to take him for a beer, in London. At the last minute he asked to bring a friend – “someone closer to your age”, who he thought I’d get on with. He was right, and that beer proved to be fairly important to me. His friend was Ben Way, who became my next business partner.

Fifteen years later, I am at an awards gala dinner. All eyes are on the stage as a row of entrepreneurs share their stories. Is there a collective noun for entrepreneurs? Perhaps this year we should find one. For zebras it’s a dazzle and for starlings a murmuration. For entrepreneurs, maybe a cacophony? Anyway, on this particular stage sits the King of Shaves, Will King. Next to him sits Toni Mascolo of Tony and Guy, and next to him sits Simon Woodroffe. Interviewed by Shalini Khemka, they reflect on their journeys. The evening’s master of ceremonies, a former Leeds student, looks on.

I share these sushi stories because they remind me that, alongside building a business, some of the best entrepreneurs take time to help others. They do this in so many ways, and Simon’s story reminds me of just three of them. Firstly, by inspiring others. Taking the time to share what they have learned and what they have found. By curating the nuggets of wisdom which they have discovered, they can help the next generation. Secondly, by giving their time. For me, it was the gift of a speech. For others it may a phone call, or a coffee. For some it is the time, over email, to answer a few well-chosen questions. Finally, the power of thoughtful introductions. Thinking of that person who an entrepreneur should know. Perhaps a client, a customer, a journalist or an investor. In my case it was a business partner who changed my life, became a friend and, along the way, became the first ever secret millionaire.

These gifts, of inspiration, time and introductions need not take hours. With platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, a favourite book or article can be shared in seconds – an introduction can be made in minutes. Over the years I’ve noticed that there is a genuine desire amongst those who have built a company, to help others. Cast your eye down the judges of this year’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards and you’ll see dozens of examples of this kind of helpfulness. My encouragement to the next generation is to make it even easier to be helped. Seek out your role models. Write thoughtful, highly personalised notes. Of course, there is a fine line between hustle and hassle, however sometimes a cheeky approach can pay dividends. It has for me, more than once. Eighteen years ago, I was inspired by a book about sushi. A phone call, a meeting and a beer later, and I was on a roll.

To Autumn

autumn falls...

One of the reasons I love meeting up with people is that we often discuss our plans and current activities. Without these face-to-face encounters, I find I’m one step behind, reading about what has been, rather then what will be. I’m conscious that even here, on LinkedIn, I do a fairly poor job of sharing what I’m up to. As the leaves turn from green to orange, here’s an update of the things keeping me out of trouble.

1. Developing a new platform for creators – connecting them with others and bringing together the best of technology, live entertainment and venture support. This will be my next main venture. Connections to investors and advisors appreciated.

2. Beginning the TOTS (Turn on the Subtitles) campaign. Because turning on the subtitles has a significant impact on the literacy of a child, so we’re encouraging broadcasters and tech companies to do this by default. Along the way, we want to share the good news with programme makers, policy makers, journalists and parents. Connections to broadcasters and funders interested in literacy appreciated.

3. Hosting The Lens – a podcast with Business in the Community, powered by Fujitsu and supported by McCann. We’ve released ten episodes and in each one, I interview a CEO (including Barclays, Lloyds of London, McKinsey and Cisco) and a future leader (typically in their 20s), exploring their careers and inviting them to ask each other questions. Feedback, connections to media partners and potential guests appreciated.

4.  Chairing a range of events including the recent Times and Sunday Times Tech Summit and Digital Agenda’s Power and Responsibility Summit at the British Library.

5.  Supporting business builder Zinc as a Fellow and Advisor for their second Mission. Over the next nine months, 50 entrepreneurial individuals will connect to form impact businesses. My job is to help them to think about who they need to connect with to grow their ideas and companies. Please read about Mission 2 and follow ZincM2 on Twitter.

6.  Hosting the Natwest Great British Entrepreneur Awards for the sixth year running, now in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester.

7.  Supporting Troubadour Theatres as an advisory board member and shareholder. We’re creating new live entertainment spaces in London and beyond. Our first announcement was for the old Fountain Studios in Wembley Park and there will be more news soon. This is the team that created the award-winning Kings Cross Theatre (home to The Railway Children and Lazarus). Connections to property developers, brands and producers appreciated.

8. Continuing to make valuable introductions through my growing team at The Connector Unit. We ask our clients what they are trying to achieve and from that decide who they need to meet. Through a series of workshops (the most popular being The Connected Company), retainers and special projects, we’re working with a range of people and organisations. Let me know if there’s anyone you think needs to unlock their network.

9.  Continuing my role on the advisory boards of Tech London AdvocatesOne Million MentorsThe New Entrepreneurs Foundation and The Centre for Entrepreneurs. Also on the Marketing Council of Founders 4 Schools.

Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help you with anything you’re doing. And if you see something here which resonates, I’d love to hear from you.

2018 (Personal Update)

In the blink of an eye, the first month of 2018 is behind us.

A quick update on what I’m up to this year. As ever, your ideas, connections, feedback and support are hugely appreciated.

1) The Lens is a podcast which I have created with Business in the Community (The Prince of Wales’s responsible business network). It is powered by Fujitsu in partnership with McCann and we’re six episodes into the first series of twelve. It’s all about the future of work, seen from different perspectives, and in each episode I interview a CEO and someone in their early twenties. So far my guests have included the heads of Barclays, Tech UK, Anglian Water and McKinsey. Have a listen here. I’d love your feedback and ideas.

2) The Great British Entrepreneur Awards have expanded to cover London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff, supported by Natwest. I’m looking forward to hosting for the sixth year running. Last year I met the most amazing people across those five cities and every event gives me a fresh sense of the positivity and energy of people who start things.

3) From the DigitalAgenda Impact Awards to the Tech London AdvocatesThe Mayor’s International Business Programme and HM Treasury’s International FinTech Conference, I am hosting a number of events over the coming months which give me the opportunity to work alongside some phenomenal people. Most of these are paid, however I’m always open to supporting pro-bono if there is a cause which I can help.

4) My main company is The Connector Unit and I continue to be fascinated by how to map and make valuable introductions between businesses and ideas. Every week I make what I hope are interesting, valuable and creative connections and I am always interested in the answer to the question “Who would you most like to meet?”.

5) Zinc is an impact business builder which brings together a cohort of founders to start businesses which make a difference. The theme of its first Mission is women’s and girls’ mental health, and I am enjoying being a Fellow, helping the founding team and emerging companies to fulfil the potential of this extraordinary venture.

6) The Marketing Academy is a brilliant organisation with global ambitions. Turning the marketing talent of today into the leaders of tomorrow, the team are already in London and Sydney, with an eye on New York and Dubai. I would welcome international connections, especially in the US, as we expand over the coming year.

7) Last, and by no means least, I’m returning to startup land with my latest new venture. More on this soon, however it will involve working with some of my favourite people across live entertainment, technology, brands and the creative industries. The next few months are all about exploring potential partnerships, so watch this space. If nothing else, it will be varietous.


I was recently interviewed by the good people of Knomo about what I’m up to, and how I work. Hopefully you find the interview interesting.

Oli, thank you for joining us. In a sentence tell us what you ‘do’?

I connect people and ideas, I am a serial co-founder of businesses and an event MC

Can you talk us through your journey up to this point?

I dropped out of university after starting my first business, which was an events company in nine cities. Over the years I’ve helped start a number of ventures including a sock subscription service, a language practice website and a social enterprise which helps young people to fix their own youth clubs. Ten years ago I started a scheme called Tenner, which has now challenged over 250,000 school pupils to see what they can do with £10 in one month. With a group of like minds, I co-founded the national campaign StartUp Britain and I’ve always had a side line in hosting and MC-ing events for my own initiatives and for others.

What does the average day in the life look like?

No two days look the same. At least once a week you’ll find me on stage, hosting an event somewhere in the world. I’m based outside London and try to work from home one day a week, which gives me time to reflect and to think. I sit on several advisory boards, including One Million Mentors, Founders4Schools and Tech London Advocates, so I’m meeting with at least one of them most weeks. I’ve also just become a Fellow of Zinc, helping 54 founders to start impact businesses over the next six months.

In London I have a desk in Paddington and memberships at several clubs – for me it’s important to have a variety of places environments to work from, depending on the venture and the mood.

As a professional moderator and event speaker, what are your key tools for connecting people with ideas?

It helps to have a good memory for what people love and what their interests are. I try to scribble notes wherever I go to help me remember things and try to follow up as soon as possible after events if I want to keep in touch.

My love in life is making useful introductions and so for me, there really is no substitute for a thoughtfully written email. Most of my ideas come from reading about problems or challenges in the world, so I’m never far from a copy of the Times, the Economist and The Week.


What three things does anyone starting in your industry need to know?

Don’t be afraid to write to busy, successful people and ask them to meet you for coffee – people are more reachable and generous than you may think. Realise that persistence matters and that very often you will be ignored to begin with, so keep going. Surround yourself with a core group of supporters who you can share the highs and the lows with – they will make you laugh on the most challenging days and you will be a huge comfort to them too.

What would you do differently if you were starting your journey all over again today?

I’d have spent more quality time with the investors in my first company, to learn the basics of running a business.

I’d have spent more time connecting with international business visitors as they came through Britain. Linked to that, I would not have waited so long to experience India, China and Japan.

Finally, I’d have written to even more people to ask to meet them. “Long shot” emails and phone calls have changed my life more than once and I sometimes forget to keep sending those notes and making those calls.


We love telling your story – what are some of the ways your Microsoft Surface Pro and Knomo bag help you with your daily work?

Right now, I’m hosting the Great British Entrepreneur Awards in five cities (London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh), so my bag has to contain a huge range of things, from books to briefing notes.  Although I love using the latest technology, I’m also a big believer in reading certain things in print, so my Knomo bag is usually brimming with reports and documents.  My favourite way to explore a city is on foot, so having a bag which is easy to carry makes a massive difference.

As a regular MC, it’s helpful to be able to present from my Surface Pro onstage and make edits to scripts on the go. A typical day might involve a train ride, a stint in a co-working space and an early morning or late night catch up at the kitchen table. I find it refreshing to be able to use one device for all of the above.

I’m lucky to have an incredibly varied working life, and love not knowing where the next adventure may lead.

Thanks so much Oli!